Rhythm and Lyrics

(Before I get started on today’s post: major kudos and props to Ken for having my back in the past few months, as I wasn’t able to participate in the blog as much as I’d hoped. 😀 Thanks, Ken!)

The chorus of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” contains the memorable, “Can’t stop, won’t stop moving/It’s like I’ve got this music running through my mind.” For me, the chord those words strike (no pun intended*) is a personal one, because that nails my issue exactly.

I always have a song playing in my head. Seriously. I even wake up that way. It’s a side effect of the fact that I use music as a writing tool, so I’m constantly listening to something, as I explain in this post here. Yep, years later, this is still true, with the only difference being that I’ve gotten a little better at being able to write without music. (Though I’ve also found that there are times, when all else fails and I can’t concentrate, working while listening to music still helps me get through.) It also means I’ve gotten great at filking (musical parody), because I can rewrite lyrics to suit anything.

Which brings me to the main theme of today’s post: the importance of rhythm in writing.

Ever heard a song and feel like the lyrics were too forced? Occasionally it’s deliberate, like in twenty one pilots’ “Stressed Out”, where the line is, “I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang.”  Or that off-beat rhythm is part of the artist’s voice, as with the Doubleclicks (example: “This is My Jam“**). I’m talking about the times where it just feels … off. Too many syllables, or sometimes, not enough. The times where the jarring dissonance throws you out of the song. Bill Nighy’s rockstar character in Love Actually makes fun of that. As a point of amusing ridiculousness in the movie, it works, but it also brings home the level of awful in doing so.

Well, the same can be true for narrative. Unless you’re trying to unsettle the reader with deliberate dissonance—which itself is a technique—you want the narrative to flow. Like music. Because, just like a song, you want to hook the reader, and keep them reading. Especially if that reader is an editor or agent. That means avoiding anything that could make them stop.

So, how can writers make their prose sing? Here are some important details to consider:

  • Get to know your characters to understand what words you’re working with. How they speak. Sentence fragments, or flowing effusions? What words are they likely to use in conversation? How does this convey their levels of education and/or life experience? Does the narrator’s voice differ in any way? If your POV is first-person, what details are they likely to notice? What do they talk about? What are their patterns of speech?
  • Try word play. That is, play with words. Explore. This is an important facet of voice—of finding your voice, of figuring out what sounds right. Being familiar with a thesaurus is an excellent skill, but know your story and its own typical language to know if certain words fit, or if they make the reader stop reading.
  • Avoid repetition. Rapper Lil’ Wayne, while he crafts some great lyrics, tends to rhyme words with themselves, typically at least once per song (cases in point: “Forever” and “Let it Rock“). Listening to those lines makes me cringe, because it feels like lazy writing. It tells me the writer couldn’t be bothered to craft a better rhyme, or maybe isn’t skilled enough to do so. Again, unless it’s obviously deliberate to elicit a certain reaction from the reader (listener), it just doesn’t work.
  • Take note of your sentence structure. Pay attention to the number of syllables in a given sentence, right down to the word level. Especially when you make changes during revisions, it’s easy to forget to check how a word fits in a sentence, and how the new sentence now flows. Likewise, double-check your paragraphing. On one hand, it’s good to break up the narrative with increased paragraphing, because it increases the speed, and emphasizes important points. On the other, too much of that, and it risks being melodramatic and repetative.
  • Read your writing aloud. Yep, this is an old bit of advice, and I’m sure you’ve heard it before. That’s because it’s a tried and true technique, and oh so very useful. Especially in the age of Audible, which is how a reader might actually engage with it. Hearing the words aloud is a great way to see how the words flow, to help you spot errors, to figure out if changes should be made. If possible, have a friend or colleague read it for you. Or use your computer’s text-to-speech capabilities and hear it that way. (The tone will be off because text-to-speech lacks context, but it can still help.)

So, there you have it. Remember, your words and your story have their own rhythm and cadence. Polishing that up can make your work shine.

* Honest.

** A great example of pulling this off: “I’d like to be eating breakfast with people that I like
With no one telling me the things they think I should do with my life
And like John Green tells us to imagine others complexly
I won’t judge you cause what you like has nothing to do with me”

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