Friday, April 10, 2009

Write to the beat

by Jennifer Stevenson

One of the things I’ve worked hardest on as a writer is the meter, pace, and rhetorical impact of individual sentences and paragraphs. I’ve spent more time on this than any other aspect of my craft. In spite of all my efforts, I still end up with paragraphs that sound sing-songy, sentences where a word will be repeated accidentally in different forms, weak sentence fragments, or paragraphs where the most powerful phrase is buried in the middle, not placed at the end where it can kick the reader in the pants.

This comes from my background in poetry. My mother used to read Rudyard Kipling to us when we were kids, and my dad read Robert Service until we could recite the one about “the men who moil for gold,” whole stanzas by heart. These poets wrote ballads—long story-poems where the meter and rhyme were intended to support and emphasize the power of the story. Their poems weren’t about words. They were about story. If they flubbed a rhyme or repeated a word by accident (not for emphasis or for poetic power) it really stood out. Not that they flubbed often.

I learned something more about paragraphing from my music history prof, Ed Kottick, back in Iowa City. He would play a stanza of a Haydn piece and show us the perfect symmetry: how each phrase was the same length, and how each phrase and the stanza itself resolved in both an expected and an unexpected way. Then he played Mozart. Mozart would do three lines of the expected, and then his fourth line, the clincher, the kick in the pants, would be short.

Mozart added silence at the end of his “paragraphs.” Where you expected to hear more, you got less. It made you listen closer. The short line kicked harder.

Because of all this attention to micro-level voice I can now make a sentence roll over, sit up and beg, play dead.

If you want to become more aware of your writing voice on a micro-level, try converting one of your most powerful scenes into iambic pentameter, or even trocheeic hexameter, which is crazy wicked fun.

Here’s iambic pentameter, which should go

“ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM.”

Here’s trocheeic hexameter, which should go

“DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da.”

Each of these rhythms has a specific use in poetry, and real poetry geeks can yuk all night long over somebody’s incredibly witty play upon spondees and double-dactyls in the inverse sestina form. You can skip all that.

Just try to tell your scene in rhythm and rhyme. You may find yourself writing a song, with verses and a chorus that repeats. The chorus may be in a different form from the verse. You may find certain words repeating over and over in slightly different contexts. You may find the scene develops an entirely different feel, and even more power, because you have paid extra attention to the beat. You’ll probably amaze yourself with your own brilliance, and then kick yourself because you don’t know where you can show it off. Don’t look at me. I haven’t tried to sell a poem since the tenth grade.

Well, you can put it in your blog. Or post it here in comments.

Find me on Myspace, Facebook as Jennifer Stevenson, Twitter as JenStevenson, and at


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I've never thought of putting my sentences to music. Thanks, Jennifer!

Mungit Lay said...

Trochaic hexameter should be Dum-de Dum-de Dum-de Dum-de Dum-de Dum-de.
Even though a trochee in Latin is Dum-de-de, in English it is only Dum-de (see this page on English scansion, rhythm and meter)

Mungit Lay said...

Sorry, I made a mistake. A trochee is Dum-de in Latin as well; A Dactyl is Dum-de-de in Latin, so what you described would be Dactylic hexameter.