When thinking about rhythm in writing, most writers think about rhythm as it relates to poetry. It’s true that rhythm plays a major role in how poets craft their work and how audiences listen to it, but rhythm also plays a powerful role in prose writing. By mastering how to use rhythm in literature, you can make yourself a better and more versatile writer.
What is rhythm in writing?
Rhythm in writing is when the writer carefully pays attention to using both stressed and unstressed syllables when composing sentences. By carefully crafting the rhythmic flow of their prose, writers can make their words flow in a very pleasing way.
Historically, rhythm is more noticeable in poetry. That’s because the meter of many poems helps draw attention to the poem’s rhythm.
Rhythm helps make writing more memorable. For example, it’s difficult to think of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” without remembering its haunting, sing-song rhythm. By making the writing in your prose more rhythmic, you can make your own literary works similarly memorable.
What are the differences between rhythm in literature and rhythm in poetry?
The primary differences between rhythm in literature and rhythm in poetry have to do with the structures of the work. Because these types of writing don’t share the same structure, rhythm in prose is more difficult to spot and is likely to be more intermittent.
In poetry, the structure of the poem helps draw attention to the rhythm. Thanks to things like line breaks, it’s easy to see when the writer has applied a special meter to each line. Even children just starting with the English language quickly learn how to identify rhythm based on their favorite nursery rhymes.
If the poem uses rhymes, the rhyme scheme also makes the rhythm and meter more obvious. This is because writers must find clever ways to integrate their intended rhymes into their intended rhythm. To do this, many poets engage in the practice of writing aloud to see how everything sounds.
What about rhythm in prose, then? For one thing, rhythm in prose is often more intermittent than rhythm in poetry. While an entire poem may use a special rhythmic meter, prose writing is likelier to use rhythm in specific places (in any given literature example, special meter is likelier to be found at either the very beginning or very end of the text).
Because there are no fixed lines prose, writers usually use special rhythm when they want to make certain moments and characters stand out. In this way, rhythm will only make up a portion of your prose writing, whereas it typically makes up the entirety of a poem.
Elements of rhythmic writing
Rhythm and meter may seem complex, but the core components are very simple. All types of rhythm boil down to two components: the stressed syllable and the unstressed syllable.
How, though, we do actually define rhythm? On the most basic level, it’s defined as the pattern of stresses in writing. These patterns are more visible in poetry, but they are useful in prose because we naturally use stressed and unstressed syllables when we speak. Therefore, rhythm is very useful in prose for dialogue exchanges, to help make characters’ lines seem more realistic.
In order to add more rhythmic writing to the sentence structure of your prose, it’s important to understand more about stressed and unstressed syllables and the relationship between them.
It’s impossible to discuss rhythmic writing without discussing the stressed syllable. Despite this, though, many readers and writers are unsure what the term stressed syllables actually means.
A stressed syllable is one that sounds longer than other syllables. This is most noticeable when you pair the stressed syllable with an unstressed one.
For example, take a look at the word “power.” In speech, we naturally put the emphasis on the pow part of this word. Compare this to a word like “idea” where we put the emphasis on the -dea part of the word.
Where you arrange the stress in your writing affects how audiences read your words. You can also play with stresses in creative ways to give certain characters a more rhythmic way of speaking.
For example, imagine you have two characters talking. While this is prose and not poetry, you can sometimes treat their lines of dialogue as if they are lines from a poem. This encourages you to vary your sentence length (which helps the writing sound more realistic) and consider what type of rhythmic meter is best suited to a character. The consecutive stressed syllables of spondees (more on this soon) are great to express that a character is angry, scared, or frustrated. Meanwhile, dactyls involve more syllables and are great for wordier characters because it lets you effortlessly showcase characters that have a lot to say about a topic (or who just enjoy the sound of their own voice).
Now that you know what a stressed syllable is, it’s easier to understand what an unstressed one is. Verbally, these are the shorter-sounding syllables. Once again, it’s easier to notice when placed next to an opposite longer syllable.
For example, take a look at the word “debate.” In speech, we naturally put the emphasis on the bate part of the word rather than the de- part of the word. The de- in “debate” is the unstressed syllable.
Being able to visually or verbally identify the differences between stresses is important. But the real magic comes from the way you make these syllables interact!
The interaction between stressed and unstressed syllables
Both rhythm and meter are easy to understand but complex to master. As you practice your own word rhythm, though, you may discover surprising ways that different syllable combinations can enhance your own writing.
Rhythm works to help certain sounds to leap off the page. For example, “pounding” is a word with one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. This helps to emulate the initial sound of someone knocking on a door, with the stressed sound followed by the receiving sound (emulated by the unstressed part).
