Many things make good writing — clean syntax, evocative imagery, authentic dialogue — but what makes good writing great is rhythm. Cadence. The way the words and phrases combine and converge, the way they flow and then rest. For a beat. And start again. Much like a song, or even a symphony.
Interesting that “composition” applies to both the written word and the musical piece; “lyric” to both the words in a song and the feeling of lightness in, say, a lyric opera.
Words and Music
We read with an internal voice rather than just with our eyes; you’re “hearing” these words in your head as you read them, aren’t you? And just like a song in which the beat doesn’t match the tune, a poorly cadenced story or poem can fall on our inner ears with a jarring thud.
Take this from a certain nationally syndicated writer (I’ll keep him anonymous, in case he was merely the victim of bad editing):
But there is a huge difference between taking money away from folks under threat of imprisonment and charitable largesse.
Placing the short phrase (“charitable largesse”) after the long one (“taking money away from folks under threat of imprisonment”) makes the sentence stop abruptly, as though it had hit a wall — or the conductor had suddenly brought the orchestra up short. Perhaps the writer did this because he felt coercion should come first as the more important idea; a comma after “imprisonment” would have been a helpful brake before the all-stop.
Variation in sentence length and structure is an important rhythmic tool. A series of sentences all built the same way has a sing-song effect, like this from my own invention:
Lying on the floor, she stared up at the ceiling and wished the night were over. Despite her anger, she felt the tears drip down onto the cold floor beneath her neck. Balling up her fists, she let out a scream of frustration that no one else heard.
Boring? Unforgivably. Not just because each sentence has an introductory clause (“Lying on the floor,” for instance), but also because each sentence has the same number of words. It creates a vaguely uncomfortable feeling; without closer inspection than it deserves, you know you hate it but you can’t quite say why.
Contrast that with the beauty of this paragraph from Cormac McCarthy in The Road:
Across the fields to the south he could see the shape of a house and a barn. Beyond the trees the curve of a road. A long drive with dead grass. Dead ivy along a stone wall and a mailbox and a fence along the road and the dead trees beyond. Cold and silent. Shrouded in the carbon fog. He walked back and sat beside the boy. It was desperation that had led him to such carelessness and he knew that he could not do that again. No matter what.
Word count of each sentence: 17 – 8 – 6 – 20- 3 – 5 – 8 – 20 – 3. And each sentence powerful in its simplicity.
John Steinbeck, too, lays down just the right beat in East of Eden:
I must depend on hearsay, on old photographs, on stories told, and on memories which are hazy and mixed with fable in trying to tell you about the Hamiltons. They were not eminent people, and there are few records concerning them except for the usual papers on birth, marriage, land ownership, and death.
Do you see — or, rather, hear — how smoothly Steinbeck arranges the series of noun phrases in the first sentence? Three short phrases followed by a long, flowing one? The second sentence strings together the important markers of life, ending in the sudden finality of “death.”
Next time you write, check your rhythm by actually reading your words aloud. Listen to your structure, your sentence length,whether short phrases clang uncomfortably after long ones.