The Music of Words


When I’m writing fiction, I often feel as if there are two co-authors in my head, working together to craft the sentences and paragraphs and pages that make up my story. Co-author #1, the Content Mistress, keeps her eye on the big picture. She’s in charge of making sure the story stays on track, never losing its focus, momentum, entertainment value, or sense of logic. While all of that is going on, Co-author #2, the Syntax Mistress, is riding herd on the words tumbling out of my brain, arranging and rearranging them, slicing and dicing, shopping for synonyms and that one perfect “lightning bug” word or phrase that will make all the difference.

By “syntax,” I mean the arrangement and relationship of words in a sentence and sentences in a paragraph. Every sentence you write has its own distinct rhythm, a particular musicality that, intentionally or not, elicits a certain subconscious response on the part of your reader. By being aware of this effect, and tailoring the rhythm of your words to the content you’re trying to convey, you can greatly enhance your story’s impact.

If you look up the definition of “syntax,” you’re likely to find some variation of the word “harmony,” as in “harmonious arrangement of words.” Most (but not all) of the time, harmony is exactly what the Syntax Mistress is going for as she shuffles words around on the page—a rhythm that eases the story into the reader’s brain so that she can lose herself in it while hardly even being aware of the words used to tell it. It’s a rhythm that’s agreeable to the ear and mind because it offers a balanced variety of verbal configurations. Variety is key here. The Syntax Mistress in my head is always on the lookout for repetition, such as:

  • Unnecessarily using the same word twice in the same sentence.
    I put the dog on his leash and took the dog for a walk.
  • Using the same distinctive word twice in close proximity.
    The odious boss made his employee’s lives miserable. He didn’t care what effect his odious actions had upon them.
  • Stringing together sentences of the same structure.
    Pushing back her chair, the teacher stood up and explained the assignment. Not wanting handwritten papers, she said they had to be typed. Turning to the blackboard, she wrote down the date it was due.
  • Beginning sequential sentences with the same word.
    He got in his car, started it, and peeled away from the curb. He didn’t have a destination in mind. He just needed to get away from there. He kept replaying the argument in his mind as he drove. He should never have come back.

Might you not sometimes want to begin every sentence with the same word, to achieve a particular effect? Absolutely. In fiction, as in most art forms, there are few hard and fast rules, just general (and ignorable) guidelines. There are times when your goal is something other than verbal harmony. In those cases, you might make the deliberate choice to craft prose that’s inelegant, but which for that very reason provokes a certain feeling in your reader. For the same reason, you might write chunks of narrative comprised primarily of independent clauses or complex sentences, or even sentence fragments or rambling sentences. (Forget what your third grade teacher told you; if it works, do it.)

Independent Clauses. By this, I mean either simple sentences (comprised of a single independent clause) or compound sentences (comprised of two or more independent clauses joined by conjunctions and/or punctuation). No dependent clauses (those that can’t function on their own as sentences) need apply. Paragraphs made up mostly of independent clauses tend to have a staccato feel, making this kind of writing ideal for conveying abrupt movement and thoughts, as with action scenes. In the following paragraph from Stephen Hunter’s Hot Springs, Earl Swagger recalls an incident from his service in Iwo Jima:

He killed his way along Charlie-Dog. His flamethrower people hadn’t made it. The captain was hit. There was no cover, because you couldn’t dig into the ash; it just caved in on you. He jumped into a nest, hosed it with his tommy. The bullets flew and bit into the Japs. It blew them up, tore them apart. Earl had blood on his face, Jap blood.

Note how Hunter emphasizes the choppiness of this paragraph by separating the clauses of some sentences with punctuation rather than with a conjunction (He jumped into a nest, hosed it with his tommy).

Complex Sentences. These contain an independent clause and a dependent clause. I include in this category complex-compound sentences, which involve two or more independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses. Narrative passages composed mostly of complex sentences can evoke a stately, thoughtful feel. This is from Ian McEwan’s Atonement:

The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch. When the preparations were complete, she had nothing to do but contemplate her finished draft and wait for the appearance of her cousins from the distant north. There would be time for only one day of rehearsal before her brother arrived. At some moments chilling, at others desperately sad, the play told a tale of the heart whose message, conveyed in a rhyming prologue, was that love which did not build a foundation of good sense was doomed.

