The Rayne Tour
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.

Hear the Beat!
Using Sentence Rhythm, Part I

Sentences 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 the reader.

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 the unexpected.

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):

A 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.

I 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.

Then the sound wafted from Danny’s house, a muffled stridence through the grove.

I 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.


My eyes danced across the field as I waited, muscles tense.

The woman screamed. My heart revved, thudded against my chest...

Note 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

more 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.

B. Complex sentences 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 rhythm:

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.


Excerpted from Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins.

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