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Rhythm and Time – Part 1: Give Your Writing a Beat of Its Own

Metronome by bart30000I took seven years of piano lessons growing up. I have a terrible ear, and I never practiced enough to become technically adept, but I was always pretty good at sight-reading and keeping time. My sense of meter and rhyme is pretty instinctive when it comes to music.

Like music, writing has meter and timing and rhythm, and different styles, genres, and authors have different twists on those aspects of writing. I’m not telling you anything new; we’ve all read enough different authors and genres to tell our Johnny Cash from our Metallica, Alison Krauss, Lady Gaga, and Enya.

But how do you find your own rhythm?

I think it’s largely a matter of practice, experimentation, and play with words to develop your own unique sense of timing and meter. However, there are some things you can consider as you develop your rhythm.

Verbs: The Bass Line

If you read music, you know what I mean: There’s a line in the bass clef that the guys with the deep voices sing or the dude with the bass guitar plays. This is the line of low notes that support the other lines of harmony and melody. Likely you don’t notice these notes very often, but when they’re missing, it’s pretty obvious. Even in mellow mood music, there’s a line of music that serves this function. It may not be in the actual bass clef, but it’s there—in the background, supporting the melody.

Verbs do the same thing in your writing. Strong verbs shore up your work the same way the bass line shores up a piece of music and helps give it strong structure and keep it in time.

However, too many strong verbs can start to bog down your prose. Sometimes, your reader needs a break from everyone doing all this intense action. That’s where weak verbs come to the rescue.

Strong Verbs vs. Weak Verbs

Technically, strong verbs are those that change to the past tense in the root syllable of the word. Some examples: Swim/swam, sing/sang, stick/stuck, drink/drank, speak/spoke.

Weak verbs are those that need an –ed, –d, or –t to change to the past tense. Some examples: Jump/jumped, walk/walked, smile/smiled, feel/felt, creep/crept.

Then, because it’s English, we have a whole class of weak, irregular verbs. These are verbs that don’t make a strong action statement in your work, but change tense very oddly. Some examples: Is/was (all forms of “to be”), go/went, have/has/had.

In the past, English had a lot more strong verbs, but there’s been a steady move toward weaker verbs. Consider the verb “to dive.” In the past, “dove” was the strong past tense version, but in more and more dialects, it’s perfectly appropriate and correct to use the past tense “dived.”

This general trend toward weakening verbs means that when I use the phrase “strong verb,” what I mean is, “a verb that indicates strong, vibrant action that propels your writing.” When I say “weak verb,” I usually mean, “a verb that serves its purpose in a sentence, but doesn’t necessarily indicate strong action.”

You need both of these types of verbs to give your writing a strong bass.

Make the Verbs Do the Heavy Work

Stick with me while I switch metaphors for a second. You know how the people in the know say to lift with your legs, not your back? That’s what strong verbs do. They lift your prose with the biggest muscles in the English language.

Back to the bass line…

When I’m writing a scene, I try to use verbs that convey the right sense of action for the scene and character. Sometimes, those verbs are obvious. It wouldn’t make sense for the hero to “meander” away from the approaching dragon, right? But sometimes, it’s not so obvious. Here are some of the things I try to consider in scenes and paragraphs.

Scene
I want my battle and fight scenes to have an urgent feel, so I use short, strong verbs—one or two syllables, usually. Stab, spin, punch, strike, kick—those verbs convey the sense you want in a fight scene. But fight scenes are obvious. What about a court scene, or a scene where someone is begging a boon of someone else, or a scene where a character is investigating some mysterious goings on? And consider love scenes—there’s a huge range of possibilities here, everything from sweetly romantic to functional to raunchy, depending on the characters. You can vary the lengths and types of verbs you use to give the right tone or undertone to any scene.

Character
I have one character in my current WIP who is very much an observer. The verbs I use in her POV are different than the ones I use for my main character, who is a strong driver of action, or for my biggest secondary character, who’s a warrior. The verbs you use in different points of view should convey the personalities of your characters. And they can change over time. Use your verb choices to convey character growth as the character changes.

