Writing Advice of the Week: Rhythm Reaches Readers

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Have you ever come across a passage while reading that made you stop and marvel at the writing?

Or a passage that urged you to chase down word after word as you frantically flipped pages, needing more?

A passage that seemed to put all the right sounds in all the right places until you had gooseflesh and your hair stood on end?

One important part of writing that isn’t discussed as much as it should be, and the part that likely contributed to your reaction to a beautifully wrought piece:


Words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs have shapes and sounds; they move in ebbs and flows, through thoughts and actions, leading the reader on a journey through the story world. The importance of rhythm in language, in stories, is one reason I’ve committed to learning the drum rudiments. I’m using that practice time to develop an ear more attuned to rhythm, to beats, to motion. (Remember that experience is storytelling’s companion.)

Rhythmic language is often what makes readers “ooh” and “ahh” over passages in stories, those paragraphs that seem to mimic the very topic they’re highlighting. And there’s a reason for that. Readers naturally gravitate to a cadence, or style, done well.

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Prompted by Fallon Clark via Adobe Firefly

Last week, while my kiddo was occupied, I jotted down a passage meant to be read aloud solely for the motion of the language (and I suggest you do this exercise, too). The words and style of the passage mimic the train the viewpoint character refers to:

Never thought I’d be starin’ down age twenty-eight comin’ at me like a runaway train, screamin’ around corners, whistlin’ like the dickens — all screeches and hollers and huffs of burning metal, track after track after track — without direction or friction, ceaselessly whinin’ through the miles and hours, never stoppin’, never restin’, ever churnin’. How long can a train go on before somethin’ gives out? Before some piece of equipment melts into nothin’ or pings off to freedom?

In this imperfect outcome of a five-minute writing exercise, my goal was to get the reader to hear the locomotive, to experience what it means to feel the years and miles passing as if by runaway train. (I’d love to know if you heard the train in my example, btw.)

Remember that, when writing your story, the first draft is for you, but when you begin to tackle those all-important revisions, punching up the rhythm in key areas of your story may create a more vivid experience for your readers. That’s because understanding rhythm allows you to manipulate the pace of the story. Languid language and slow-moving sentences provide a sense of introspection, for example, or timelessness, whereas more fast-paced sentences using choppier language can bring out tension, or a sense of urgency. Rhythm also helps set the tone of the piece, build characters with unique voices, and even convey elements of story you may otherwise be hard-pressed to include.

Creating rhythm in your story involves the careful application of varied sentence length, proper and propelling punctuation, and artful diction using some of the elements you may have learned in primary school, like alliteration, consonance, and repetition — not to mention word choice. And this week’s writing advice is all about creating rhythm for some key elements or story moments, like the opening scene.

This week on Jane Friedman‘s blog, Ayesha Ali wrote an article titled, Avoid, Persevere, Endure, Fight: 4 Goals For Unforgettable Opening Scenes. And if you’re struggling to get your opening scene on paper, read through the goals to pinpoint the opener best for your story. But while you’re pinpointing the right opening scene, don’t forget the importance of rhythm in constructing the language around your scene.

If your protagonist is struggling to avoid something, for example, think of their mental state during this avoidance.

  • What are they not dealing with?
  • Why don’t they want to deal with it?
  • What is the consequence if they deal with the thing?
  • What is the consequence if they decide not to deal with it?

Write down the answers to these questions, which are designed to be interchangeable with regard to the goal, and look for patterns in your answers. What words come up over and over? Did you use short or long sentences? Are there things being left unsaid? Use this pattern-recognition process to find the rhythm of the piece, then work it until it works for you.

When you’ve moved on from your opener and are designing your fictional world, don’t overlook rhythm in relaying the tone or mood of the presence and history of the places in your story, especially if the places are important to your characters or the community at large. Marie Mullany shared a video on her YouTube channel, Just In Time Worlds, to help you Make Your Fantasy World Come Alive From Cave Walls To City Streets. When watching Marie’s video, consider how rhythm can enhance the very place you’re writing about:

  • If the society is subterranean, its inhabitants living in caves prone to collapse, what words mimic the instability of the intricate earthen layout? The echo among rocks? The winding, pervasive darkness?
  • If the hero is a shamanic healer, their space full of dried herbs, tonics, tinctures, salves, and spells, what words convey the subtle Earth magic? How does their space imitate the very incantations they use?

The spaces important to your characters can become important to your readers, but for those spaces to become important, readers will need to feel the energies and tones of those spaces, the way we feel the vibe in the room when we enter a place. Capturing that subconscious “good vibe” or “bad vibe” often comes down to rhythm.

Your story plot has a rhythm, too. It should, anyway.

As a companion to reaching readers, Tim Grahl’s video for his YouTube channel, Story Grid, discussed One Editor’s Tool To 10x Reader Engagement. That one tool? Progressive complications. Tim’s video talks through how to create tension that matters so the plot events in your story matter to readers. Readers need to want to know what comes next. And you’ll use carefully selected language in a curated rhythm to mess with your characters, set the mood, create a sense of foreboding, leverage symbolism, and highlight contrasts and ironies, all of which inform the readers’ experiences of and engagement with your story.

When you’re constructing the series of complications your hapless characters will inevitably face along their journeys, think about how these events move in spacetime.

Do the complications begin slowly and subtly, barely registering for your characters until suddenly they’re hit with a Big To-Do?

Or do the complications crash into your story at the onset, barreling their ways into the lives of your characters, and shaking things up so completely that the only option your characters have is moving faster and faster as they scramble to get away?

In 1984 by George Orwell, the protagonist, Winston, struggles against the oppressive Big-Brother regime, and his struggles become more intense as he comes to grips with his desire for freedom and his fear of getting caught.

In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Offred has an internal conflict, a struggle between survival and rebellion, as she tries to protect herself and her young daughter who was forcibly taken from her.

In The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, the central story is a magical competition between Celia and Marco, the destinies of whom are deeply intertwined.

So think about the overall plot of your story and how you communicate the plot and its consequences stakes, obstacles, timing to make the most of rhythm.

Using rhythm in your writing is vital to developing your individual style, which informs your unique voice. Leveraging rhythm can create coherence and harmony for your reader, even if the lives of your characters are anything but.

And remember:

Rhythm in writing is about the way the words, sentences, and paragraphs strung together sound to the reader’s ear or inner voice. So always, always, read your writing aloud to ensure the rhythm matches the intention.

Happy writing!

<3 Fal

Want More?

Of course you do, you go-getter, you. Here are all the other pieces of advice Maria collected this week. Peruse, choose, and use at will.

Productivity Advice for the Week
Craft Advice for the Week
Business Advice for the Week

Rather watch the video?

I got you. Come hang with me for a few on MetaStellar’s YouTube channel. (This week, my tee shirt has a skull on it. Bonus points and virtual cake goes to you if you can guess who the skull belongs to.)

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    Fallon Clark is a Vermont-based manuscript development coach and editor serving fiction and creative non-fiction authors. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Check out her website, FallonEdits.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Substack.

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