Got Rhythm?

Recently I spoke with a woman who has written several screenplays. She talked about what made them work, and what didn’t, and then segued into why some movies fail in spite of a good plot and good actors. As the title of this blog implies, she said it comes down to rhythm. It was great fun watching her because she would start quoting from a movie, then get into the role, and overly dramatize the rhythm to prove her point. It was like watching dialog become music. She even drummed the beats of dialog with her fingers on my desk.

I’m going to state the obvious here and say all our writing, no matter what kind, needs that rhythm.

What I find myself wondering though, is why? Are we working with words, or with notes? I’m certainly no musician (although I have a desire to play something dramatic: hammered dulcimer, harp, bagpipes…) and yet I can feel when a sentence doesn’t work. Usually in the editing process. I’ll stumble over a sentence, go back to figure out why, and realize the way the words meld is wrong.

So which came first, words or music? Do we have some inherited genetic memory of tapping two stones together and realizing we’re creating movement as well as fire? I’m also no archaeologist but I have to wonder if song came before speech

This proves the importance of reading your writing out loud during the editing process. Our ears hear the music, or lack of, in the words, that our eyes might skim over.

I find more and more ties between music and writing. Songs that inspire writing, as I’ve posted about before. The music that must be there in our stories. Even the rhythm of our speech.

The challenge is figuring out how to get that rhythm into our writing. Punctuation to create pauses, leaps, rise and fall. All the tools we have to link words into rhythm.

And our natural ear, tuned to that inner song of the story.

7 thoughts on “Got Rhythm?

  1. WOW Lisa. HEAVY!! LOVE this one. What could be more Primal than what we HEAR in the womb, Way before we can see. Yeah, and that makes pulses prior to tones. Around this world, so many languages, so many modal music scales. Pulsings; universal. Inevitable this subliminal current in all life forms. Beautiful exploration!


    • Okay Pat, there’s a poem somewhere in your response here, I can feel it and you need to write it! Do your poetry magic…I have always said that the reason we find the sound of rain on a roof so soothing is because of our mothers taking showers, and us hearing ‘rain on the roof’ when we were in the womb! It reminds of of being safe, and cozy and warm and protected.


  2. but then it still comes down to the person who reads the story and their own rhythm…
    I think song came before speech, there is so much sound in everyday noises, just listen to the nature around you. Birds dont speak like we do, but they “sing”…
    I like this post, its wonderful!


    • Okay, I never thought about rhythm also coming from the person who reads the piece. But you’re right, and it now makes me understand a bit more when Pat was talking about having someone else read her poetry and it not being right. Good point.


  3. What Jenni said is something that’s been vexing me. I’ve written a few things lately where a line or two really rubbed me the wrong way, and the only reason I can come up with is what you say about rhythm.

    But sometimes after I make changes, I wonder if I’m happier now and think it’s more understandable and reads better, but some readers might think otherwise. This vexes me, but I’ve been trying to let it go because all I can do is what I think is best. That’s all any of us can do. Right?


    • Right. Though my best never lives up to what I want it to. I hate that feeling of a line that isn’t right, of changing it, of a change that isn’t right, and you can just feel what it should be on the back of your tongue, but can’t make it appear on paper. Sometimes if I let it sit a few days it helps. Sometimes if I go back to the original and try reordering words rather than replacing. But most times, like you, I just have to let it go.


  4. On a related note, I think a lot about harmony when I’m creating something that has pictures and words together. When do I use a picture, and when do I use words? Which words with which picture? How to transition between them? There is rhythm there too.


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