On Rhythmic Prose

By Ben Smith

When we talk about poetry, what sorts of techniques do we consider? Rhyme scheme? Sure, sometimes. Form? Absolutely. Prosody? Without question. And, of course, one of the most important ones: rhythm. Poetry, being the most musical form of writing, is all about rhythm. It’s all about the beat of the words: how they feel, how they sound in conjunction with one another.

Now what about prose? What do we talk about there? Character, plot, POV, dialogue; maybe if we’re looking closely we’ll talk about strong verb choices, sentence variation—but how many people really care about the music of it? So here’s the question I want to ask of all the prose-writers out there, all the memoirists, the novelists: What about the language?

Tom Robbins, the master of uber-rhythmic prose, writes in his 2014 memoir that “people read with their ears as well as their eyes,” and this, for me, at least, rings resoundingly true. Of course, in fiction, our primary obligation must be to the character, but if we forget about the language, we become dull, we become unimportant. There’s a difference, after all, between prose that says something significant, and prose that sings it.

So what exactly does rhythm do for a piece, other than making it exciting? Well, first and foremost it allows us to control the tone of the piece. For example, let’s look at this sentence from the opening pages of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses:

Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity.

This is a pretty long sentence—about five lines in my copy—and it’s absolutely ecstatic. From the absolute breathlessness of the sentence’s rhythm we learn that this narrator, in spite of the substantial event that precedes this passage (a terrorist attack on an airplane mid-flight), is thrilled about the circumstances. Sure, the diction has something to do with it, but mostly it’s about the way the words fit together. The characters, in falling, feel weightless, and because of the way the writer controls his language, we are made to feel the same way. Of course, not all of those words need to be there. Not for clarity of narration. Some of the actions described in that sentence are there for the purposes of rhythm, because the author wants us to feel his narrator’s elation.

The second thing rhythm does is control pacing. In writing something fast-moving (a thriller, for example), you might use short, terse lines, in order to get all the necessary information on the page while shuffling the reader through the story in a (hopefully) electrifying fashion. More introspective stories might require involved or languid sentences. And both of these go back to tone: suspense and tension come with choppy sentences—or choppy clauses (substituting different sorts of punctuation for periods can often create a more rushed feeling; Colum McCann’s 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin, for example, contains a page-long sentence describing a car crash, in which a comma separates each independent clause). Leisurely sentences, though, or ones with more complex constructions, let the reader really consider what’s happening. In other words, the way you build sentences does a lot to control how your reader feels about what he or she is reading.

There’s quite a bit more to say about rhythm (fragments are good for you! never construct any sentence like the one that came before it!), but here are the bare bones of the subject. In short, it’s important. All of us, whether poets or prose-writers, would do well to put an equal amount of thought and effort into both the content and the style of our writing, because therein lies the difference between good writers and great ones: great writers have mastered the rhythm of their sentences. Good writers say, great ones sing.

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