Audience
The verbs you use can conjure intense feelings in your audience, and as a writer, you can use that to your advantage. I don’t want to get into a discussion about swearing in fantasy, but I think this example illustrates the point really well. The f-word is quite versatile, but using it as a verb is tricky. While the audience might not be offended by an f-bomb as an expletive, that same audience might not appreciate it in its more…traditional sense. That can be good and bad. If you know your audience would be offended by that use, reserve it for the “bad guy,” perhaps. My whole point is that verbs can drive strong emotion in your audience, so use them to your advantage. The audience wants to laugh, cry, gnash, howl, and fret with your characters. Let them.

With a little practice, you’ll find yourself looking for stronger verbs that bring vibrant action to your stories and help you develop that strong bass line.

Title image by bart30000.
This article was originally posted on June 8, 2011.

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19 Comments

  1. shigzeo says:

    Thank you for the tips, Amy. Loved ’em. I’m in the middle of a rather tiring project right now and may take the advice from your blog: get up early and write. I tend to not sleep well and put my writing off till just about tea time. Bugger.

    • Shigzeo, I’m not much of a morning person, either, but with the kids getting out of school next week for summer break, I think getting up early to write will be the only reliable way to get some new words churned each day. I do write at night, too. Aw, who am I kidding? I’m so obsessed I write whenever I walk past my computer… 🙂

      Remember, no rules–do what’s best for your Muse! 🙂

  2. David says:

    Love the analogy, Amy! Such a different approach to writing, but it really makes sense–despite my relative lack of musical training 🙂

  3. Geoff says:

    Nice post. Verbs are sometimes a thing we can overlook – because action is all around us and such a part of a story we think less on the power of them than say, adjectives or descriptors of that nature. Good reminder about how the tone of verb in our prose can convey character and voice.

    • Geoff, I think that’s totally true. When we think of describing something, we immediately go to adjectives and such. But the thing about a good verb is that it can eliminate the need for other descriptors or modifiers–especially adverbs. When a story is missing good, solid, descriptive verbs, I think it sometimes has that “it’s not quite there” feel to it. That’s what missing a line in music can do to a song, too.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. SLWestendorf says:

    Hi Amy!

    I love your analogies – they really strike a chord (no pun intended – no really:)
    They are straightforward and immediately applicable. Thank you for putting your time and effort into this blog, it is appreciated, I’m sure; by all who read it.
    Ciao
    Sandy ~

  5. Khaldun says:

    I wish I had a descriptive verb inserter. Something that understands the context of what I’m writing and would just fill in the properly-awesome (and strong) verb for me. Sigh.

    • Khaldun, a verb Muse… Hmm….

      I think it just takes practice. Like Geoff said above, we’re used to reaching for adjectives and such. We just have to start reaching for verbs instead–or in addition to.

      There’s no shame in using a thesaurus… 🙂

  6. I love your analogy. Wish I understood more about music. What you say makes lots of sense though. Even so, I can see a use for Khaldun’s descriptive verb inserter. Thanks for another great post.

  7. Awesome, as usual! ; )

  8. […] two weeks, I’ll talk more about how varying verb constructions can give your writing a rhythm all its own. […]

  9. […] 1: Give Your Writing a Beat of Its Own Part 2: Add a Little Harmony with Adjectives Part 3: Dialogue as Your […]

  10. […] 1: Give Your Writing a Beat of Its Own Part 2: Add a Little Harmony with Adjectives Part 3: Dialogue as Your Rhythm Part 4: Make Your […]

  11. […] 1: Give Your Writing a Beat of Its Own Part 2: Add a Little Harmony with Adjectives Part 3: Dialogue as Your Rhythm Part 4: Make Your […]

  12. This is a great article and something everyone needs to be reminded of. I might actually create a little editing spreadsheet with these tips to remember when doing one of my editing passes!

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