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