Rhythm and Imagery

In one of my old posts on The Waterhole, I wrote about a few different approaches to the creative writing process. I included tips from three of my favorite writers—David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, and Toni Morrison—followed by my commentary. In this post, I’d like to share a few techniques that you can use to enrich your writing. I’ve culled them from writers whose own quality writing proves that you can truly enliven your words when you apply their advice to your prose. Specifically, I’m going to focus on what I consider to be two of the most important components of good writing: rhythm and imagery.

Rhythm and imagery are important because words, which make up writing, have two sensual dimensions, which are sound and sight. The sound part has to do with a word’s physicality—it can be spoken aloud, even when read in one’s head, and everything from the vowels to the consonants to the number of syllables all change a word’s reception. The sight part has to do with the hallucination that a word can trigger. In other words, writing must be able to conjure an experience in the reader, and because sight is the predominant sense, being able to appeal to it will make your writing register much more powerfully.

1. 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. 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.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.

2. Chuck Palahnuik

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.
But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include: Loves and Hates.
And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to un-pack that to something like: “The
mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”

3. Don DeLillo

Q: How do you begin? What are the raw materials of a story?

I think the scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It’s visual, it’s Technicolor—something I see in a vague way. Then sentence by sentence into the breach. No outlines—maybe a short list of items, chronological, that may represent the next twenty pages. But the basic work is built around the sentence. This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences. There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look. The rhythm of a sentence will accommodate a certain number of syllables. One syllable too many, I look for another word. There’s always another word that means nearly the same thing, and if it doesn’t then I’ll consider altering the meaning of a sentence to keep the rhythm, the syllable beat. I’m completely willing to let language press meaning upon me. Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence—these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced in a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger—I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page—finished, printed, beautifully formed.

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