How to Write Better Sentences 9—iambs and beats

This post describes how to add rhythms to your prose. It builds on last week’s post on stress, and shows how you can sneak in the techniques of poetry, working powerful sonic patterns  into your sentences and paragraphs.

Stress adds emphasis. David Jauss, in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow,” demonstrates this with the opening paragraph of D.H. Lawrence’s first published story, “The Odour of Chrysanthemums.”  The legend goes that Ford Maddox Ford, having just read this one paragraph, not only approved Lawrence’s story for publication, but announced the discovery of a major new writer. Here it is:

The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston with seven full wagons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed, but the colt that it startled from among the gorse, which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, outdistanced it at a canter. A woman, walking up the railway line to Underwood, drew back into the hedge, held her basket aside, and watched the footplate of the engine advancing. The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black wagons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney. In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass. The fields were dreary and forsaken, and in the marshy strip that led to the whimsey, a reedy pit-pond, the fowls had already abandoned their run among the alders, to roost in the tarred fowl-house. The pit-bank loomed up beyond the pond, flames like red sores licking its ashy sides, in the afternoon’s stagnant light. Just beyond rose the tapering chimneys and the clumsy black head-stocks of Brinsley Colliery. The two wheels were spinning fast up against the sky, and the winding-engine rapped out its little spasms. The miners were being turned up.

Jauss first points out the smoothness of the paragraph’s flow, and suggests that this smoothness comes from its highly varied sentence structures and openers. Lawrence drastically varies how he opens his sentences, how long they are, and the pieces they contain. But more than the easy flow, the stresses in the paragraph seem placed to reflect and embody its meaning. Jauss quotes this one sentence,

The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black wagons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney.

And then shows how the description of the train as it is passing is densely stressed, while the description of its departure is stressed more sparsely. Jauss hears three levels of stress in this prose—unstressed, stressed, heavily stressed:

The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black wagons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney

The reader therefore shares the woman’s fright as the train passes, and her return to calm as it departs.

Once you start to see and hear rhythm in prose, it becomes a beautiful thing. It is everywhere. There is the pleasure of the smoothly cadenced magazine headline, the ring of a story’s sentence closing perfectly to its beat. Elaine Scarry, in her essay On Beauty and Being Just, points out that the rhythm of

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,

supports, or even proves, its meaning.  The first part of the sentence earnestly plods through six mono-syllables, then speeds to end with the rapid four syllables of “self-evident”; the second part repeats this rhythm, starting slow and ending rapid. Rhythmically, the two parts are so similar that their claims feel linked, that “we” are the “equal men” and what is “self-evident” is how all are “equal.”

These rhythms are to some extent DIY. They appear idiosyncratically in pieces of prose, but they do not reflect a pattern larger than themselves. English is however a language influenced by centuries of rhythmically regular poetry, and prose writers can sneak those rhythms into their work. The metre considered the closest to regular prose or normal English speech is the blank (non-rhyming) iambic pentameter line, the line of Shakespeare and Tennyson. An iamb means a weak beat first, then a strong one; pentameter means five of these pairs per line.

For days I see her car across the street.

Or, the stresses in bold:

For days I see her car across the street.

Books on prosody disagree a surprising amount. Some consider iambic pentameter to be largely a convention, a fiction imposed on centuries of verse, while others consider it the true heartbeat of English poetry, the essence from which all other beats diverge, even the mystical centre of our language. This is a debate we prose writers can ignore—we merely need to know that this rhythm exists, it sounds reasonably natural, will sound good if used wisely, and can add a certain stately progress to one’s sentences. Look at the whole sentence by Amy Hempel, from her story, “Chuch Cancels Cow,” and see how the opening, a perfect five-beat, gets played with and messed up by what follows.

For days I see her car across the street, parked on the little-used access road, her at the wheel just watching my house where my dog patrols the yard, unmistakable dog.

One option is to write entirely in loose pentameters, sticking a comma or a full stop after every fifth strong beat—Faulkner, in Absalom, Absalom, apparently does this some. The other option is to listen out for iambic possibilities as you write, and when your predictive ear calls out for two or three iambs, perhaps to end a sentence, you slot them in. This is how I use syllable stress in my own fiction writing—when I am deciding how to end a sentence, often a rhythm comes to me first, and I search for words to merge that rhythm and the sentence’s sense.

Of course, there are other lines, and other beats. Five-beat iambic lines often sound reasonably natural as prose, whereas four-beat iambic lines tend quicker towards song. Alternating four and three beat lines make up the traditional ballad rhythm in English, and can be especially hard to hear as prose, just because we are so used, from songs, hymns (e.g. “Amazing Grace”), and Emily Dickinson, to read them sing-song.

Three-step rhythms are called “anapestic,” going weak-weak-strong. These are frequently used for more light hearted, singsongy material:

By the house, in the dark of the night, crept the wolf.

And the weak-strong beat of iambs can be reversed to go strong-weak—there are many, many rhythms. Prose is so flexible; it can switch into one rhythm, then back off, pretending it had never been dancing. Often when a sentence sounds right, I cannot parse the syllables into plain iambs and anapests, but I know a rhythm is there, doing its work.

Next week: Assonance, Alliteration, and other sonic similarities.

2 thoughts on “How to Write Better Sentences 9—iambs and beats

  1. Hey Daniel,

    I stumbled upon your blog as I moved to Taiwan about a month ago, and found your post on dating in Taiwan. However, I ended up reading your 9 post series about writing better sentences in its entirety, and I wanted to thank you for such informative, concise posts! Since moving to Taiwan, I have finally taken up reading once again as it was something I have been meaning to do for a while, and have since started to take my writing more seriously, so these posts were very interesting and helpful to me. Thanks again!

    Cheers,
    Miguel

    Like

  2. Miguel,

    I’m glad you liked the posts, and thanks so much for leaving a comment. I hope this sentence advice has been useful. Best wishes in Taiwan, and keep writing 🙂

    Like

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