Incorporating Rhythm in Prose Style

Virginia Woolf wrote this intriguing quote about writing fiction that deserves deliberate analysis. The quote:

“Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.”

Style for fiction writers is personally unique and is a distinctive way of using language, vocabulary, syntax, imagery, ideation, clarity, readability, format, emphasis … all commonly considered important components.

Rhythm is a strong, regular repeated pattern of movement or sound … a pattern.

Is that what Woolf is referring to? Patterns? Let’s look at Woolf’s writing, see if you feel a rhythmic flow.

Did they know, she asked, that they were surrounded by an enchanted garden? Lights and trees and wonderful gleaming lakes and the sky. Just a few fairy lamps, Clarissa Dalloway had said, in the back garden! But she was a magician! It was a park…. And she didn’t know their names, but friends she knew they were, friends without names, songs without words, always the best. But there were so many doors, such unexpected places, she could not find her way.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway.

Comment. There is a definite rhythmic feel in this passage

How do we determine “lack of rhythm’ in style?

  1. Reading may be interrupted, a “stuttering” effect. A lack of flow.
  2. Comprehension may not be as easy as when rhythm is present.
  3. Absence of the feeling of walking through the prose smoothly step by step.
  4. Discordant ideas or images.
  5. Non sequiturs or an interruption of a logical flow of ideas or imagery.

What to do to instill rhythm in your prose:

  1. First, ask if rhythm in prose is truly a priority for you and worth the effort to add “rhythm” to your style. (Woolf’s idea may not be practical, possible, or desirable for all authors.)
  2. Study and think about rhythm as you read other authors. Copy and save passages you like for rhythmic comprehension, ease of reading and understanding, and save them for future study and reference.
  3. Evaluate: Accurate word choice and syntax in relation to the text and spots in text where your reading is hindered–a break in flow. (which breaks the fictional dream).
    Is it syntax?
    Is it format?
    Is it punctuation?
    Is it failure to understand?
    Is it error in spelling?
    Is there a grammatical error?

Here are two examples of prose to make a comparison of different attention to rhythm.

1. Written with little rhythmic feel. 1st person.

When I turned twenty-one, in March of 2019, I lost my job playing backup guitar for a band I didn’t like and was really happy to get out of. I didn’t have money–well two dollars ninety-five cents to be exact–so I had to walk on the road to Yazoo City where the bandleader of the band told me I could find another gig. It was real hot, I’d lost my sunglasses, and I decided not to fill my water jug in the stream that ran under a bridge because it looked polluted.

2. Written with a rhythmic feel that is easier to read, understand, and enjoy for some readers. 1st person.

My life at twenty-one was never in tune–like a D-string on an antique Gibson with a peg that wouldn’t hold–and I’m walking up this two lane side road about ten miles West of Canton and North of Jackson where I have just come from. Haven’t seen a car in maybe an hour, the straps of my backpack digging into my shoulders, the sun burning my eyes ’cause I lost my shades leaning over a riverbank to fill my water jug, and dragging this guitar case because it’s just too heavy to lift off the ground. The pits. But I gotta make it work. I’m flat broke.

“On the Road to Yazoo City.” WHC

There is no right or wrong about style. Attention to rhythm may make reading pleasant and effortlessly for some readers, but contrary to Virginia Woolf’s suggestion, attention to rhythm is certainly not necessary for every writer of fiction to achieve greatness.

Read the complete essay , INCORPORATING RHYTHM IN PROSE STYLE, here.