The above is a short scene from one of the greatest movies of all time, Stripes. And it’s an example of a cadence (of which I know several, as I was in ROTC for awhile and did some running in formation). And yes, I’m going to take something I saw in Stripes and apply the same principles to writing. Because I am just that crazy.
Wanna know how crazy? Hit the break.
It’s true: Like every military formation marching down the street with their jodies, everything we write has a rhythm, or a cadence. The readability of your scene inevitably depends on the cadence you choose for that scene. No two scenes will have the same cadence or rhythm. You don’t want to give an action scene the same rhythm as a deep, emotional scene in which your main confesses his deepest, darkest feelings to his beloved or his dog.
Now, before we go any further, I don’t view cadence and pacing as the same thing. I’ve promised to write about pacing, and this is not that post, but I’ll give a nutshell definition now. Pacing is, simply put, the rate at which events happen. I view pacing as more of an overall thing, and cadence as very specific, as cadence can be limited to even a single sentence. Cadence feeds into pacing, and pacing determines.
Got it? Good. I’ll talk about that more in a later post, too. Assuming I remember.
Both cadence and pacing are determined by tension and release, which I talked about in my first Art Of... post last week. The art of storytelling means building up tension and then giving up release. And when I say that, I don’t mean you have to dangle your character off of a cliff every chapter (unless your book is about rock climbing, in which case, good for you!), but you do have to add uncertainty and you have to remember that you, not the reader, are the one that knows what happens! So working on your rhythm, the way your sentences and paragraphs and dialogue flow together is like working on a micro level, laying the bricks that will eventually become your novel-slash-house.
How Can I Improve My Own Cadence?
1. Read Aloud
It feels silly as hell. But there’s a reason I listed this first. The single best trick in the book to figure out if your sentences are working, if everything makes sense, is to read it aloud. You’ll discover early on what works and what doesn’t. If it sounds dumb (within reason; if you think everything you write sounds dumb, then maybe you need to take it easier on yourself), if you fumble over it, toss it or rework it.
I minored in creative writing, which I’m sure surprises nobody (though my minor was actually geared toward screenwriting). The main thing I took away from my Intro to Creative Writing class wasn’t technical. Instead, it came from my professor, who read the short stories and paragraphs aloud to us. She used to read in such a way that really made it seem like she loved every word she wrote, which made it ten times as interesting to listen. Nowadays, my inner narrator reads in her voice.
2. Vary Your Sentence Structure
Take a look at your writing. Is every single sentence the English class standard Subject Verb Predicate? Or, conversely, is each sentence long and rambling? Sometimes this trick is intentional, and used wisely, it can be one of the most powerful tricks in your arsenal.
Here’s a paragraph from What Fates Impose where I deliberately changed up the rhythm to show what my character was thinking and also used a repeating cadence:
He tuned Stargate out, losing himself to the rhythm of his feet pounding against the treadmill belt and the beat of his breath. Lights and sensors on the treadmill blinked, but he looked past the read-outs and just let himself go. It was almost like an out-of-body experience. He didn’t think about the ever-present threat of Fulcrum. He didn’t think about his ex-girlfriend lying three thousand miles away in a hospital room. He didn’t think about the need to see her, to make sure she was okay and to understand; that need had withered and spread on the wind just like the ashes of the Heartbrake Hotel. He didn’t think of the shocked look in Leader’s eyes as the knife had continued to drip, the jerk of his body as three bullets penetrated his chest. He didn’t think about the greatest comfort and greatest confusion in his life. There was no guilt over screwing up the Burbank operation, no remorse in the face of Director Graham’s ire, no bowing down to an angry Casey’s wrath. There was nothing but the sound of his breath.Using both long, rambling sentences, interspersed with the shorter, bleaker statements changes things up so that your readers don’t get complacent or put to sleep. In addition, I had the forced repeated “He didn’t think...” to set up expectations among readers, to force them into a pattern of seeing how Chuck is thinking (or in this case not thinking). If I’d done more than a few sentences that way, it would have turned readers off from the section, so use this sort of trick sparingly!
3. Change Up Your Paragraph Length
Chris did an awesome post on the aesthetics of the line break awhile back, and you can read that here. But even art aside, changing up your paragraphs is a great idea. If you want to really emphasize a thought or idea, for example, the trick I always use is to put it in its own paragraph. If I have a character deep in thought, I usually let my paragraph wander along past the recommended four or five sentences that English class (which, you know, CAN be selectively ignored) dictates and let it go on. Stuff like that can really make your words flow together without breaks or letting the reader think about the fact that they’re reading rather than just enjoying a great story.
Dialogue is a major, major place where your cadence can fall to pieces. Some writers have a “tin ear” for dialogue, and more often than not, this is what makes me put down the book and go read something else. So when you’re talking to people in your everyday life, really listen to not only what they have to say, but the way they say it. Listen to their quirks, their foibles. We all have a rhythm to our speech that sounds right to us, and we all vary that rhythm due to any number of factors: how we’re feeling, how long we’re talking, if we’re fond of the person we’re talking to, if we’re being insulting or kind. Certainly, in books and movies, we cut out the mundane—greetings, misheard sentences, inane chatter—but that doesn’t mean you can skip out on the rhythm of the dialogue for your characters.
And yes, I'll be doing a separate post on The Art of Dialogue.
5. Keep Your Scene Intentions in Mind
Like I mentioned before, an action scene is going to be very differently written from a candlelit dinner (not saying one can’t lead to the other, but that’s different kinds of action *wink*). Your pacing of the scene will be different. Action scenes, for example, tend to be very fast, staccato, all action verbs and very little time for reflection. Characters have to act quickly to avoid being blown up with the meth lab, to stop the bomb from blowing the Santa Monica Pier, to go completely Terminator on an entire platoon of Marines.
Meanwhile, reflection scenes can wander and meander. You would likely use different verbs for each one, but you can also change your rhythm by lengthening/shortening your sentence and paragraph length accordingly. Ask yourself the point you’re trying to portray in each scene (and if the answer is “nothing,” toss it in the round filing bin) and then plan your cadence accordingly. After awhile of thinking about it, really studying it, things like cadence will become second nature, just part of your arsenal.
Obviously, this is a subject I can talk about for hours, and can provide hundreds of examples of what I personally find to be great cadence (I, for example, enjoy the chatty, humorous cadences of Nora Roberts, but I know a lot of people don’t). But this is just a brief overview post, with a few tips. So that’s cadence in a nutshell. Next, hopefully, I’ll either tackle pacing, style, or voice. One of those is like opening up a can of worms, one is a two-parter with a co-author, and one involves Motown. At any rate, I hope all of this helped!