Combining syllables with different stresses in certain ways helps put your reader in the mindset of the characters in your writing. When done well, rhythm can help your readers understand who is speaking even without you using dialogue tags. We can see an example of this in this passage from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone:
“You’re right, Harry,” said Hermione in a small voice.
“I’ll use the invisibility cloak,” said Harry. “It’s just lucky I got it back.”
“But will it cover all three of us?” said Ron.
“All—— all three of us?”
“Oh, come off it, you don’t think we’d let you go alone?”
“Of course not,” said Hermione briskly.
Here, different characters speak with their own rhythms. This not only infuses the characters with added personality, but it makes it easier for readers to differentiate who is saying what even when that is not explicitly described.
Rhythm can also make even plain descriptions of characters into something memorable and stylish. You can see that in this passage from Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove.
“He looked exactly as much as usual—all pink and silver as to skin and hair, all straightness and starch as to figure and dress—the man in the world least connected with anything unpleasant.”
The irony of this passage is that James is describing someone who he thinks has a very typical appearance. But the poetic rhythm and commentary that interrupts this description makes the man seem elemental (he is all color and form and firmness) rather than someone simply flesh and blood. Because of this, the description stands out in the best possible way.
Finally, rhythm is a great way of conveying a specific mood or vibe to the reader. We can see that in this vaguely-haunting passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway:
“It was a park.… And she didn’t know their names, but friends she knew they were, friends without names, songs without words, always the best. But there were so many doors, such unexpected places, she could not find her way.”
Here, the rhythm is used to convey the character’s uncertainty. Lines like “friends without names, songs without words” would be right at home in a poem. However, this poetic intrusion into what would otherwise be a prosaic moment helps to underscore her helplessness at not understanding something important and how she feels lost even among these familiar touchstones.
Types of meter in rhythmic writing
It’s impossible to talk about rhythm without talking about meter and metrical feet.
In writing, feet (sometimes called “metrical feet” or “poetic feet”) refer to specific combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables. Meter, meanwhile, refers to the number of these feet in each line. Therefore, saying a poem is written in “iambic pentameter” means that the poem is written using the feet called “iambs”, and that there are five iambs in each line (the pent- in “pentameter” means “five”).
There are several types of metrical feet that every writer should be familiar with:
The iamb is arguably the most famous poetic foot in the literary world. That’s because Shakespeare used it in many of his most famous works.
An iamb is two syllables: one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed one. One theory held by many is that Shakespeare wrote using iambs because this is how English language naturally flows.
While there are many ways to use iambs, Shakespeare preferred to write in iambic pentameter. That means that each line has ten syllables, so a standard line in Shakespeare’s sonnets would have five iambs.
For a perfect example, see Romeo and Juliet’s prologue, which is written in this meter. The first line starts with: “Two households, both alike in dignity.” This line has five iambs, each beginning with one unstressed syllable, and is followed by several lines using the same pattern.
The spondee is best understood in opposition to the iamb. While an iamb is made of an unstressed syllable and a stressed syllable, a spondee is made up of two or more stressed syllables in a row.
Spondees are relatively rare in writing because language naturally lends itself to a mixture of stressed and unstressed beats. But you may want to use a stressed syllable followed by another one to express a sense of breathless urgency to your writing.
Arguably the most famous use of spondees comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Break, Break, Break.” The poem begins with those same repeating words (“break, break, break”) and shows how rhythm and meter can simulate how waves crash into the shore.
The trochee is another type of foot that writers should be familiar with. It effectively serves as the mirror image of the iamb: it’s one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.
Earlier, we touched on how memorable “The Raven” is. Its popularity is due in part to Poe having composed the poem using trochaic meter, with lines like “And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting / On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door.”
Trochaic meter is a great way to create a memorable beginning to your story. Alternatively, metrical writing can turn the final words of your story into something that’s hauntingly memorable, and it can also give certain dialogue an animated vibe that helps to liven up the standard back-and-forth of dialogue exchanges.
So far, we’ve focused on types of feet that use two syllables. But what if you have a word that’s more than two syllables?
Dactyls are a type of metrical foot spread across three syllables. In a dactyl, the first syllable is stressed and the second syllable and third syllable are unstressed. An example of this is the word “murmuring”.
Because dactyls have three syllables, they’re a handy way of creating sound effects in a reader’s mind. For example, saying that a running sink is murmuring helps someone imagine both the sound of the water and its amount thanks to the two unstressed syllables simulating a trickle of water.
Just as the spondee is the opposite of the iamb, the anapest is the opposite of the dactyl. With an anapest, the first syllable and second syllable are unstressed, while the third one is stressed.
The most famous use of anapests might be in Clement Clark Moore’s “’Twas the Night before Christmas.” Each line contains multiple anapests, starting from the very beginning: “’Twas the Night before Christmas, when all through the house.”
