The Rhythm of Stories

The heartbeat is the primal rhythm that forms the basis for all human expression and experience.

The writer, like all artists, adds creative interpretation and lyrical variation in pursuit of the wide tones and colors and voices of the many narratives that live because of this primal rhythm. The success of our storytelling, then, is the degree to which what we write resonates with primal rhythm and the universal truths we all share.

Virginia Woolf wrote to a friend: “All writing is nothing but putting words on the backs of rhythm.”

William Faulkner, in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for his own literary work, said any story is “ephemeral and doomed” if it lacks “the old verities and truths of the heart…”

William Wordsworth advised the writer to “fill your paper with the breathings of the heart.”

Without doubt, weaving a compelling narrative story involves some understanding of the elements of story.  The resonate story always has a structure that takes us on a journey from beginning to middle to end. The most successful narrative depends on good word choice, a general adherence to the simple rules of construction like subject and verb and object, and the skill of the writer to engage the reader – or listener – with details that fire the imagination. Of all the conventions at play in a well-told and well-written story, rhythm and flow rank high on the list of most important.

Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”

Sometimes writers in our workshops want a textbook definition of rhythm so that they may apply it like a formula.  But, rhythm is not applied – it is a natural flow that we feel when it resonates. Try describing the emotion and engagement of hearing the first heartbeat of a baby in a mother’s womb. Write the sweet song of a bird in the midst of a primeval forest. In writing we can sense and feel the rhythm when we read our work aloud and edit with the ear rather than the with pencil.

“The art of living is based on rhythm – of give and take, ebb and flow, light and dark, life and death,” wrote Henry Miller. “By acceptance of all aspects of life, good and bad, right and wrong, yours and mine, the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, ‘the dance of life,’ metamorphosis.”

Virginia Woolf was captive to the idea of rhythm:

“I sometime think humanity is a vast wave, undulating…” she wrote. “If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.”

This paragraph demonstrates the emotional engagement of rhythm and flow through words that bring the reader into a world of universal memories of childhood sanctuaries.

Here is a more technical demonstration of rhythm and flow, from writing teacher Gary Provost:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

We close this short discussion of rhythm and flow with Faulkner again:

“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.”