Thursday, February 12, 2009

Rhythm and Flow

What is it that makes a piece of writing great to you?

Obviously, character and story are central. But after that? For me one of the most important things is rhythm. It's a hard thing to qualify or quantify in prose, but to me it's one of the most important aspects of writing.

I read something awhile ago about Virginia Woolf, where she talked about how hard she found writing to be... until she realized it was all about rhythm and it became easy. Now, I don't know about easy... but finding the flow in the words is key to me in finding excellence.

I try to feel that flow, the way the sight and sound of words braid together to form a rhythm. One word to the next, and the next, and the next...

Knowing when it's on can be tricky. Knowing when it's off can be obvious. You know when you read a clunky sentence. You may not know what's wrong, but you can feel the wrongness. You can feel the trip on the tongue. And it's not just about sentences.

Have you ever read stories where you feel bumped along? And yet if you examine each sentence they all seem to work? First sentence: yes, it works. Second sentence: yes, it works. Third sentence: yes, it works. Fourth sentence: yes, it works. But sometimes the question is not whether the sentence works, but whether the paragraph does...

I see writing, sometimes, where it seems as if the writer has forgotten that the sentences are interrelated, that they play off each other like the various instruments in an orchestra. Together they create an effect larger than themselves. They can't just play the right notes... they have to play them in time and in tune with the others.

Writing, to me, is the same way. It has its own rhythms, its own musicality. It's all layered, the pieces all balanced against each other. I like that interconnectedness, when the structuring of the words themselves carries you along through the story, when the sentences push you forward because there is no other way to go but that. There is no room for pause in a seamless dream.

So, what does rhythm in writing mean to you? How do you recognize it? And what are some of the other things that make you say "this is great writing"?


Bookworm1605 said...

I think rhythm and flow in writing is something that almost has to be subconscious--an integral part of your voice. I realize that really good writers tweak and polish the musicality of their writing but I also think this is a dish that is best served fresh and can suffer with over-attention. One has to develop an ear for it, much like music. When is bad, it's really bad but when it's done well it can make a writer's voice very powerful.

Ink said...

I do think a lot of it is innate talent. A writer's "ear". How well do you hear the sound of language? And I also think a lot of the learning is unconscious, the way you start to understand some of your own rhythms simply from the experience of writing hundreds of thousands of words over a long period of time. You start to develop that instinct for what works and what doesn't. You understand when you nail something, and soemtimes how you nail it.

But I also think it's something you can learn, too, or at least develop. It's something you can do in careful line editing. Flow, rhythm... syllables and sounds. When a sentence is clunky, or not quite right... how do you fix it? How do you rearrange the sentence? Diction can be key. How can you play around with word choices to create different sounds and rhythms, create different balances within the prose?

I've actually toyed with doing a class at FM on rhtyhm and flow, mostly centering on line (and paragraph) editing. It would be a fun topic to explore, to see what the participants might come up with. I think it might be one of those things that's awkward at first... trying to consciously think about and apply some of these things. But after a bit that knowledge is absorbed and becomes part of your subconscious approach. It informs your perceptions under the surface...

And it can help you find the rhythms that work for you, because different writers will have different rhythms and senses of flow. And when you start nailing it you really get that sense of individual voice permeating a piece of writing.

Over-attention is interesting... but I think when dealing with anything in writing you have to have a sort of trust in what you do. You have to trust yourself to make the right choices. Trust your instincts. Trust them when they say "This doesn't sound quite right..." and trust them when they say "Yes, that's it."

I don't know, I just think you can consciously work on that "ear". That would be an interesting poll, don't you think, applying the ol' nature vs. nurture debate to idea of a writer's "ear" for language/writing/dialogue etc.? Is it innate or learned or something of both? I'm guessing the latter, but it would be interesting to see what people say.

Ms Kitty said...

Except for occasional scenes where the flow is important, I'm never away of either flow or rhythm.

My hat's off to those of you who are aware and strive for it.

Ink said...

I admit it, I'm a total sentence junky. As a reader I love a beautiful line, and as a writer I'm a fiddler, always playing around with the shape and flow of sentences. While I'm here to tell a good story... I must say I'm pretty obsessed with language, and often language for its own sake alone. It's funny, as a critter I always have to rein myself back, as I always get these urges to play. Hey, I wonder what this sentence would be like if I did this... No! Stop, Ink! Not your sentence! Bad Ink!

(On an unrelated side note: I love this blog. Where else do I get to talk about myself in the third person? :))

Ms Kitty said...

Lol Ink.

Talk about yourself in 3rd person and get to go home at night.

I tinker constantly with my stories. Edit and re-edit tweak paragraphs and sentences, to get the voice right.

So I can relate, after my own fashion. But I'm listening for the voice of the story, not the rhythm of the sentences.