Metrical patterns can extend across different words. In this case, “’Twas the night” is one anapest and “before Christ—” is another. “-mas when all” is another anapest, and “through the house” is the final one. The rhythm created by back-to-back anapests made of three syllables gives this work a very musical feel to readers, especially when it is read aloud.
Why is rhythm important in prose writing?
Using rhythm in prose helps to give your writing a greater sense of style and voice. Doing so can make your text more emotional as well as more memorable.
Writing in rhythmic prose can make it more stylistic. We can see a great example of this at the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with the line “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” the final line of
Much of this line is written in iambs. This, combined with alliteration, give the whole sentence a very stylistic flourish and an almost musical quality.
It can also help define your own voice in writing. For example, do you want to write in the bleak, unadorned manner of Ernest Hemingway? Or maybe the mythic language of J.R.R. Tolkien? Keep in mind it took these writers years to fine-tune the rhythmic writing that helped define their literary styles.
Exactly how you use rhythm can also lend emotional weight to certain characters and scenes. For example, dialogue that is fast-paced and full of stressed syllables expresses a sense of urgency and even fear. But dialogue that’s slower and full of unstressed syllables may come across as peaceful and laconic.
Rhythm can also help make your writing more memorable. As an example, Cormac McCarthy begins The Road using an anapestic meter: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night.” Here, rhythm creates a memorable start to his tale, with McCarthy’s rhythmic opening standing in contrast to the general bleakness of his prose.
Does every story need rhythmic writing?
Not all prose needs to rely on rhythmic writing. Just as certain kinds of poetry eschew meter and embrace free verse, certain kinds of fiction may have little in the way of meter or special stress patterns.
With that being said, rhythm doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition for a writer. Many great writers, including Fitzgerald and McCarthy, don’t use rhythmic patterns in most of their writing. Rather, they selectively use rhythmical patterns to help enhance certain sections (such as the very end and very beginning of books).
Long story short? You can be a great prose writer without consciously incorporating the long and short patterns of meter into your work. But you can treat rhythm as a kind of secret sauce that you add to certain sections in order to help them grab the reader’s attention.
The relationship between rhythm and style
Many writers want to create a distinctive writing style. Unfortunately, most classrooms and lists of writing tips don’t really focus on how to craft a unique style. However, according to Virginia Woolf, your writing style is intimately tied to rhythm!
In one of her famous letters, Wolf wrote the following:
Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.
According to Woolf, developing a better sense of rhythm will help writers naturally develop a better sense of style. She describes a familiar dilemma for writers: having plenty of great ideas but being unsure how to bring those ideas to life.
Just as rhythm in poetry can help a poet find the right words, rhythm in prose can help prose writers do the same. Woolf believes that rhythm goes beyond making your writing more stylistic. The right use of something like a trochaic pattern or iambic tetrameter can help translate the creative vision in your head to the page in a way that readers can relate to.
To better understand what Woolf meant, consider the familiar idea that rhythm in writing makes the text almost musical. Just like a singer can’t fully articulate the lyrics to their song until they have composed the rhythm, so too a writer may not be able to say everything they wish to say in their prose without first planning how to say it. In turn, since good writing involves sharing your truth with the world, Woolf believes that the style of rhythmic writing helps to capture memories, thoughts, and emotions much more accurately than plain prose.
How can you follow Woolf’s advice in your own writing? First, look at passages of your existing writing and experiment with adding the kinds of meter we’ve described before—for example, rewriting dialogue exchanges to make them sound more rhythmic. Second, take some ideas that you haven’t had a chance to write about yet and try to deliberately write everything out using selective rhythm throughout. This will give you practice on writing rhythmic prose more or less from scratch.
Done right, this ends up being a win-win for writers and readers. Focusing on rhythm can help authors overcome writer’s block and express their ideas even as it helps you to articulate and explore your own unique writing style. Furthermore, reading prose styled around metrical units can help readers understand and appreciate what you have to say, especially when your text is read aloud.
Using rhythm in prose to establish your characters
Still on the fence about when to use rhythmic writing in your text? One of the best ways to do so is to help establish your characters.
Think about the friends, family, and colleagues you deal with on a regular basis. Do they all speak the same way? No; chances are they speak in a mixture of shorter and longer sentences and with variety in how they stress the syllables they use.
You can give certain characters certain rhythms as part of their dialogue. When these rhythms are distinct enough, readers can tell who’s speaking even without you using explicit dialogue tags. This can help you create more direct and streamlined prose that readers enjoy.
