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 II

Last month I introduced the concept of sentence rhythm, which 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. We discussed the technique of shortening your sentences to create a desired rhythm of action and suspense. If you missed Part I, please read it HERE before continuing. (Even if you did read it last month, I suggest a reread to remind yourself of the techniques.)

We left off last month with the understanding that short sentences equal action. That is true—most of the time. There is one important exception, which involves scenes that contain action so intense that it moves into chaos. In the scene examples last month, we could delineate each action. They were sequential in nature, each distinct from the other. But in scenes of utter chaos, many things are happening at once. The character or characters are so bombarded by stimuli they don’t have time to react to individual pieces of action. How do you best convey this rhythm?

2. For the “beat” of chaos, use long, strung-together sentences to convey continuous, devastating action.

In writing scenes of chaos, you can throw out all the techniques we have previously discussed. Do create complex sentences, use past participle verbs, even write run-on sentences. Do anything you must for your sentences to beat the rhythm of chaos and confusion.

Note this scene from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities in which chaos breaks out in a mob. The revolutionists have cornered their old foe, Foulon, and long moments of tension follow in which they confront and watch him. Then, suddenly, the crowd lunges and chaos erupts as they lynch him:

Down, and up, and head foremost on the steps of the building; now, on his knees; now, on his feet; now, on his back; dragged, and struck at, and stifled by the bunches of grass and straw that were thrust into his face by hundreds of hands; torn, bruised, panting, bleeding, yet always entreating and beseeching for mercy; now full of vehement agony of action, with a small clear space about him as the people drew one another back that they might see; now, a log of dead wood drawn through a forest of legs; he was hauled to the nearest street corner where one of the fatal lamps swung, and there Madame Defarge let him go—as a cat might have done to a mouse—and silently and composedly looked at him while they made ready, and while he besought her: the women passionately screeching at him all the time, and the men sternly calling out to have him killed with grass in his mouth. Once, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him, shrieking; twice, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; then, the rope was merciful, and held him, and his head was soon upon a pike, with grass enough in the mouth for all saint Antoine to dance at the sight of.

Note that the entire paragraph is only two sentences. And the paragraph uses several participle verbs. The resulting effect is the rhythm of perpetual, chaotic motion and confusion. Although this example is from classic literature, you can use the same technique in modern fiction. Just don’t overuse it. Save it for a truly climactic, chaotic moment.

So far we’ve discussed creating sentence rhythm to match the outer “beat” of the scene. But often there’s another kind of rhythm going on—the “inner rhythm” of the character, which may not always match what is happening on the surface. (The concept of Inner Rhythm is also discussed in detail in Getting into Character.) This brings us to the final guideline:

3. Sentence rhythm should match your character’s inner rhythm when this inner rhythm—rather than external action—is the beat that carries the scene.

Let’s go back to that character we talked about last month, who’s sitting by the babbling brook. An easy, mellow sentence rhythm is fine as long as the character is truly relaxing. But what if

his insides are churning? What if he’s wrestling with the biggest decision of his life? Since you want the reader to hear the beat that most affects your character, you should focus on this inner rhythm. Are his thoughts sequential and distinct, perhaps fear-laden? Use the sentence rhythm for action. Are his thoughts completely convoluted and tangled? Then the sentence rhythm of chaos may work best.

In some scenes you can even go back and forth between the inner rhythm of your character and the outer action, changing the beat of your sentences accordingly. This changing beat, by mere contrast, heightens each of the rhythms. Here’s an example from my novel Dread Champion. Kerra is in the passenger seat of a car with her fiancé, Dave, when they hit a slick spot on the road and begin to skid. The outer action takes place in mere seconds. But to Kerra, the long skid seems to take forever. In the midst of the fast action of an accident, I wanted to create the “beat” of slow motion within Kerra, as well as the feel of spinning around and around in the car:

Something jolts inside Kerra, and the picture transforms into cruel slow motion . . .

Her hands rising to her mouth, her hair floating around her face, sticking to her tongue. Dave’s head slowly turning, his eyes drifting too late behind him to check for traffic, his head turning back. The squeal of tires against wet pavement, sounding on and on like a stuck record as their car merges onto that record, revolving, revolving, the world spinning, the tree, its bark shiny with rain, disappearing, cycling closer, disappearing, cycling closer. Nausea rising in Kerra’s stomach...

Then a distant horn blares and weeps, ramming the scenes into warp speed. The tree rushes at them. Dave yanks the wheel harder...

Notice the change from present tense verbs to present participle in the slow motion paragraph. Each -ing verb slows down the action. Longer sentences add the feel of chaos. When the spin reaches its climax, each syllable is used to effect a repetitious, revolving kind of beat: dis-a-PEAR-ing, cy-cling, CLO-ser, dis-a-PEAR-ing, cy-cling CLO-ser.

When I write, I don’t want my readers merely to read the scenes. I want them to feel the scenes. Sentence rhythm is a crucial concept in making readers feel what the character is experiencing. When you learn to effectively use sentence rhythm, you’ll see a major difference in your writing.


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

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