Tag Archives: Flow

The Kinship of Music & Writing

How many times have we heard from our editor that our sentences are choppy, or sluggish, or don’t have flow? What does that mean?

I’ve found that years of studying music has helped me enormously with my writing. Music, like writing, has rhythm, flowing passages, abrupt changes, accents, etc. These entities are also present in sentences and paragraphs in writing.

In evoking a calm mood in a story, sentences can be longer with mild descriptive phrases much like the terms ‘largo,’ ‘andante’ or ‘legato’ that are present on our sheet music. If urgency or danger is something you want to demonstrate, shorter or more abrupt sentences may be in order; i.e., ‘allegro,’ ‘vivace,’ ‘presto,’ maybe even, ‘staccato.’ Dialogue can be emphasized in the same way. Choice of words is important. If a powerful, angry or frantic mood is present, words and phrases that are short and precise work better than longer ones. It sounds like common sense, but so many of us get this wrong in our excitement to establish the scenes. In music, one sees the symbols, ‘p,’ ‘pp,’ ‘mf,’ ‘f’ or ‘ff,’ which correspond to soft, very soft, slightly loud, loud, very loud, and ‘marcato’ is a term indicating accents. Those lexical items can also be accomplished with words if the writer is careful about selection.

I don’t know if what I’ve said has made any sense to you, dear reader, but, how about examples?

In my book, SHE HAD TO KNOW, an example of a calm setting with longer descriptive sentences is:

Massive stone pillars guarding the entrance stood like monoliths. Between them, intricate wrought iron gates shadowed black lace patterns on the lawn as the sun cast its late afternoon beams through the ancient ironwork.

Notice there’s a gentle rhythm to the words in the sentences as they meander through the description. The sentences are generally longer and the rendering of iron, lace, and sun are all complimentary to one another. The sentences flow.

If I were to write:

There were massive stone pillars guarding the entrance. They looked like monoliths. The ancient gates cast shadows that looked like black lace on the late afternoon lawn.

The information is basically the same, but the sentences are choppy and have no mood or flow.

In the next example, I deal with a tense, frightening moment:

Pressing her body flat against the wall, slowly inching further in, she stood dead still, praying she wouldn’t be seen. The footsteps were quite close now. Sheena held her breath. Turned her head to see who was about to pass. She wasn’t cold any longer; perspiration streamed down her body. Her head and heart beat like jackhammers. The lantern light was almost upon her. The footsteps sounded like claps of thunder in her ears.

Notice in this example, the sentences are choppy and shorter. This is intentional so the reader can feel the sense of urgency and fear in the words. Here I’ve used word accents like perspiration, heart beating, and loudness to give the reader the image of what is happening. These words are not equal to the others. They stand out in emphasis. ‘Mercato,’ in music.

If you think of your writing as a music score while you construct your sentences and paragraphs, you may very well have some really interesting passages. I test mine by reading them aloud. I’ve taped myself and played the tape back to get an even different perspective. Our own voices often sound strange to us, so it’s almost as though someone else is reading and we can hear when the rhythm is right. Try it. You might like it.

Anyone else have a trick they use to create a smooth flowing symphony of words?

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