Using your rhythm section

One of the first things you may have taken on board, as a new creative writing student, is that it’s not only poets who needs to pay attention to a beat or metre: all prose must have a rhythm – the rhythm of the words, sentences and paragraphs.

During Part Three of Writing Skills, we look at speech– the spoken monologue, the interior monologue, dialogue within prose and dialogue as script. Good dialogue is vital. Handled with energy, it can turn a good story into a winning story and it is one of the best ways of creating living characters. Its generous spacing eases the reader’s eye and lends itself to a poetic shape. But getting it to work on all levels can be an overwhelming difficulty, especially at first.

On pg 99 of the course materials, we suggest that… Dialogue must never be written for its own sake and should always have AT LEAST one of the following functions-

  • impart information
  • enrich the characterisation
  • move the plot along
  • develop the characters within the story
  • further the complexities of the plot
  • crank up the pace
  • enhance the theme or ‘core truth’
  • reflect relationship changes and emotions

These guidelines may feel like more than enough to think about when getting characters to speak. But it is possible to keep your focus on all those things and inject an interesting rhythm into the dialogue at the same time. Just bear in mind that you don’t have to do all of this in the first draft. This is one reason why professional writers create draft after draft. As well as proof reading, and checking continuity and accuracy, they are also looking at things like the rhythm in their prose.

In music, rhythm is the consistent, a periodic beat that accompanies the melody. If you imagine the melody of your writing as the story you want to relate, then having a rhythm section below it makes more sense. Allow your rhythm section to take a solo turn by establishing a strong beat in those spoken words.

The word rhythm is taken from the Ancient Greek work for ‘flow’, and an early trick is to simply bear this in mind. Good dialogue should surge forward, its inner beat encouraging the reader to keep going. The upwards and onwards surge of this flow imparts emotion into the words used. Remember the advice given on pg 99…Dialogue should sound natural. This means it can’t ever be natural. Because people speak in a rhythmic way, getting a beat established is an excellent way to get that natural feel.

Rhythmic speech sounds natural because of the way we humans love metre. Dialogue naturally falls into certain metre rhythms, such as pentameter, and this can be employed to gain a natural flow to a character’s words. To find out more about this, read Liz Cashdan’s excellent recent blogpost, Rhythm and Rhyme.

Possibly the most essential component of rhythm is variety. Keep changing your rhythm patterns in order to create surprising patterns in your dialogues – not to create disorder, but to constantly keep the reader’s interest piqued. Use punctuation to get this variety going. Sentences establish rhythm by their length and punctuation in almost the same way as a poem’s lines…it wouldn’t be going too far to say that a dialogue exchange can be treated in the same way as a poem.

Here’s a short extract of dialogue in which I attempt to employ punctuation and sentence length to create a varied rhythm…

“You do understand the principles of packing, right, Den?”
“Get it in the boxes somehow?”
“Fold flat. Neatly wrap against breakage. Wedge to prevent sliding. Not stuffed so full you can’t lift the package.”
“Hell…all that? I haven’t left the family threshold yet and already I’m useless in the wider world.”

Something that’s hard to get right at first is the rhythm of speech tags. These are the little labels that complete dialogue, explaining who is speaking, sometimes explaining how they’re speaking. More correctly, they should be called ‘identifiers’ or ‘speaker attribution’.

New writers often like to be creative with their use of speech tags, and mostly this becomes a problem. Your tutor may already have told you to go easy on speech tag adverbs, and possibly have advised how to make the tags as invisible as they possibly can be by sticking to ‘said’. Too many tags jar the flow. Too much variety jars the flow. The wrong kind of repetition can jar the flow.

So much advice, some of it seemingly contradictory, can be confusing. One way of getting your head around how to use tags is to remember your rhythm section.

Here is a piece of dialogue which is bogged down with bad speech tabs:

“Ivan,” I said, sheepishly, “This is Detective Sergeant Buckley.” My voice squeaked at the edges.
“Your eleven o’clock client?” asked Ivan.
“I’m afraid not,” Rey piped up. “I’m here on official business,” he barked.
“Don’t you chaps usually turn up in pairs?” Ivan growled, suspiciously.
Rey shook his head. “This is a straightforward, informal interview,” he said.
“Informal official business,” I chuckled, trying to get a secret smile to Ivan.

This needs some drastic editing. I can get rid of any tab where it’s clear who is speaking (always a bit harder when there are three characters) and I can cut out adverbs. What I’m trying to do is get a better beat into my tabs and into the flow of speech. To do this, I should read my dialogue aloud, until I’m happy with its flow:

“Ivan, This is Detective Sergeant Buckley.” My voice squeaked at the edges.
“Your eleven o’clock client?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Rey. “I’m here on official business.”
“Don’t you chaps usually turn up in pairs?” said Ivan.
“This is a straightforward, informal interview.”
“Informal official business,” I said, trying to get a secret smile to Ivan.

