In the previous post, I discussed how the sounds of the words you choose can affect the way a reader experiences your prose. This second installment of our mini-series on literary devices is about devices that use rhythm.
“Rhythm,” in this context, is basically the way that we break linguistic information down into digestible units in order to process meaning. Since rhythm is an integral part of our ability to use and make sense of language on the most basic level, it’s not surprising that the manipulation of linguistic rhythms through grammar, syntax, and even word choice is something that readers intrinsically respond to. Rhythm has an enormous effect reader experience – I’d argue even more so than sound – and a lot of this is subconscious.
When a piece of writing feels “clumsy” or “awkward” or simply “off,” you’re responding to a problem with the writer’s command of the way language should flow.
By paying attention to the underlying rhythmic structure of your prose, you can manipulate the speed at which the reader reads, emphasize certain thoughts and ideas over others, and even affect the reader’s perception of the narrator’s personality
The most basic rhythmic unit of language is the syllable
An extremely easy thing to note as you read is the author’s vocabulary – do they use a lot complex, multisyllabic words or stick to short, colloquial ones when possible? Strings of long words tend to make a text or character sound much more formal, and overusing them can come across as showy and awkward. By contrast, a more basic vocabulary tends to strike the reader as intimate, improvised, and down-to-earth.
There is actually a historical reason for this. Modern English is built from several languages, most heavily Old Norman/French (a Latinate language) and Old English (a Germanic language). Old English was the primary language of Britain until 1066, when the Normans conquered the island and brought their language with them. The two vocabularies merged to form Middle English, with the educated French ruling class contributing their longer Latinate words, and the Anglo-Saxons they subjugated contributing the shorter words of their Germanic language. To this day, we associate Latinate words and their fluid cadences with education and “good breeding,” while shorter words and expressions seem more direct and unpretentious – even when the two words mean the same thing. For example:
- Old English “smart” vs. Old French “intelligent”
- Old English “ask” vs. Old French “inquire”
- Old English “drink” vs. Old French “beverage”
Using elaborate vocabulary can create a sense of distance between your writing and the reader, for a couple of reasons. One is the general aura of formality it creates, and another is that more elaborate language usually takes the reader a bit longer to unravel and process. Shorter words and simpler constructions hit your brain harder and faster, because you have to do less work to to break the language into manageable parts and arrive at meaning.
Sentence length and speed
These ideas about words and syllables can be taken to the next level: sentence structure and length. Two terms that are often used when talking about the rhythm and complexity of sentences are parataxis and hypotaxis.
Parataxic groupings are short, grammatically simple, and only convey one idea at a time. This can take the form of short sentences, or longer sentences where ideas are listed rather than arranged into subordinate clauses. Earnest Hemingway was big on parataxic writing — his sentences were so plain and direct that his prose sometimes felt childishly simple.
However, simple sentence structure doesn’t have to mean simple meaning: a feature of parataxic writing is that it often uses juxtaposition – placing simple ideas next to each other to create ambiguity or contrast – to suggest complex meaning. All those small, discrete ideas create easy to digest units of information, and allow your brain to pause to fully process each individual thought or image.
“Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go out into the town. Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurito. He would go to sleep while he waited.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Undefeated.
On the other end of the spectrum, hypotaxic sentences use multiple subordinate clauses and conjunctions to build complex thoughts. The elaborate grammar involved creates a feeling of education and intellect much like the use of multi-syllabic words. But be aware that the more elaborate a hypotaxic sentence becomes, the more difficult it is for the brain to follow. Because the end of a sentence signals a completed thought, we are trained not to “break” until we encounter a period – commas will slow us down a bit, but they don’t signal a true stopping point. So when you read an incredibly long sentence, your brain tends to accelerate in search of the end of it. As a result, unless you force yourself to slow down and pause, you have less time to absorb the complex piles of information being thrown at you. This is why you often have to go back and reread long, elaborate passages of text.
“When I was around nine or ten I wrote a play which was directed by a young, white schoolteacher, a woman, who then took an interest in me, and gave me books to read, and, in order to corroborate my theatrical bent, decided to take me to see what she somewhat tactlessly referred to as ‘real’ plays.” – James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son.
So what’s the punch line?
Once you’ve gotten the hang of sentence length, you are primed to notice another subtle but extremely effective trick: varying sentence length to emphasize certain thoughts and ideas. Specifically, if you follow a long, complex sentence with a short, direct one, this has the effect of emphasizing the shorter sentence.
This is because the longer sentence causes your brain to take off running, causing you to crash-land on the short one. It’s also because the shorter sentence is, by nature, quicker and easier for your brain to process, so it’s where your focus goes. Similarly, the conclusion of any long passage holds exceptional weight, because it’s where your brain is forced to stop. It’s kind of like concluding an accelerating drumroll with the crash of a symbol.
Though this device can be used in many situations, the most recognizable one for most people is humor. Ever heard the expression “comedic timing”? Great comedians wind up their audience with a setup that seems to accelerate in complexity and energy, only to hit them with a short, direct, and efficient “punch line.” Comedy is all about using rhythm to make a joke “land.” But you can likewise create dramatic emphasis and increase pathos by ending a long story or speech with a simple, direct statement or potent image.
“Today, the code of the athlete, of the tough boy – an inheritance, I believe, from the English gentleman – that curious mixture of striving, asceticism, and rigor – the origins of which some trace back to Alexander the Great – is stronger than ever. Do you have feelings?” – Saul Bellow, Dangling Man.
“One of the great myths of life is that childhood passes quickly. In fact, because time moves more slowly in Kid World–five times more slowly in a classroom on a hot afternoon, eight times more slowly on any car journey of more than five miles (rising to eighty-six times more slowly when driving across Nebraska or Pennsylvania lengthwise), and so slowly during the last week before birthdays, Christmases, and summer vacations as to be functionally immeasurable–it goes on for decades when measured in adult terms. It is adult life that is over in a twinkling.” – Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
Thus concludes our discussion on literary devices. Again, if you want to know more, I recommend that you read some poetry and pick up a book on the subject. And please feel free to leave any thoughts, questions, or even some of your own examples in the comments!
– By Tania Strauss