I got rhythm,
I got music,
I got my man,
Who could ask for
—I’ve Got Rhythm
by George and Ira Gershwin
Rhythm? Not on my life. Music? Sometimes. My man? Most definitely. Anything more? Uh, let’s not go there … Because when it comes to “rhythm,” I simply don’t have it. At least not on the dance floor, which I try to avoid at all costs unless I simply cannot, such as in the mother-son dance at my son’s wedding in the picture above, which actually turned out to be one of the best dances of my life. Keep in mind I said “best”—not good!
Rhythm—that easy, breezy sway of a favorite song, those clean, beautiful lines of an athlete in motion, the miracle of a heartbeat—thump, thump … thump, thump. MacMillan Dictionary gives one definition for rhythm as this: a pattern in a work of art that makes it beautiful.
Ah, yes. Beauty in motion, like Dancing With the Stars. Remember the scene in the movie Hitch where Kevin James shows Will Smith his dance moves? And Will Smith slaps him across the face and says, “Get out”? Yep, that was me. I was so bad that once a guy who liked me ended up asking my friend out instead. The reason? He said she could dance and I couldn’t. Sigh … another one bites the dust. Which actually turned out to be a good thing because he ended up being a not so great guy, unlike the guy I eventually married who is beyond great. And, lucky for me … hates to fast dance!
So … tone deaf, lead feet and the athletic prowess of a tree stump … and yet, I have rhythm. Oh, not the graceful, hypnotic kind you see in a ballroom or on an Olympic track, but rhythm that flows through my fingers onto a keyboard, compelling me to exude that cadence, that feel, that flow which—hopefully—will whisk a reader away like a river of words, from turbulent whitewater emotions or the playful tease of a babbling brook, to the serenity of a mirror lake.
Blame it on the fact that I used to write poetry or my over-the-top love of drama, but to me, rhythm is essential in a story, the difference between point-blank newspaper copy and a lyrical prose that is beautiful to the ear and the eye. Each of us has an innate rhythm of our own, something I first discovered in the editing phase of my first book, A Passion Most Pure. You see, I had this excellent copy editor, but unfortunately our rhythms were nothing alike. I will never forget reading her revisions, which she hadn’t track-changed, and over and over again when I’d come to a sentence she rewrote, I’d think, sweet heaven, did I really write that??? It was an awful, shivery feeling that literally felt like fingernails on a blackboard. Neither of us were wrong, of course—our styles were simply not in sync. Fortunately for me, however, my editor allowed my rhythm to prevail.
So, what do I mean by “rhythm” in a story and how do I go about infusing it? It’s a very hard thing to actually show, but I’m going to give it my best shot. In my opinion, it’s the way a paragraph or sentence flows, pulling the reader along with a pleasant cadence, almost like poetry. For me, it’s not enough to just tell a story. As wordsmiths, we should try to make it sound beautiful too, no matter the rhythm. Don’t forget that everyone’s rhythm is different, so what I might like in my writing style—a more literary, almost poetic style—may not appeal to you, but even with different styles, a sense of flow always enhances the writing.
Sometimes this can be accomplished by editing a sentence down … and sometimes by beefing it up. Either way you do it, always remember the sound, the flow of the sentence is important, so be sure to read it out loud. If it does not flow or if one word or phrase sounds like fingernails on the blackboard, EDIT FOR RHYTHM!
In the following examples, I edited for rhythm, sometimes deleting words, changing them or adding words, depending on what sounded best to my ears in conjunction with the sentences before and after. The second version is the final version with the rhythm I preferred, so it will be interesting to see which you like better. Keep in mind that there are LOTS of ways to add rhythm, but here are just a few I found while editing my next book, A Trust Restored.
HOW I LIKE TO IMPROVE THE RHYTHM OF A SENTENCE:
1.) Eliminate unnecessary pronouns. I have no problem whatsoever sacrificing pronouns on the altar of rhythm! For instance, in this first example below from A Trust Restored, by eliminating the final pronoun “her” in the second sentence, it improves the flow of the sentence, at least in my opinion and is not necessary for clarity. I tend to eliminate pronouns a lot, as you will see in the rest of the examples, but there are times when the rhythm is better with them. Again, it all depends on the flow of the sentence and the one before and after.
With an ache in her chest, she entered the bathroom and turned on the light, closing the door behind her.
With an ache in her chest, she entered the bathroom and turned on the light, closing the door behind.
“Patrick, no …” Marcy sagged against the counter, her stomach roiling.
“Patrick, no …” Marcy sagged against the counter, stomach roiling.
Uh-oh,” Charity said, sucking air through her teeth. “And I thought Henry was in trouble.”
Uh-oh,” Charity said, sucking air through teeth. “And I thought Henry was in trouble.”
The air seized in Marcy’s throat when he winced, his hand clutching his chest.
The air seized in Marcy’s throat when he winced, hand clutching his chest.
Her hands shook as she entered the bathroom and turned on the light, her mind racing for a solution.
Her hands shook as she entered the bathroom and turned on the light, mind racing for a solution.
2.) Eliminate unnecessary prepositional phrases or conjunctions. Too often I clog up sentences with prepositional phrases that are already understood, so I will go back and edit for a cleaner, simpler flow to enhance the rhythm such as in these underlined examples from A Trust Restored.
