My four-year-old has just learned how to read, and listening to him as he tries to sound out words or tries to match the word on the page with a word he knows he’s seen before, I was struck by how important rhythm is to this learning process.
We’ve read to him from the moment we brought him home from the hospital, and any parent who has read the same book over and over again can tell you how kids’ books get lodged in your brain because they often have that sing-songy rhythm to them. From the beginning, this kid has been surrounded by rhythm; in the early days when all he did was sleep and eat, I would sing and dance around with him (sorry, kiddo—my singing and dancing probably did not help your sense of rhythm one bit) and read aloud because what else do you do when they’re tiny blobs like that? Music and stories are habits to him; this is a kid who knows the Hamilton soundtrack (he learned how to beatbox from Eliza—true story) and the Beatles catalogue backwards and forwards, and who sobs if he doesn’t get all of his bedtime stories.
Even at four, he gets how rhythm works, how something doesn’t sound right if it doesn’t rhyme when it should. Even with books that aren’t written in verse, he knows if we mess up the cadence of a line while reading aloud.
This sense of rhythm is ingrained in us from an early age. How things sound helps us make sense of words and how words flow together helps us decide whether we like something or not. I was recently listening to a podcast about a book and the hosts were talking about how readable the prose was. That’s good writing, certainly, but rhythm and flow play a part in that – if the rhythm didn’t work, the prose wouldn’t hold together as well or be as readable.
Rhythm helps set up expectations for the prose. We can hear when the rhythm of a sentence breaks off or when there’s repetition; both situations can show intense distress or underscore an emotional moment for the character. A beautifully flowing declaration of love matches intent and sentiment in its form. The hypnotizing quality of a hero’s words and its effect on his partner indicates that a seduction is probably close at hand. Emphasis on key words in a sentence tell us to focus to determine why they’re important. These become things we’re used to, rhythmic tropes that signal something significant happening in the story and clue us in to pay attention because the cadence of the words has changed in some way. Understanding how things are supposed to sound is a skill we pick up on at an early age and we never really lose.
And I’m not just talking about the rhythm of words at a sentence level. Hitting the rhythm of the overall plot is necessary too. We’ve all read those stories where suddenly the love interests are suddenly in love with no doubt or preamble when it’s not a love-at-first-sight trope kind of story. The author has missed the beat and the rhythm has gone off. And if you read widely in your genre, you’ll know when the rhythm is off.
Here’s an example from my kid again: we have a very popular book about construction vehicles going to sleep that he loves. Each two-page spread is about one vehicle shutting down for the day and ending with a “good night,” written in a soothing verse. We also have another book that is very clearly mimicking the style of the construction book: different setting, different objects, but the same sing-songy quality to the verse as these new objects go to sleep. But sometimes the rhyme falls apart in the middle, which is very obvious and disconcerting – it pulls him right out of that relaxing, sleepy tempo. And sometimes the two-page spread deals with one specific object, but then other times it’s two, which again completely subverts the expectations set up earlier in the book and by the conventions of these kinds of bedtime stories. He knows there’s something off about that and this book is not nearly as well-loved as the construction one.
So let’s not discount the value of rhythm in the written word, no matter if you happen to be writing a children’s book or a romance novel decidedly not for children. Crafting clever plotlines and characters with emotional depth and growth is essential to good storytelling, of course, but how things sound is also key. A good editor is attuned to the quality of the words and the sound of them – make sure you get one who keeps both in mind.
(Oh hey, I do that! Wanna work together? I offer a free 20-page sample edit if you want to get a sneak peek on how that might go.)