Thursday, May 30, 2013

The sound of music

No, I'm not referring to Ms Andrews' sublime petticoat-twirling routine through flowery Austrian meadows in the film of that name (which is why the title’s not in capitals), I'm actually addressing the ways in which rhythm is relevant to the writer. From perusing submissions and also from reading the work of numerous first-time authors, it's become obvious to me just how much this skill is rapidly disappearing.

But what do I mean?

I want you to consider key scenes from a variety of classic films you've seen over the years. Once you've got them in your mind, try to remember the music that was being played (Youtube or Vimeo will probably fill in the blanks). Listen carefully to it - what message is the music sending?

Don't think this is trivial or irrelevant because it isn't. It's on public record how many tens of millions film companies spend on a movie’s production. With all that cash at stake, it’s not surprising that not-so-small fortunes have been invested in learning the psychology of what type of music makes a scene - such as tonal range, harmony and rhythm.

Here are just a few of the adjectives which can be used to describe a soundtrack:
  • Soaring
  • Whimsical
  • Frenetic
  • Low-key
  • Lively
  • Staccato
How and when these tempos and styles are applied makes a huge difference to the audience's perception of the film. Mix them up and you change the very nature of the atmosphere.

Now apply those same adjectives to sentence length and structure. What does a paragraph like this tell you? What message am I sending? It's important. It's urgent. Act now. Do something! Short and snappy sentences indicate urgency, speed, action under pressure etc. They should be used sparingly in tense situations.

Long, sprawling sentences, on the other hand, are great for descriptive pieces, setting the scene or describing some important detail. Take delight in their length and stretch your vocabulary accordingly to create a kaleidoscopic Technicolor image.

Sentences which are all of a similar length and construction e.g. 'subject-verb-object' or 'subject-verb' for intransitive verbs also (through their simplicity) indicate action - often of a sinister nature when there's not even anything sinister going on. "The ball bounces. The child catches it. She smiles." What's coming next? There are no clues but the reader is being prepared for something out-of-the-ordinary and quite possibly terrifying.

Think of the same sentence but now turned into just one, "The mottle-colored ball bounced gracefully into the air where then, descending in a perfect arc, the young girl's arm reached up, and anticipating the ball's motion, effortlessly closed her tiny fist around it. Clutching the ball to her chest, she beamed and giggled with the sheer pleasure of the moment." The first long sentences suggest a single fluid motion rather than the earlier staccato description while the second sentence confirms to the reader that their assumption that this is a happy occasion is correct.

That said, short sentences can be more memorable. The same film companies use them as hooks “An offer he can’t refuse”, “In space no-one can hear you scream”, “Shaken but not stirred, please”. Likewise your powerhouse statements should be short and punchy. Make them hit home. Don’t overegg the pudding, though. See what I mean?

In general, sentences should be of varying length and construction but the general trend needs to reflect the storyline in just the same way as the book's cover needs to be representative of its contents.

Great authors use rhythm to reinforce their stories. If you are to join their ranks, you need to master the art of hearing the music in your writing so that everything pulls in the same direction, maximizing the impact of your story and boosting the reader experience level.

You don't have to be like the Von Trapps but your ear does need to be attuned to your writing.

That just leaves me to say "So long, farewell."

As well as being an author and commercial writer, Clive West runs a company called Any Subject Books, a provider of a wide range of services to self-publishers. If you're a ghost-writer, cover designer, editor, interviewer, video producer or feel you offer any other publishing-related skills, check out their jobs page.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. Great prose has a rhythm which keeps on singing after we stop reading. Katherine Mansfield's short stories come to mind. she often broke rules to enhance the rhythm, began sentences with And. And they worked,