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Finding Rhythm In Your Prose

[1]As a little girl before my feet touched the floor in Chicago orchestra seats, I fell in love with Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” that jazzy rhythmic music that was classical and southern and black all at the same time. I didn’t just hear it. I felt it.

With the birth of hip hop, I grew up listening to Chuck D and A Tribe Called Quest drop rhymes on the turntable. In my bedroom, I tried to mimic what I’d heard but my raps fell flat, and the jerky, awkward movement I passed off as dancing lacked rhythm.

Still, I must have absorbed rhythm because now when I read literature and write it, I recognize poetry, lyricism, and music in prose. When I sit at my keyboard to pen a novel, sometimes it’s a deliberate, painstaking process to create that rhythm on the page and other times, it flows as if it’s always been inside me.

The watercooler conversation on my job turned to books one day recently and my colleagues tried to recite the opening lines of their favorite books. Most struggled and failed to remember any but for one woman the words flowed like music. It was the opening of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.

Not only do those words capture the disturbing essence of this character’s tortured and forbidden obsession, but they roll across your tongue like water. I’m convinced that’s what made the opening memorable for my colleague. In the next line, Nabokov breaks down this girl’s name into the rhythm of its syllables.

Lo-Lee-Ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

When I introduced four historic names off the top of my novel-in-progress, I played with their arrangement and read them aloud over and over again until the rhythm sounded and felt right.

I knew the ancestors were dancing somewhere, this night a love note to Harriet and Sojourner, W.E.B. and Booker T.   

Jacqueline Woodson, one of my favorite authors, says she rewrites everything until she gets the rhythm and story right on the page. She tells her life story in Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir of poems. Her mastery of that form influences her handling of prose in the novel Another Brooklyn, where there’s a cadence, a steady beat running as a current along the narrative. Here, the protagonist, August, and her brother watch life below their window.

The people passing beneath us were all beautiful in some way.

Beautifully thin. Beautifully obese. Beautifully Afroed or cornrowed or bald.

Beautifully dressed in bright African dashikis and bellbottom jeans, miniskirts and halters. 

The words we string together and the way they bend into each other to make sentences reveal patterns and convey meaning. The rhythm and flow of this sentence in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto leaves me breathless as the action intensifies.

Roxane saw them as the man with the gun saw them, Carmen saw Cesar, and Mr. Hosokawa saw Carmen and he scooped her from the space in front of him, the force of his arm hitting the side of her waist like a blow. 

That’s a long sentence punctuated by only one comma and with the insistent repetition of the word “saw” you can feel the situation escalating as the characters hurtle toward something awful, something deadly. When you read that passage, you can almost hear the building of a long, dramatic crescendo in an opera.

How do we find the rhythm that is innate to the story we’re telling in the moment?

In many crime novels where the author wants the action to move at a fast clip, you’ll often notice a staccato beat with short, rapid-fire sentences. Conversely, a languid scene may beg for alto sax and longer sentences, a slower rhythm.

I try to place myself inside my story, living in the skin of my characters, so I can feel the rhythm of that moment and make the most authentic narrative choices. When I write a passage, I read it aloud as I type the words and then I read it again and again in the context of the larger story. Does it flow? Just as you recognize when the wrong musical note is played, you can hear when your narrative is off beat, too.

When you know your story intimately and you’re in rhythm with it, you get to freestyle a bit. Eschew structure and improvise on scenes sometimes. Play with the beats. You may surprise yourself with what you create on the page. Before I sit down to write, I’ll often read poetry or listen to music to get in sync with what it means to flow. There are plenty of days my rhythm is off and I need to fine-tune my sensibilities. But when it works, you have the opportunity to create something beautiful and harmonious.

How do you find the rhythm in your stories? Share examples of how rhythm has shaped your prose or that of your favorite authors.


About Nancy Johnson [2]

Nancy Johnson [3] writes at the intersection of race and class. Her debut novel, THE KINDEST LIE, is forthcoming in 2021 from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. This is the story of an unlikely connection between a black woman searching for the son she never knew and a poor, 11-year-old white boy who finds himself adrift in a dying Indiana factory town. THE KINDEST LIE was named runner-up for the 2018 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award. Nancy’s work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine and has received support from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, Tin House Summer Novel Workshop, and Kimbilio Fiction. As a television journalist, Nancy received Emmy nominations and multiple writing and reporting awards from the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. When Nancy’s not writing, you can often find her exploring bookstores, festivals, and restaurants in her hometown of Chicago. Nancy is represented by Danielle Bukowski at Sterling Lord Literistic.