Developing your characters is a crucial part of all of this. Until you know the people in your narration, you won’t be confident about how they might speak, or know their own internal speech rhythms. Once you have real sense of what drives your character you can apply that understanding to the dialogue and extrapolate the rhythm. In the next extract of dialogue, one character has recently arrived in Britain from Eastern Europe, and their speech has a jerky, non-grammatical rhythm that subverts what we expect…

“We are EU in Bulgaria, now,” she said, shifting a little. “But gypsy hard to get passport.”
“No wonder your wages are so low. They’re getting away with murder.”
“Kizzy, she say, ‘save and go back home head high’. She say, ‘Mirela, take little risk’. I don’t like. She say, ‘Mirela, you so uncool’.”
“Uncool?”
“Like I will never dip my toe.”
“In case the water’s too cold?”
“In case the water poison.”

In the above extract, I wanted the rhythm to reinforce the pace of the conversation. Languid sentences convey a different mood to bite-sized, choppy ones. A shorter snatch of speech that comes after several longer dialogues will draw attention to itself—such sentences are often used as ‘clinchers’ to round off characters’ conversations, as in the extract above, and they have immediate impact within their rhythm.

Deciding how much dialogue to have is another way to look for rhythm and balance in your work. While redrafting work, try focusing on rhythm and balance by checking these points:

  • Break up long narration. If you tend to have paragraphs that go on for a page, (often because you are telling, not showing), try using dialogue to cut through this.
  • Catch your breath after action scenes. During an action scene where no one had the chance to do more than utter “Run!” or “Help!”, take a moment to change to mood by using interior monologue or longer dialogue to slow things down again.
  • Develop character. Dialogue can show what the character wants to hide, or what they wish to reveal. Use dialogue to put one character under threat, or express an inner emotion.
  • Add atmosphere where you want via your characters speech…do they have long, flowing conversations which suggest warmth, harmony, slow development of theme, or are they curt with each other because your want a sharp, cold, fast-moving mood?

As you try to weave all the various parts of dialogue together, don’t forget to read your work aloud. Reading aloud will give you an instant insight into how the narrative sounds, and how its rhythmic beat works.

During Part Three, you will be asked to practise some scriptwriting. Many writers believe that the discipline of only being able to express story through dialogue can help you understand good, rhythmic dialogue. When writing a script, it’s usually clearer if dialogue is stilted or weak, and the rhythm of the lines can shine through. Do have a go at doing this; there are scriptwriting courses offered at both level one and level two, and working on this skill in Writing Skills will help with both. Script dialogue should have its own internal metre, and a constantly moving flow. Working on this element from the start will help your work later on.

As you write more dialogue, you will find you are more discerning about this area of narration in your reading. You will be noticing that writers who don’t pay careful attention to rhythm are harder to read. You’ll spot good use of metre and flow, and notice how the writer has used variety to keep the rhythm interesting. Amalgamate the reading you are doing with the writing you’re producing. As you read, ask yourself how the author gains rhythm in their dialogue, and also look at the balance they’ve formed between the dialogue and the rest of the narration.

At level one of the degree pathway, we are not expecting you to be able to have everything sorted all at once, but here is your chance to highlight what you learnt about using rhythm, patterns, flow and balance in your writing. When you do this, you’re demonstrating several of the criteria we ask for within the assessment process. You’re showing you understand how to handle ‘Language’. You’re working on your ‘Craft of Writing. You may be able to gain ‘Emotion’ by amalgamating rhythms into the conversations your characters have with each other, and by showing how you worked on these strategies in your final reflective commentary, you’ll be indicating ‘Contextual Knowledge’.

Dialogue can be one of the most engaging parts of prose, and your ‘rhythm section’ deserves your full attention.

All dialogue taken from Nina Milton’s Shaman Mystery Series.

Image: OCA student Katherine Jasven


Also published on Medium.

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3 comments for “Using your rhythm section

  1. Marie England
    10 December 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Thanks for this, Nina. Although on level 2 I like things like this to save and refer back to.

  2. 12 December 2016 at 9:18 am

    Good thinking, Marie, everyone needs their memory jogged about the basic precepts and strategies of writing from time to time.

  3. Liz, another OCA student
    12 December 2016 at 10:47 am

    Thanks, Nina. Will revisit old pieces, review, rewrite where necessary. Like Marie, will print out and keep in log for current and future writing. So much to keeping in mind when writing. It explains why some books, also TV dramas, are flat and difficult to get into, and characters hard to believe in, when dialogue is stilted.

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