Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Music of Reading (Writing)

Whether you are rabid for the rich, classical sound of a Bach sonata, or get weak in the knees listening to the husky, sexually charged sound of Nickleback, you probably already understand the part that cadence plays in your music choices. What you might not realize, is that cadence also guides your reading choices, and that it can make the difference between whether you like a writer’s style or hate it.

Like a well-written piece of music, good writing flows through the mind and off the tongue smoothly, without bumps. Good dialogue dances easily across the page. Great prose slides effortlessly through your senses. And effective writing is like taking a cruise on a glassy sea.

Words are obviously very important. The words in good writing are carefully chosen for their meaning, their effectiveness, and the way they fit the mood and tone of the story. But like musical notes, words must also fit the rhythm of the story or they irritate the reader and ruin the writing.

We’ve all read writing that left us feeling jarred and discombobulated. We tend to blame clumsy dialogue and bad prose on poor word selection. But sometimes the problem isn’t with the words the writer used, but in the rhythm that was created through them.

Nowhere is this rhythm more important than in the classic love scene:

Example #1: He grabbed her arm and pulled her around the van, away from prying eyes on the street and in nearby buildings. Wrapping both arms around her waist, he dragged her against his long, hard body. “I’ve been thinking about doing this all day,” His lips descended on hers and she moaned.

Example #2: He grabbed her arm and pulled her around the van. He wanted to avoid prying eyes from the street and from inside the nearby buildings. When he had her behind the van he wrapped both arms around her. He dragged her up against his long, hard body. “I have been thinking about doing this all day.” His lips descended. She moaned.

Both of the above examples say the same thing. They basically use the same words, although the second example uses a few more of them. But the rhythm of the two examples is different. The first example is organized to create a smooth, flowing rhythm. The second example has a choppier rhythm. It uses more words and additional punctuation. It arranges words in a way that creates a series of finite thoughts. And it compartmentalizes actions and feelings more thoroughly.

Both styles have their place in the world of writing. There are as many writing styles as there are people to enjoy them. Where a writer gets into trouble is when she doesn’t recognize her own writing rhythm, and as a result occasionally loses it in her writing.

The golden rule of writing is not to distract the reader. Loss of rhythm jars and distracts. Especially with fiction, you want the reader to forget she’s reading about a fictional character in a fictional world. You want the reader to be able to immerse herself in the reading, leaving her wanting more when she’s done with the story, and creating a loyal readership for future work. As a reader, if you’re constantly encountering bumps in the writing rhythm, you will either give it up or lose the story in your attempt to find the cadence you’ve lost. As an author, I don’t want my reader trying to figure out my writing rhythm for me, I only want her to sit back and enjoy the story I’ve created.

Just for fun, take a look at the writers you like to read. Do they have similar writing rhythms? Or are you one of those readers (probably the same with music) who likes multiple rhythms? It’s a fun and interesting exercise to indulge in. And you might learn something about yourself!

Happy Reading everybody!

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