Rhythm and the Big Picture

Rhythm is essential.  Even before we are born we listen to rhythm.  When we become parents our first priority is to teach the new baby the rhythm of the family.  Until the baby learns this rhythm the family unit is in a state of disruption.

In writing, there can be rhythm in a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter or a book.

Anything that does not have rhythm sends an unconscious message to our psyche that something is wrong, even if we can not quite identify it.

Let us consider the child with a severe case of ADD.  One could say that such a child has no rhythm.  They are either asleep or they are bouncing off the walls.  We sense error. (BTW:  Too many children are diagnosis with ADD that don’t actually have ADD.)

Let us consider the high school teacher who gave his lectures in a monotone voice that always made us drowsy.

Pause for a moment and consider music.  Ah, the musician has a head start.

Rhythm exists everywhere.  In the city.  In the deep woods.  A daytime rhythm, a nighttime rhythm.  Any disruption–a screeching of tires, a scream, an angry roar or sudden silence–is disconcerting.  But a sudden disruption is sometimes called for in a story.  Yet, we can not disrupt a rhythm if we don’t have one.  (wow, that’s deep.)

A fast food restaurant plays music with a quick beat, because they want you to eat fast and get out.  An elegant restaurant plays a slow tempo and charges a lot more. Even your favorite radio station has a daily rhythm from waking you up in the morning, inspiring you throughout the day and soothing you on the way home.  When your mood and the music do not agree, what do you do?  You turn it off.


Is rhythm always a beat?  No.  Perhaps you know someone who is always sad, a neighbor who is always argumentative, or an acquaintance who is always preoccupied with sex.  (always being the operative word)  Do you sense an error here?  Do you avoid these people?  Your instincts are telling you that these people have no rhythm.  They are one dimensional, so to speak, and that’s not right.  Maybe, they’re crazy.  You kids stay away.

Perhaps you have written several glum posts on your blog and your readers are not responding.  You decide to write a humorous piece.  You are vaguely aware of rhythm and the fact that people want to see ups and downs.

Are your posts always the same length?  Is this wise?

Perhaps you are reading a book, and you notice that you zip through Chapter Seven in one sitting.  Then you ease into Chapter Eight, read a few pages and reach over to turn the lamp off.  This is the rhythm of the book.  Should every chapter be as exciting as chapter seven?  Ummmm, NO.  Perhaps you’ve watch an action movie that had a series of bomb scenes, gun battles, and knife throws-one after the other–and you found yourself losing interest.  To you this movie has becomes irritating with manic activity.


We achieve rhythm in our sentences by varying the length of our sentences (or paragraphs) and the type of sentences that we use:  long, long, short, long.  (Dah, dah, dah, bump.)  Compound sentence, sentence with clauses, and then a short Noun & Verb sentence.

That, of course, is the mechanics, but:  How?  Where?  When?

Let’s take a love scene:  First, you decide where you want to put your emphasis.

Let’s say you want an erotic scene:  The set-up, build-up, foreplay (pun intended) will move quickly with short-ish sentences.  The lovemaking will have long, slow, luxurious sentences that involve all five senses.  We might even have a short, thrusting line. (Oh, stop.  I’m getting excited.)


Let’s say you want to be coy, or you want to emphasis the love instead of the sex:  The set-up, foreplay, flirting will move slowly and in detail.  You might throw in some backstory.  Emphasis is on emotions, expressions and dialogue to some extent.  The final act of copulation may be only alluded to in a short one-liner.


Now, let’s take a fight scene.  Do you want to put emphasis on how the fight began or how it ended?

You can use rhythm in the opposite way by making the shortest sentence the most powerful one.  So, let’s say you want the emphasis at the end of the fight:

Long sentence, semi-long, semi-long, long, half-a-quarter, long, semi-long.  He’s dead.  In this case the sudden and extremely short and last ‘He’s dead’ sentence is awesome in its meaning and abruptness.


One final note on rhythm:  We are so sensitive to rhythm that we can visually detect it–or the lack of it–on the written page at a respectable distance.  A long block of black ink looks as exciting as an obituary page.  On the other hand, page after page of dialogue feels like a speech awaiting our tender ears.  (Personally, I hate endless dialogue.)

Final, final note, really:  I’ve also noted that the higher the I.Q. of the writer, the more they tend to ignore rhythm by writing one long sentence after another.  Please.  Listen to some bongo drums or something, dude/dudette.

Bing, I’m finished.  Do I hear light bulbs?  Got any thoughts for me???  You know, I like to learn new stuff too.


Author’s Note:  I know that this is taking the idea of rhythm way beyond anything you might read in a guide book, but I’ve always been a BIG PICTURE kind of person.  Details are little, biting bugs that I can squash later.   I hope I can, anyway.



5 thoughts on “Rhythm and the Big Picture

  1. Back in 1984, I produced five 4-hour radio programs on the history of music and the first question I asked was: Which came first, melody or rhythm? My answer was rhythm, then I played the sound of a mother’s aortic pulse recorded inside the uterus.

    When I started writing poetry in the mid 1970s, I attended a workshop where the guy in charge convinced me that rhythm was an essential element in poetry. I’m continually surprised at how many people DON’T believe that. 🙂

  2. This post itself has rhythm. (I know I’m pointing out the obvious.)

    I think it’s easy to determine if writing has rhythm. If reading it feels like work, then it is lacking rhythm. If you’re at the end in what seems like a heartbeat, and you want to begin again just for the sake of reliving the experience, then it has rhythm.

  3. I believe that once you become aware of rhythm it will become second nature. One time I took a job as a night clerk in a motel in Homestead, Fla. They had a prehistoric, in-house, telephone board, like you would see in a 1930 movie. It looked like an incredibly complicated sea monster with wires going everywhere. Turned out–it was the easiest part of the job. Rhythm is like that. A difficult concept when you first sit down in front of it with wide-eyed doubt. Later it becomes almost as easy as breathing.

    alliteration? That’s a little more difficult. And just between me and you, I’m not so sure that I understand what all the fuss is about. Alliteration seems a bit contrived to me. Oh well, maybe I’m not far enough down the road yet.

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