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Incorporating Rhythm in Prose Style

by William H. Coles

Virginia Woolf wrote this intriguing quote about writing fiction that deserves deliberate analysis. The quote:

"Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words.”


Style for fiction writers is personally unique and is a distinctive way of using language, vocabulary, syntax, imagery, ideation, clarity, readability, format, emphasis … all commonly considered important components.

Rhythm is a strong, regular repeated pattern of movement or sound … a pattern.

Is that what Woolf is referring to? Patterns? Let’s look at Woolf’s writing, see if you feel a rhythmic flow.

Did they know, she asked, that they were surrounded by an enchanted garden? Lights and trees and wonderful gleaming lakes and the sky. Just a few fairy lamps, Clarissa Dalloway had said, in the back garden! But she was a magician! It was a park…. And she didn't know their names, but friends she knew they were, friends without names, songs without words, always the best. But there were so many doors, such unexpected places, she could not find her way.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway.

And here is Henry James. Think about it; are you aware of a rhythm sense as you read?

He looked exactly as much as usual—all pink and silver as to skin and hair, all straightness and starch as to figure and dress—the man in the world least connected with anything unpleasant.

James, Henry. The Wings of the Dove

Comment. There is a definite rhythmic feel in both of these passages by Woolf and James. And there are patterns. If you didn’t detect rhythm, it’s not abnormal or detrimental. Everyone has their own sense of rhythm and many may not recognize rhythm in prose.

Rhythm in prose is a feeling. A sensitivity. A capacity to experience. And it has various importance and usage for different authors and genres.

Poetry is defined by its rhythmic penetration, or lack thereof, into our comprehension. That is, rhyme and meter underpinning meaningful words provide images; imagination; memory; sounds; story momentum; and connected, interrelated ideas.

So when Woolf proposes style with rhythm, she must be referring to rhythmic senses incorporated with word interpretation and presentation as the basis of style and why the integration of these elements using right words enmeshed with rhythmic cadences is the way to embed rhythm into our prose.

So how do we judge a rhythmic feeling in prose? We have to find rhythm in other writers’ works and experience it to be able to develop it in our own. EXAMPLE. (Remember, meter--rhythm determined by the number and length of feet in a line--is evident in the work of Shakespeare.

I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar.

Comment. As is fairly common, Shakespeare writes in iambic pentameter: dee DUM dee DUM dee DUM dee DUM dee DUM. Effective, especially when spoken but in prose, sort of like rocking in a row boat on a wavy sea. That doesn’t always work when writing contemporary prose fiction.

Let’s take a look at prose where the authors choose not to process a rhythmic experience.

Tirana. Today, this morning, the word rang like a bell with the bitter peal of loss. Just the evening before, Robert Trout had reported on the CBS World News Roundup that Mussolini had invaded Albania. King Zog—who had once proposed to Rose (or perhaps this was a fanciful story she had invented to entertain Mama Bess and her Mansfield friends)—was likely to be deposed.

Albert, Susan Wittig. A Wilder Rose: A Novel. (Lake Union Publishing)

King Ban with Queen Helen and Launcelot escape from Trible. So when night had fallen very dark and still, King Ban, and Queen Helen, and the young child Launcelot, and the esquire Foliot left the town privily by means of a postern gate. Thence they went by a secret path, known only to a very few, that led down a steep declivity of rocks, with walls of rock upon either side that were very high indeed, and so they came out in safety beyond the army of King Claudas and into the forest of the valley below. And the forest lay very still and solemn and dark in the silence of the nighttime.

Pyle, Howard. The Story of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table - The Original Classic Edition

How do we determine “lack of rhythm’ in style?

  1. Reading may be interrupted, a “stuttering” effect. A lack of flow.
  2. Comprehension may not be as easy as when rhythm is present.
  3. Absence of the feeling of walking through the prose smoothly step by step.
  4. Discordant ideas or images.
  5. Non sequiturs or an interruption of a logical flow of ideas or imagery.

How to instill rhythm in your prose:

  1. First, ask if rhythm in prose is truly a priority for you and worth the effort to add “rhythm” to your style. (Woolf’s idea may not be practical, possible, or desirable for all authors.)
  2. Study and think about rhythm as you read other authors. Copy and save passages you like for rhythmic comprehension, ease of reading and understanding, and save them for future study and reference.
  3. Evaluate: Accurate word choice and syntax in relation to the text and spots in text where your reading is hindered--a break in flow (which breaks the fictional dream).
  4. Is it syntax?
    Is it format?
    Is it punctuation?
    Is it failure to understand?
    Is it error in spelling?
    Is there a grammatical error?

Examples of revisions to capture rhythm in prose. Here are examples of prose with the same content, two without a sense of rhythm (same content but different points of view), and one with a rhythmic experience in 1st person (same content).

Example 1. Written with little rhythmic feel. 1st person.

When I turned twenty-one, in March of 2019, I lost my job playing backup guitar for a band I didn’t like and was really happy to get out of. I didn’t have money--well, two dollars ninety-five cents to be exact--so I had to walk on the road to Yazoo City where the bandleader of the band told me I could find another gig. It was real hot, I’d lost my sunglasses, and I decided not to fill my water jug in the stream that ran under a bridge because it looked polluted.

Example 2. Written and with little rhythmic feel. 3rd person.

He was young, sad too ‘cause his girlfriend left him, and he got drunk. He had this job in New Orleans, missed two gigs from being smashed too often, so the band leader fired him and told him to try to find work in Yazoo City, in Mississippi. He was walking on the road because he had no money. A Greyhound bus driver booted him off in Canton because he couldn’t pay the fare to Yazoo City. And his eyes hurt because he lost his sunglasses and he was thirsty as hell, his water jug empty.

Example 3. Written with a rhythmic feel that is easier to read, understand, and enjoy. 1st person.

My life at twenty-one was never in tune–like a D-string on an antique Gibson with a peg that wouldn’t hold–and I’m walking up this two lane side road about ten miles West of Canton and North of Jackson where I have just come from. Haven’t seen a car in maybe an hour, the straps of my backpack digging into my shoulders, the sun burning my eyes 'cause I lost my shades leaning over a riverbank to fill my water jug, and dragging this guitar case because it’s just too heavy to lift off the ground. The pits. But I gotta make it work. I’m flat broke.

William H. Coles. "On the Road to Yazoo City."

How to improve.

  1. Practice in revision.
    At first, don’t try to incorporate rhythm in your writing on early drafts.
  2. Find the elements (above) that hinder the flow and understanding of your text, a rift in the continuous undercurrent of understanding and pleasure that most readers desire to experience.
  3. For most effective improvement, rewrite and don’t look at the rewrite for a minimum of a month or more. Then evaluate the effectiveness of your changes.
  4. If you feel rhythm might make a desired change, make the process of incorporating rhythm in your style part of how you write; evaluate change for keeping or deleting effective elements; work to discover other changes that you perceive as valuable.
  5. If you don’t feel rhythm in your prose to your satisfaction, don’t despair. It’s not a failure to conclude rhythm is not important to you; have confidence in what you’ve done and proceed.

There is no right or wrong about style. Attention to rhythm may make reading pleasant and effortlessly for some readers, but contrary to Virginia Woolf’s suggestion, attention to rhythm is certainly not necessary for every writer of fiction to achieve greatness.

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Read other Essays by William H. Coles