Blood pounding in her ears, her gaze darted down the hall to Gabe’s closed door, her breath stilled in her lungs as she strained hard to listen.
Blood pounding in her ears, her gaze darted to Gabe’s closed door, her breath stilled as she strained to listen.
He drew her close, stroking her hair with the palm of his hand.
He drew her close, stroking her hair with his hand.
He drew her close, stroking her hair.
“I’ve missed you, Elizabeth,” he whispered, gently sweeping her hair back so he could nuzzle the soft curve of her neck.
“I’ve missed you, Elizabeth,” he whispered, gently sweeping her hair to nuzzle the curve of her neck.
3.) Add words or syllables to enhance the lilt and rhythm of a sentence. As an author of 500-page books, I am NOT adverse to adding words or syllables to get the feel and flow that I want, such as in these examples where I actually expanded the sentences with the underlined words because to me, they just have more of a lilt.
In natural reflex, Gabe’s legs ceased kicking while her freckles scrunched in a scowl before her brown eyes met his.
In natural reflex, Gabe’s legs ceased kicking while an abundance of freckles scrunched in a scowl when her brown eyes connected with his.
She glanced up at her daughters. “Thank you, both,” she said softly before hurrying upstairs.
She glanced up at her daughters. “Thank you, both,” she said softly before hurrying to head up the stairs.
Father Mac took swift possession, gaze pinned to the basket. He rose up on the balls of well-worn Keds and cut loose with a three-pointer that clipped the backboard.
Father Mac took swift possession, gaze pinned to the basket. He rose up on the balls of his Keds and sailed a three-pointer that clipped the back of the board.
“I’ll tell him, Lord, I promise,” she whispered, slipping her sweater over her shoulders on her way out.
“I’ll tell him, Lord, I promise,” she whispered, slipping her sweater over her shoulders on her way out the door.
Heat climbed his neck as he averted his eyes, snatching the letters to scrawl his signature on each one.
Heat climbed his neck as he averted his eyes, snatching the letters to scrawl his signature at the bottom of each one.
He bent to give her a soft kiss full on the mouth, cupping her face.
He bent to give her a soft kiss full on the mouth, cupping her face with his hand.
She pushed her unfinished burger away, the anger in her tone matching her eyes. “He-was-consoling-me, you dimwit, and at least he’s man enough to take a chance on a girl he likes.”
She pushed her burger away, the anger in her tone matching her eyes. “He-was-consoling-me, you dimwit, and at least he’s man enough to take a chance on a girl that he likes.”
4.) Eliminate unnecessary phrasing that is already understood. I suspect most writers gorge a sentence with words initially in an effort to get their point across, but it’s shocking to me how many of the phrases I use are not even necessary for clarity OR rhythm. Here’s an example from my September release, A Heart Revealed where I deleted the underlined words from the final version because they are already understood and don’t enhance the flow, especially since this is a tense scene that calls for shorter, snappier wording.
With a harsh gasp of air, she flew across the room and slammed the door shut before he could go, chest heaving and her body blocking his way. “No need to duke it out at the gym, McGee,” she snapped, “I’m more than willing to give you a good fight right here.”
With a harsh gasp, she flew across the room and slammed the door, chest heaving as she blocked his way. “No need to duke it out at the gym, McGee,” she snapped, “I’ll give you a good fight right here.”
He settled in with a broad grin. “No problem, Mrs. McGee,” he whispered, his mouth playing with hers. “Depend on me to work you hard till you shine. But just to make sure …” Skimming her jaw with little kisses, he worked his way down to her shoulders, dislodging the strap of her gown with his teeth. “Maybe we better begin tonight …
He settled in with a broad grin. “No problem, Mrs. McGee,” he whispered, his mouth playing with hers. “I’ll work you hard till you shine. But just to make sure …” Lips skimming her jaw, he eased his way down, dislodging the strap of her gown with his teeth. “We better begin tonight …
5.) Condensing words when their meaning is understood. Soooooo many times in a sentence, I will condense a word for sheer rhythm if it’s meaning is clear in the abbreviated version such as this sentence from A Trust Restored.
“Yes …” Lizzie said, her voice trailing off to a whisper, “and to our house ...”
“Yes …” Lizzie said, voice trailing to a whisper, “and to our house ...”
6.) Add alliteration here and there. For instance, My Fair Lady is one of my favorite musicals, and one of the lines I always remember is a quote from Alfred P. Doolittle where he says, “"I'm willing to tell you. I'm wanting to tell you. I'm waiting to tell you." So I LOVE it when I see an occasional alliteration in a novel because it SO lends to the rhythm of the piece, but, of course, you must never OVERDO! Here’s one I found in A Trust Restored.
She chewed on the edge of her lip, fingers fiddling with the tail of her sash. “I … can’t,” she whispered, afraid to go down, afraid to be near him, afraid of what might happen if she did.
So … how do YOU add rhythm to your sentences? Put on your dancin’ shoes and show me your moves! Or what do you like to see as far as rhythm? Can you give an example of rhythm in your writing or someone else’s? Leave a comment and I will enter you in a contest for a signed copy of any of my books, including my newest release due out August 15 on CBD.com and September first everywhere else, A Heart Revealed.
Good luck and ... break a leg!