Our earlier example of this came from Harry Potter. To expand on that example, think about some of the phrases we associate with different characters in that story. Harry’s hapless friend Ron Weasley tends to have shorter dialogue and repeats phrases like “Are you mental?” Therefore, we can easily identify Ron when he makes a triumphant return in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
Nothing but the shock of hearing that voice could have given Harry the strength to get up. Shivering violently, he staggered to his feet. There before him stood Ron, fully dressed but drenched to the skin, his hair plastered to his face, the sword of Gryffindor in one hand and the Horcrux dangling from its broken chain in the other.
As readers, we share Harry’s relief at Ron coming back to save the day. And thanks to the short cadence of Ron’s speech, we know who it is well before the text clarifies that this is Ron Weasley.
How is rhythmic dialogue different from standard speech?
Rhythms in dialogue are written using a deliberate meter, while normal speech involves a simple back and forth between two characters that might not otherwise stand out.
We can see this difference in a scene from the movie Shakespeare In Love. Philip Henslowe, who owns the theater that performs Shakespeare’s plays, is trying to have a conversation with the Bard. When Henslowe pointedly asks Shakespeare if he has started working on his latest play, the writer, annoyed, responds with, “Doubt that the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move.”
Henslowe, equally annoyed, says to Shakespeare what countless students over the years wish they could have told him: “No, no, we haven’t the time. Talk prose.”
Shakespeare’s response is rhythmic, strung together with one metrical foot after another. As with all rhythms in writing, you could mistake this line for something out of poetry. But because such dialogue takes longer to both imagine and express, most people (like Henslowe) speak in plainer language.
What does this mean for you when writing dialogue? As some of our previous examples of rhythm show, the kind of measured motion of rhythmic dialogue really stands out against plain speech. If you have one or maybe just a handful of characters speaking like this and everyone else speaking in plain prose, it helps to distinguish those characters. Alternatively, if you have everyone speak with their own special rhythm, you can blur the lines between prose and poetry and create text that is very dreamlike.
Examples of rhythm in literature
To better understand how to use rhythm in your writing, it’s important to understand how is has been used over the years in great literature.
Here, we have a passage from Tara Moore’s Fade to Dead:
A snort, quickly muffled. No surprise where that came from. Beckwith’s eyes narrowed. He glared at Jessica, if-looks-could-kill. Serene, she gazed back, innocent as the day is long, except for the derisory glint in her cat-green eyes. No hiding that.
In this passage, rhythm plays a role in a couple of different ways. First, the words are choppy enough to reflect Jessica’s annoyance with her colleague. That choppy rhythm also helps to propel the scene and gives it a sense of mild urgency. The changing use of meters throughout helps to add to the uncertainty and tension of the scene.
Think of it this way: chances are that this is your first time reading this passage. Despite that, the rhythm helps to clearly define the personalities of these characters as well as their relationships. The short “if-looks-could-kill” ending to the fourth sentence paints Beckwith as a no-nonsense, all-business character. Meanwhile, the longer sentence describing Jessica’s reaction effectively extends the comparison of her to a cat: she’s happy to mess with serious characters, coming across as a perfectly chaotic foil to someone like Beckwith.
Another example to check out is the beginning of “On the Road to Yazoo City,” a short story by William H. Coles:
My life at twenty-one was never in tune—like a D-string on an antique Gibson with a peg that wouldn’t hold—and I’m walking up this two lane side road about ten miles West of Canton and North of Jackson where I have just come from. Haven’t seen a car in maybe an hour, the straps of my backpack digging into my shoulders, the sun burning my eyes ’cause I lost my shades leaning over a riverbank to fill my water jug, and dragging this guitar case because it’s just too heavy to lift off the ground. The pits. But I gotta make it work. I’m flat broke.
Here, the writer uses a mixture of longer and shorter sentences to create a sense of rhythm. The long sentence in the middle is deliberately poetic, with commas that function like line breaks in poetry. You can see uses of poetic meter throughout that help lines stand out, including “like a D-string on an antique Gibson with a peg that wouldn’t hold.” Here, the combination of meter and simile helps to instantly grab the reader’s attention while fleshing out this character.
Furthermore, this is perhaps our best example yet of rhythm making writing sound more like music. The short descriptions of our narrator’s woes flow culminate in a longer lamentation of his situation that would feel right at home in an old blues song. At the same time, the longer sentence is followed by shorter ones like “the pits” and “I’m flat broke” that help to underscore a theme: his life, like a busted guitar, is no longer making music like it used to. And he must adapt to the new circumstances or die trying as he adapts to a harsh new way of life.
Create memorable writing with rhythm and meter
Rhythm in literature is one of the most effective techniques you can use to write memorable prose.
With the tips we’ve given you here, you should be well on your way to writing text that engages with readers from the very first line. While you don’t need to use rhythm constantly, judicious use of it to your prose will make you a stronger writer who crafts the kinds of lines that readers never forget.