Of silence, sound, and rhythm

Most folks likely didn’t notice, but I was away last week, “away” meaning cramped into an editing suite, poring over timecode and doing frame extraction. I’m back again, but last week’s work has stayed with me. Mostly, because editing video always makes me think of this scene: the Warriors gang fighting off the Baseball Furies, from the 1979 film, The Warriors.

Oh, Ajax, you pithy pugilist, you!

A fight scene without a soundtrack instantly feels much more violent than a fight scene set to music of any kind. That silence can often work in a filmmaker’s favor. Director Walter Hill says he wanted to preserve a cartooniness with this scene from The Warriors, so he kept the music in. That’s not a critique, for musical sound and rhythm can also do a fine job of adding tension, excitement, and drama, just as well as silence. It all depends on how it’s used.

When we write, we’re not given the luxury of pumping music at our readers. So, how do we create the same level of tension with words alone?

One idea? Choose your words carefully for more than just their meaning.

Writers often think they work in silence, because words are static on a page. But the rhythm of words can be just as important as what they mean. Poets and lyricists understand this better than most other writers, because their space, time, or meter is often limited. But even the self-proclaimed short story writer or novelist shouldn’t ignore that poetic ear.

Try speaking your scene aloud. You’ll hear how the choice and cadence of each word interacts with the ones to follow, and how those interactions affect the way your story is told.

Have you ever read a story that was just he said after she said, all the way down the page? There’s nothing wrong with that approach – it’s certainly serviceable to a story. But, words can move people by more than just their definitions. Why not let them do that?

Now, lots of writers and editors will tell you that prose and poetry are two different styles for a reason. That’s not incorrect. And, it may not be the best idea to turn your action thriller into a garden of flowery prose. That’s not what I’m saying, though. I’m saying, words should fit the moment, theme, and emotion of the story being told. Even readers advanced enough not to have to read aloud will still hear those words in their heads.

Study a good action scene. The words and ideas come quick, like lightning, one after the other. No time to describe in minute detail. Why? Because it slows the reader down. On the opposite hand, study a moving scene of gentle emotion. Words move more slowly, here, like leaves drifting on the wind, spiralling to a quiet settling on the ground. An argument will crackle, snap, and finally flare up like a paper bag thrown on a fire; a sex scene will start small and grow, mounting higher and higher until it crashes like a wave against a beach, where it eases down to foam again.

Waves on Chesil Beach, Dorset - geograph.org.uk - 792804

Brian Robert Marshall [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, those descriptions are only how I might decide to write those scenes. Deciding how words work best for you is another part of finding your own voice.

Do you have any such rhythm techniques when you write? Which are your favorite types of scenes to write? Why?

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13 thoughts on “Of silence, sound, and rhythm

  1. Welcome back. I guess I should practice a little with poetry to better find that rhythm, huh?

    As much as I hate reading my writing aloud, even to myself, I’ll agree that it’s very helpful. Even just rereading parts silently helps me make adjustments.

    Lately, my writing does feel static. I can’t seem to make fight scenes work when I feel like something needs more explanation. I need a lot of practice cutting the fat.

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    • Re-reading aloud or silently always helps, I think. Taking the time to pay attention to the words – not just what they’re meant to represent – is what matters.

      I’m so guilty of that explanatory fight scene. I want the reader to see it just the way I see it. But, sometimes, it’s better to go for the quick punch than the slow-motion delay.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  2. I did notice you hadn’t been around actually because I generally see you popping up here and there even if you’re not doing a post yourself! Good post here, very true. I do like to think about the rhythm of words when I’m writing, but maybe not enough.

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    • Thanks, Vanessa. 🙂 I truly enjoy editing work, but it’s a brain drain. I knew I needed to step back for the week, or my commentary would have been gobbledygook! 😀

      There’s a nice ease and naturalness to your writing that I enjoy. It’s almost conversational. The travelogues and articles certainly have that comradely appeal. A lot of your fiction – the Motley-Goons story comes to mind, here – also has this delightful snappiness to it. Some of it’s almost snarky, but in a way that’s still sweet, which I really like.

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  3. I noticed, too! In fact, this past week has seemed very quiet on the blogging front. I wonder how many people might be taking some time off before Easter?

    Rhythm in writing isn’t easy for me, but it would be a good skill to have. I think it was an interview I heard on NPR with Elmore Leonard some years back, where he talked about the syncopation of his words being meant to sound like jazz. I’m not sure I’ll ever reach that level!

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    • I know many of our primary/middle schools have off this week, so maybe the absentee writers are with family. I wish that had been my excuse. I enjoyed working with my editing partners, but being in close quarters with anyone for a week will drive me batty.

      I can absolutely believe Elmore Leonard wanting his words to sound like jazz. Even when his stories are adapted for the screen, I think many screenwriters must keep his original dialogue at the least, because any project with his name attached “sounds” like Leonard. 🙂

      I get accused – that’s not precisely the right word, but close enough for these purposes – of concentrating too much on wordplay, that I’ve had to work hard on succinctness and straightforwardness over the years. I think I’m starting to find a nice balance, but it’s been a long haul. So, there are pros and cons to every stance.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. I really do enjoy the rhythm of words. I find it easier to accomplish rhythm in poetry rather than fiction. I also think that it’s easier to write with rhythm when I’m describing something, usually setting, but people too. I tend to get a little bit prosey, and rhythm naturally flows from that style.

    By the way, yes, I noticed you haven’t been around. You’re one of the bloggers I always keep an eye out for, not just on my blog, but on blogs we mutually follow. No, I’m not a stalker; I just enjoy your comments wherever you go. 🙂

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    • I love the sense of rhythm you have with words, Kate! It is easier to “get” in poetry, but even when I read a comment from you, I know you have a real feeling for the words you choose.

      Thanks! It was a hectic week, but I learned a lot. Still, it’s nice to be back among my writerly friends again. 🙂

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  5. If anything, I know you write the personal and the romantic excellently, and you do it from both sides of the conversation/relationship.
    Personally, I think I do action pretty well, as I can talk my way through that better than other aspects of a story. Granted, that can’t really carry a full tale, but it’s a start I suppose ^^;

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    • Describing action is enviable. I have to really work at it. Mostly, because I want readers to see it exactly, but I want to balance that with ease of thought. You’ve got a nice lyrical quality to your action descriptions. They don’t get overly wordy, though, which is great.

      The relaxing thing about personal and/or romantic is that I can allow myself to wax rhapsodic. It’s not always a good thing, but I don’t often mind the indulgence. 😀 (Editing that is, of course, a different story….)

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  6. Pingback: The lost art of conversation. [FSF] | Even More BonusParts!

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