Sentence Fragments. It goes without saying that truncated sentences, which don’t form a whole thought, should be used sparingly. Their incompleteness can help to suggest rapid-fire action or, as in this excerpt from Lee Child’s Without Fail, focused tension:

Armstrong reached the gate. Stopped walking. One hundred and twenty-six yards away the man with his eye to the scope nudged the rifle a fraction left until the target was exactly centered. Held his breath. Eased his finger back. Took up the slack in the trigger. Then he squeezed it all the way. The rifle coughed loudly and kicked gently. The bullet took a hair over four-tenths of a second to travel the hundred and twenty-six yards. It hit Armstrong with a wet thump high on the forehead. It penetrated his skull and followed a downward angle through his frontal lobe, through his central ventricles, through his cerebellum. It shattered his first vertebra and exited at the base of his neck through soft tissue near the top of his spinal cord. It flew on and struck the ground eleven feet farther back and buried itself deep in the earth.

Note how the point of view in this paragraph switches halfway through from that of the assassin to that of the bullet that kills Armstrong. The four sentences that follow that switch all begin with It. By disregarding (quite deliberately) the guideline about not beginning sequential sentences with the same word, Child created a driving, relentless rhythm that echoed the bullet’s destructive path.

Rambling Sentences. A whole slew of clauses linked by a whole slew of conjunctions results in the Energizer Bunny of sentences. Whether fast-paced or slow, they just keep going and going and going. These long-winded passages can be useful for evoking a sense of ongoing thought or activity. This paragraph from Susan Isaac’s Magic Hour, which is comprised of a single 129-word sentence, expresses the atmosphere of petty, superficial busyness on the set of a movie called Starry Night:

Gregory J. Canfield was supposed to be in a store in the village doing his job as production assistant, which, in this instance, meant picking up fresh figs, prosciutto, a semolina bread and a bottle of Dolcetto wine for Nick Monteleone since, according to a couple of people on the set, Nick had mumbled that what with the heat, he wanted a light bite, not a heavy supper, and since Lindsay’s performance was still so inert, any hope of salvaging Starry Night seemed to rest on Nick’s well-moussed head, so finally, after forty minutes of consultation between the line producer and the first assistant director (which included a call to Nick’s agent in Beverly Hills), a definition of the term “light bite” was agreed upon, and Gregory was dispatched.

Mix it Up. More often than not, you’re going to want to vary the length and complexity of your sentences within a particular chunk of prose, not just for a sense of linguistic harmony, but for emotional effect. A particularly brilliant example of this is the opening of Martin Cruz Smith’s Rose, a romantic suspense novel set in 19th century England:

The most beautiful women in the world were African.

Somali women wrapped in robes of purple, vermilion, pink. Around their necks beads of amber that, rubbed together, emitted electricity and the scents of lemon and honey.

Women of the Horn who peered through veils of gold, strands in the shape of tinkling teardrops. They stood veiled in black from head to toe, their longing compressed into kohl-edged eyes. In the Mountains of the Moon, Dinka women, dark and smooth as the darkest smoothest wood, tall and statuesque within beaded corsets that would be cut open only on their wedding nights.

And the women of the Gold Coast in golden chains, bells, bracelets, dancing in skirts of golden thread in rooms scented by cinnamon, cardamom, musk.

Jonathan Blair awoke tangled in damp sheets and shivering to the rain, gas fumes and soot that pressed against his lodging’s single window. He wished he could slip back into his dream, but it was gone like smoke. The Africa that was in his bloodstream, however, that was forever.

He suspected he had typhoid. His bedclothes were dank from sweat. The week before, he had been yellow from his eyeballs to his toes. He pissed brown water, a sign he had malaria. Which last night had demanded quinine and gin. Or at least he had demanded it.

The first four paragraphs have a lyrical, dreamlike quality, and in fact, as we soon discover, it is a dream. When Jonathan Blair awakens to find himself sick and shivering in his squalid London flat, the melodious syntax that had infused the opening passages with a hypnotic sensuality are supplanted with sentences of simpler and blunter construction.

The key to learning how to manipulate syntax this masterfully lies, of course, in practice. A good way to determine whether the rhythm of your writing does you want it to is to read it out loud. Listen to how it sounds in your ear. If a passage seems awkward, or if its tempo doesn’t suit the tone you’re going for, play with it until it makes the music you want it to make.

Louisa Burton
December ’09 – January ’10

“FictionCraft” © 2009 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

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