The Oxford Dictionary defines cadence as “a modulation or inflection of the voice, a rhythmical effect in written text, a fall in pitch of the voice at the end of a phrase or sentence” or simply as “rhythm”. For purposes of discussion today, I have a brief illustration of how it can affect reader experience.
Consider the following lines:
I do not like green eggs and ham,
I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.
A classic by Dr. Seuss, yes? But take a simple stanza like that, give it to the likes of Mariah Carey, and one would expect it to be delivered in an entirely different style — one which might be represented like this:
I do not like green eggs and ha-am,
I do not like them, Saaaammm-I-Aaa-a-a-ahhhhmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm,with the Ms dragging on to infinity such that they begin to choke the airways of anyone attempting to master them. And the songstress clutches her throat as she falls to the ground, her face turning an eggplanty purple to match the quality of this prose, all while Mariah sings and sings, her eyes cast upward as if to follow her soaring voice, which conveys a rapturous purity—
Ahem. You get the idea.
So what does this have to do with writing? Well, the more I become conscious about the use of words, the more I notice that it’s cadence which lies behind my approval or disapproval of a writer’s performance, including my own words.
For instance, a few weeks ago I stood in a bookstore, thumbing through a bestselling book, wanting to fall in love with it, wondering why I couldn’t bring myself to spend the $15 to acquire it. Clearly money wasn’t the issue. I’d already shelled out a comparable amount on empty-calorie designer coffees for my kids.
It’s not like I expected The ToolMaster to mount an objection. After thirty years of tolerating my bibliophile ways, he’s not going to divorce me for adding one more novel to my teetering to-be-read pile.
Further, there wasn’t anything wrong with the prose. If we were to put the book through Ray Rhamey’s Flog-the-Quill process, like we did for this top-tier writer, I’m certain a healthy majority of us would feel compelled to turn the page. The writing was clear, involved high stakes, the story started in media res and it featured a sympathetic character in a genre I enjoy. I even owe the author a debt of sorts for shepherding the career of a dear friend.
But something about the voice grated. Sure enough, when I went back to take a second look at the prose, it was the author’s rhythm which felt off to my ear. The sentences were too smooth in certain places for my taste, taking on an almost oily quality, and in others they were too choppy. Taken altogether, the prose felt like a waltz melody being forced into a march’s meter.
That’s the power of cadence.
Now this may be obvious to you folks, but for me it felt like a revelation.
It’s Also a Matter of Practical Significance
For instance, when I’m critiquing, and a character says something like, “So, are you ready?”, I’ll think twice before hitting the delete button. I might feel the character would say, “Are you ready?” instead, or prefer a simple, “Ready?”, but aside from it bothering my internal metronome, does it matter or is it a question of personal taste? (Unless the content of the scene demands that words be bitten off between body blows or kinky sexual acts.)
Also, I’m willing bet that some agent rejections — particularly those that contain words like “I just wasn’t in love with this” or “I don’t feel passionate about it” — reflect this visceral reaction to cadence. Nothing wrong with that.
So what’s your experience with cadence, Unboxeders? Do you spend hours switching around perfectly adequate words because the rhythm feels unsatisfactory? Have you consciously rejected a writer’s voice because they use sixteenth notes when half-notes would do? Do cadence issues cause problems within your critique group? What say you ah-a-a-allllll?