Last week, we began our craft-focused exploration of rhythm and how it operates at various scales in the text, from the larger paragraphs right down to the smallest punctuation. To continue that discussion, today I’d like to talk about rhythm on the level of the sentence, specifically sentence length.
You may be familiar with this famous quote from Gary Provost:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
In this passage, the sentences have five words each, creating what Provost calls a “monotonous” rhythm. It feels, I think, the same way it would feel if each paragraph was the same length, or if we had a series of spondees (metrical feet with two stressed syllables one after the other) without interruption. Have you read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle? This type of beat reminds me of IT’s inexorable, inescapable pulsing. Dun. Dun. Dun. Dun. On and on without respite. Take this paragraph from Chapter 8, wherein IT is “speaking” to Meg through the man with the red eyes about her brother, Charles Wallace, who has only just been possessed by IT:
“But my dear child, you are hysterical,” the man thought at her. “He is right there, before you, well and happy. Completely well and happy for the first time in his life. And he is finishing his dinner, which you also would be wise to do.”
Breaking it down, the sentence lengths go like this:
Although these sentences, unlike in Provost’s example, aren’t all exactly the same length, they are similar enough that they feel almost unnaturally even, unnaturally the same, which is IT’s ultimate goal, to flatten everything in the universe into sameness. When it comes to storytelling, then, using the same sentence lengths could be useful in underscoring situations where your characters are facing down an IT-like entity, or have stumbled upon a martial parade, or are hearing the drums of war, or are dealing in some way with dogma, indoctrination, brainwashing.
Provost’s quote continues thus:
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
Here, varying sentence length makes the writing more interesting. These sentences are of different lengths, creating a more lively rhythm. Rather than the relentless drumming of the five-word sentences, we have rests (in the form of punctuation, which I’ll discuss in a few weeks), emphases (like “Music.”), riffs (like the list “a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony”), crescendoes (in which a sentence rolls on so long it feels like it’s running out of breath, and so it almost feels more rushed as it barrels toward the end). These elements, or perhaps techniques, all create rhythm at the sentence level.
I’d go even further to say that not only does playing with sentence length create interest in the writing, it can also contribute to the storytelling. This is something I consider when writing fight sequences, for example, and I want the rhythm of the sentences to mirror the exchange of blows, so it’s as if the reader can feel the pace of the battle. For example, we can examine this passage from The Reader, pg. 243-244, where Archer, a boy who has been forced to fight and kill for the past two years of his life, is facing an assassin in the cargo hold of a ship:
Across the hold, Archer slashed at the woman’s face, his knife flickering in the lantern light. The woman deftly stepped aside and cut him across the back of the arm. He retreated. His arm stung. His head was buzzing with the hot smell of metal. The lowest deck was packed with cargo, forming narrow walkways in the hold. Not much room to maneuver. Easy to get trapped.
After last week’s discussion on paragraphs and rhythm, I’d like to point out how the first paragraph is chunkier--it drops us right into the middle of the fight, and the action, description, and Archer’s assessment of the situation are all kind of mushed together, emphasizing how chaotic Archer’s thoughts are as he faces someone who might be a better fighter than him. In the first two paragraphs, there’s this closeness, almost claustrophobia, to the fight, as the woman is on the offense, and the characters are forced together in battle, but then at the third paragraph, “They parted,” there’s this breath, this white space, like (I hope) dance partners going separate ways on a stage.
Although when writing this passage, I didn’t count every word of every sentence, but I did want to be mindful of how long and short each sentence was. The sentence lengths break down like so:
It’s interesting, now that I look at it this way, because I can clearly see a pattern: long, long, short, short, long, long, short, short… then: long, short, short, long. When the characters are actually engaged, the sentences are longer, cramming more action (like “attacking, slashing, stabbing”) into each sentence, which underscores how quickly this fight is going. Then, there are these moments of relief, almost, like panting breaths (“He retreated. His arm stung.”), as the fighters prepare to clash again.
Although this pattern is subtle when the sentences are broken up into regular paragraphs, it’s actually pretty regular, which makes sense, because I wanted Archer’s fights to feel like a dance, like he knows the steps as if they’ve been choreographed for him, and even pattern to the sentence lengths underscores the rhythm of it, like the beats to a piece of music. Operating at these two levels (paragraph, sentence), the rhythm here tells us two different stories: 1) the rhythm of the paragraphs shows how quick and frenzied the fight is compared to the almost graceful rest they get when they separate, and 2) the rhythm of the sentences shows how, even though it feels chaotic and fast, it’s also all part of a pattern of blows and exhanges, and Archer inherently understands this rhythm, feels it, I suppose, in a way that doesn’t need logical explanation.
In sum, rhythm at the scale of the sentence can add layers to your storytelling, felt more than consciously understood, and reveal layers to your scenes and characters without you having to make them explicit. As with paragraphs, longer sentences mean we linger on an idea or a detail, whereas shorter ones mean we skip over things more quickly, although they also feel more important because they stand on their own. Unvarying sentence lengths can alert your readers to the fact that something is wrong with the situation, for perfectly even rhythms are unnatural, perhaps unnerving. Patterns (or lack thereof) in the sentence lengths can emphasize the way characters feel or engage with a situation on an instinctive level. Up next: rhythm and diction!