have rhythm? You bet they do. And as in music, different sentence
rhythms create different feelings. A fast beat in a song makes you want
to dance; a slow beat makes you want to sway. Once you understand how
sentence rhythm works, you can use it to help create the desired aura
of a scene.
Sentence rhythm is based on this
principle: The rhythm of your sentences should match the
“beat” of action in your scene and the emotion you want to create in
This month, we’ll look at the
first guideline for creating effective sentence rhythm.
1. For the “beat” of
action or suspense, shorten your sentences.
In general, long sentences yield
a “lulling” effect on the reader, while short, choppy, or even
incomplete sentences have a staccato feel. If your character is
daydreaming by a babbling brook, long sentences are fine. Their very
“beat” gives the sense of peace and tranquility that ideally
complements the setting. But in times of suspense or action, your
sentences should beat the rhythm that the character feels as he faces
danger. This rhythm is staccato, choppy. It carries a sense of fear, of
If a reader must wade through
long sentences when the scene’s action is supposed to quicken her
heartbeat, she won’t feel the aura you’re trying to create. The lulling
rhythm she “hears” in her head as she reads your sentences will fight
your intended rhythm of danger.
If your scene begins quietly and
then action starts, switch to shorter sentences at that point. Here and
there you might use only phrases. In very intense action, you can even
use one-word sentences.
Here’s an example of a quiet
scene hitting sudden action from my novel Color the Sidewalk
for Me (contemporary genre):
few moments later, I’d entered the grove, relative coolness surrounding
me. I paused to wipe sweat from my face. Following the weaving path, I
listened for Danny but heard only the sound of my own footsteps. He’s
not coming, I taunted myself, he doesn’t want me. Leaning against the
last tree, I berated my impetuousness. What now? I certainly couldn’t
appear on Danny’s front lawn. Once he saw me, there would be no way to
explain myself, no way to slip gracefully from the scruffy grass and
the memory of his hand grasping mine. I was no more than a hundred feet
from his house. I could almost feel him.
prayed for him to appear but knew I’d already waited too long. I needed
to get back to Kevy. My chest sank. Turning to retrace my steps, I
tossed a strand of hair from my face, telling myself it didn’t matter;
I didn’t need Danny Cander anyway. Who did he think he was, trying to
hurt me? I emerged from the trees, blinking in the sunlight, repeating
to myself that I didn’t need Danny, I did not.
the sound wafted from Danny’s house, a muffled stridence through the
halted, skin tingling. Cocked my head. There it was again. A man argued
vehemently. A woman’s voice pleaded. I held my breath. The pleading
escalated, then abruptly stopped.
eyes danced across the field as I waited, muscles tense.
woman screamed. My heart revved, thudded against my chest...
these specific techniques:
A. Past participle
verbs (ending in ing) are best used in quiet scenes. When action or
suspense begins, use regular past tense verbs.
Note the number of past
participle verbs in the first two paragraphs above: surrounding,
following, leaning, blinking, repeating. These verbs have the
sense of continuation—an action that takes place over time. Therefore,
they tend to convey a
relaxed rhythm. Regular past tense verbs
convey immediacy, sudden action. Once the action starts in the above
paragraphs, we see verbs such as halted, cocked, argued,
pleaded, screamed, revved, thudded.
work better for quiet rhythm; simple sentences work better for action.
This guideline is true for a
number of reasons. The first is obvious—complex sentences are by
definition longer than simple sentences. Second, complex sentences tend
to use participle verbs. Example: Following the weaving path,
I listened for Danny. Third, complex sentences often make the
reader wade through words before reaching the subject and main verb (as
in the preceding example). In action or suspense sequences, the main
verb is the most important word of each sentence. The verb tells you
what is happening. You want to give it prominence,
not bury it.
C. In general, the
higher the action level, the shorter your sentences should be.
Using incomplete phrases gives
off the “beat” of extreme action or fear. A one-word sentence really
can pack a punch. Of course, not every sentence can be very short. But
you can divide those that are longer into phrases, each carrying its
own sense of immediate action. Example: The pleading
escalated, then abruptly stopped.
D. In high action
sequences, such as a fight scene, divide the action and reaction into
separate sentences or short phrases within the same sentence.
The rhythm of fight scenes is
rapid-fire, one action leading to another. You want your readers to
feel the punches, hear the “beat” of fear. Every action should be
definite and strong. The best way to show this strength is to keep each
action distinctive, in a unit of its own. For example, consider this
chase sequence on a flight of stairs, first without employing sentence
Throwing out her fist,
she punched him in the eye. Growling in pain, he threw himself on top
of her. She was screaming as he pinned her arms and legs. She strained
to free herself, lunging up to bite him. He started jerking backwards,
and his movements made them slide down a stair.
The “beat” of these sentences is
far too languid for the rhythm of this scene. Now consider the scene
using sentence rhythm as it appears in my novel Eyes of Elisha, noting
in particular the separation of each action:
Her fist caught him in
the eye. He growled in pain, then threw himself on top of her. She
screamed. He pinned her arms, her legs. She strained to free herself,
lunged up to bite him. He jerked backwards. They slid down one stair.
She tried to scream again. He slapped a palm over her mouth, his breath
hot on her face.
Next month we’ll look at two
more guidelines for creating effective sentence rhythm.
from Getting Into
Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn