Log in

No account? Create an account

Robert's Rules of Writing #71: Mix It Up

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Although rule #71 might seem to apply to party activities or vacation plans, those are only analogies for what Robert Masello is really talking about: prose. In his accompanying essay, Masello warns writers of the dangers of allowing your writing to take on a repetitive rhythm, and suggests varying both sentence structure and events to keep the prose fresh and exciting. (Or at least that's how I interpret it.)

Sentence structure and rhythm are actually two of those important issues that often get short shrift in books on writing, so it's not a bad idea to discuss them a little more. When I first started out, the idea of varying sentence structure confused me. Although I felt that my underlying story ideas might be exciting, I worried that my sentences were lackluster and pedestrian. I thought my writing style was too simplistic, and I strained to add luster and sparkle to my prose.

I mainly approached this problem by two methods. I tried to improve my vocabulary and I eschewed any form of the verb "to be" that I could. But I soon realized that I could go further if I analyzed my writing "sentence by bloody sentence" (as a friend of mine from the Clarion Workshop once put it). The easiest way to do that was to read my sentences aloud and experience how they felt against the ear, as opposed to the eye.

Let me tell you, it makes a big difference.

In his book on writing, Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold mentions the concept of "metric prose," which he learned from Theodore Sturgeon. Part of what made Sturgeon a masterful writer was his ability to play with sentence structure, in a way that lured the reader to plow forward through a story. He advised Gerrold to apply the metrics of poetry to his writing, and Gerrold found that to be useful advice. It's actually one of the simplest ways to vary your sentence structure and to mix things up.

For example, if you want the reader to march forward, recast your sentences in iambs (which, for those of you who don't recall, is a two-syllable foot of one unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat). If you want the reader to stop short, consider a one-sentence paragraph for effect. If you want the reader to get lost in a sea of stream of consciousness, work against any sort of consistent rhythm or pattern, and make the paragraphs as long as possible.

It is said that variety is the spice of life. It's also the spice of prose.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein


I fall victim to this all the time; I find it's a symptom of me thinking too muchabotu the story, instead of letting the story just unwind on its own. I find that when I'm realy in a writing groove, I'm just a reporter transmitting what I witness as it happens, as opposed to telling something like I think it should happen.

But that's a subject for an entirely different rule.

If I think I'm in a dead rhythm, I'll read the suspect passage out loud--just like you.

To fix the faulty passage, I stop thinknig about it, and what it's trying ot relate, for a little while. Could be as little as five minutes, could be as long as a couple of days. When I come back to rewrite, I write it as if I'm talking to a friend, telling them what's happening, an keep the conversational feel. Even though that conversational feel will likely have to be cleaned up to become acceptable prose, it "shakes things up" enough that the unwanted rhythm is eliminated.
I first heard the advice to read my prose aloud from James Patrick Kelly. It's one of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten.
So nice to see these now that I've actually got the book to refer to and can read the original essay along with the post!

"Mixing it up" is very interesting in the context of the writing workshop I attended at Capclave this past weekend. The main exercise was writing a 100 word "hook" to start a story. There were all kinds of things people tried to sink their hook into the reader in 100 words. The question that I wanted to ask but didn't was: can the writing itself be the hook? What you seem to say here (and point out with David Gerrold's example of metric prose) is that it can--it can lure the reader through a story in the same way a hook might.

I've tried to think of examples of this. One that leaps to mind is Ray Bradbury's "The Rocket Man". Another is Harlan Ellison's "Paladin of the Lost Hour". The latter especially, I think, does a nice job of "mixing it up" by use of sentence structure to highlight tone and significance.

In a way, this rule is an alternate statement of what Isaac Asimov wrote about when he discussed "The Mosaic and the Plate Glass" (the difference between, flowery, poetic prose and clear, simple prose). I've always been interested in the respective successes of each form.

Good topic!
Another example of metric prose starting a story and pulling the reader along can be found in Robert A. Heinlein's "The Tale of the Adopted Daughter" in Time Enough for Love.

December 2016

Powered by LiveJournal.com