In music, a beat is a strong rhythmic unit. It’s the reason you tap your foot when you hear it. In your body, it’s the throb of your heart, and in poetry the pace of language. The human affinity for rhythm cuts across all cultures and is so ancient and fundamental that many linguistic anthropologists believe it has evolutionary roots. It exists in prose but many writers aren’t familiar with its importance in that form.
If all of this sounds mysterious and overly complicated, stick with me while I explain how it helps you as a writer.
Beats in a novel or short story come in two forms: in the rhythmic sequence of words and in units of action. In this blog, I’ll talk about how it adds cadence to prose. Next time, I’ll analyze the beat as physical action.
When we say someone is a beautiful writer, we’re describing the way she handles the flow of words, the cadence, the lyricism of language. One dictionary defines lyricism as “an artist's expression of emotion in an imaginative and beautiful way.” It’s an important element in a literary novel, and if you’ve read my previous blogs, you’ll know I consider emotion an essential ingredient in any novel.
An author who personifies the term, “lyrical,” is Pat Conroy. Here’s the opening to his novel, The Prince of Tides.
“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.
“I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family’s table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the lowcountry, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders.”
Now read the passage aloud and pay attention to its beats, the stressed syllables in the words. Some of that rhythm comes from his sentences’ complex structure, and some of it comes from alliteration, the repeated sound of the first consonant in words or in certain syllables of a phrase. You hear this literary device when he writes words containing the letter “c.”
“I could pick a blue crab clean…” and “…carried the sunshine of the lowcountry…”
You can hear the rhythm in the progressive repetition of his age (five, seven and nine) and feel the emotion in his metaphors (“My wound is geography…” and“…I carried the sunshine of the lowcountry, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders…”).
Michael Ondaatje is another “beautiful writer.” Note the repetition (the frequent use of “she”), the alliteration (which I’ve underlined in the first paragraph) and the sensory detail (“gust of wind,” “buckle of noise,” rain on her bare arms…”).
“She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill towards the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.
“In the kitchen she doesn’t pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.
“She turns into the room which is another garden—this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling. The man lies on his bed, his body exposed to the breeze, and he turns his head slowly towards her as she enters.”
The words are simple but they establish a rhythm, set an emotional mood and put us directly into the scene. We see, hear and feel it. Note the sentence structure, the way modifying phrases (“climbing over a low wall,” “feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms”) create cadence.
How do you learn to write like Pat Conroy or Michael Ondaatje? For some, it seems to come as a gift, in the way musicians naturally feel the beat and understand the structure of sound. Others will have to work at it, but I have seen students dramatically improve their writing by studying the work of published authors they admire—and by practice, often years of practice. So get started.