52. The rhythm of language

It’s a truism that writers love words. Words are our tools. How do you write a good fight scene? A good love scene? There are lots of elements to writing a scene, but part of the difference between scenes is the pacing, the rhythm of the language. Consider this excerpt from a battle scene:

“Reuven drew and fired, drew and fired tirelessly. The runners refilling the quivers could hardly keep up. The Lorradians fell and died in their hundreds, but still they came on. Reuven was shooting now at point blank range. Each mighty arrow punched through armour as if it was cloth. The enemy was so tightly packed they had no space to swing their swords. The advancing forces behind pushed those in front so they lost their balance, and perished on Ceweth blades.The front rank of the attack was forcing its way through the hedgehog of stakes now. Reuven dropped his bow, searching for a weapon to defend himself. The only thing to hand was the mallet he had used to pound the stakes in.

A foeman closed on him, swaying as if drunk. The man was exhausted by his trek through the mud, burdened by his armour, and uncertain on his feet. He waved his sword ineffectually in front of him.

The whole world narrowed down to Reuven and this Lorradian, the tumult and clash of arms and cries around him fading. He wanted to turn and flee. Heart pounding, he ducked under the swing of the sword, and brought the mallet up with a huge swing into the man’s helm. The foeman tottered, fell, crashing in a heap of metal into the mud. He struggled to rise, like a beetle on its back. Reuven crouched. Smashed the mallet into the head again. Then he snatched the enemy’s sword just in time to parry a fatigued blow from the next foe to make it through the stakes.”

A fight is energetic, full of action. And energetic staccato language helps to convey the mood. Short sentences carry immediacy, like a rushing river. Two-thirds of the sentences here are fourteen words or less, and only three of them are longer than twenty words (some variety in sentence length is helpful and avoids boredom).

A love scene, on the other hand, can be slow and languorous, with meandering sub-clauses.

Rhythm isn’t just about the length of sentences, but also about the words you chose. This is where writers of prose have much to learn from the poet’s toolbox. Alliteration (repeated consonant sounds) and rhyme create an enjoyable rhythm, and can help to set a mood. And even the shape and sound of the words themselves are vital. Consider these lines from John Masefield’s poem, Cargoes:

“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine.”

And

“Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days.”

Dirty British coaster
Picture by Rachel Marwick

I learned this poem at school when I was about ten. I remember the teacher pointing out how the words evoked the image of the different ships. The word “quinquireme” rolls languorous around the tongue like a fine wine, as does its exotic destination. While the “dirty British coaster” is an altogether grubbier craft. The quinquireme rows calmly in the sun, while the coaster butts in wintry seas.

How does Masefield achieve these effects? The words are longer for quinquireme lines than for the coaster lines, both in letters, but more importantly in syllables. The quinquireme is three syllables to the coaster’s one. And the weather for the coaster is a machine-gun burst of three one syllable words – “mad March days”.

Do you need to remember wordcraft tricks like these while you’re writing? No, of course not. Nobody could. But when you’re revising, they’re invaluable. Let the rhythm help you tell the story.

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