Menu

The iamb is a metric foot in poetry composed of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed. Words such as “insist,” “betray,” and “arrest” demonstrate the iamb quite nicely. The heartbeat as typically rendered is roughly iambic, and I’ve read speculation that it is the heart’s iambic tendency that makes us gravitate toward the iambic foot in poetry (sonnets are made of iambs). I’m not sure I believe that, but I am confident that we quickly develop a sense of speech rhythm. Even people who couldn’t name a metric foot if it stepped on them typically have a sense of when a sentence is said wrong. We don’t usually add stress to little words like “a” and “the,” for example, and avoiding adding such stress isn’t something we have to think about.

Of course, rhythm occurs not just at the small scale of words and phrases. Sentences have rhythms. Paragraphs have rhythms. Reading a paragraph of short sentences begins to feel after a while like being on the losing end of a very fast and exhausting game of ping-pong. Reading a paragraph of very long, complex sentences can also be taxing because you can begin to feel lost within the prose. Of course, there’s not a set recipe you can follow. I can’t prescribe two medium sentences followed by two short sentences followed at last by a long one. Different types of writing are best served by different rhythms, and I think you have to write by feel rather than by some arbitrary rule.

As an exercise, consider writing a brief paragraph of very short sentences. Then play around with making some of the sentences complex (splice them together with conjunctions like “and” and “but”). Pay attention to which sentence configurations you find most appealing. What makes a given arrangement more appealing to you than another? Can you think of ways in which you might use different sentence lengths to accomplish different rhetorical goals?

Show Comments

10 Comments

Comments are closed.

Close Comments

Comments

  1. “I think you have to write by feel rather than by some arbitrary rule.”
    I think this is how I like to write. However with editing when you come across something that doesn’t sound right, it’s probably good to know some of the rules to make it sound better.

    Like

  2. Natural rhythm sounds good. It is easy to read. Forced rhythm does not sound good. Forcing rhythm into writing is difficult. Iambs are confusing. Counting metric feet is hard. The heart is the original sonnet? How romantic! This exercise is irritating to write. It will be irritating to read.

    While natural rhythm sounds good and is easy to read, forced rhythm has the opposite effect. Forcing a rhythm into your writing is difficult because keeping track of Iambs and counting metric feet is confusing and hard to accomplish. It’s romantic to learn the heart is the original sonnet, but, for the most part, this blog post was irritating to read and irritating to write about.

    Like

    1. Oh, I wouldn’t ever advocate trying to force your prose writing into an standard rhythmic pattern, but we do speak and write in certain patterns, and it can be useful to observe them. I’m sorry you found the post irritating.

      Like

  3. You definitely write by feel. The narrative should flow like music. You can vary your rhythms for different characters and different circumstances. Characters can develop their own rhythms, showing their personalities and upbringing.
    I’ve heard the language of short vs. long sentences discussed as finding a happy meeting point somewhere between Hemingway and Faulkner. Hemingway’s short sentences can sound choppy and are easily parodied. (Like Cornelia Otis Skinner’s “She spat down the gorge. It was Pablo’s gorge.”) Faulkner’s work is rather like reading a swamp, and I wonder sometimes if it was inspired by the climate of his native Mississippi. You can get used to him, but it’s hard going. The goal is to avoid extremes. Also, the reader should not be consciously aware of the speech rhythms.

    Like

  4. Pay attention to which sentence configurations you find most appealing. What makes a given arrangement more appealing to you than another? Can you think of ways in which you might use different sentence lengths to accomplish different rhetorical goals?
    I was reading a suggestion from The Daily Post at WordPress.com, and they invited me to write a paragraph consisting of short sentences, like I know anything about writing short sentences, like it it or not I would prefer to write fluent sentences, but what’s this, like it’s another suggestion that I make those short sentences complex by splicing them together with conjunctions “like” “and” “but”, and that’s exactly what I’ve done, but perhaps I’ve gone over the deep end, and gotten a little long winded with my complex sentence, like a Republican debate.

    Like

  5. Daryl, are you an English teacher in another life? Your writing tips are always interesting. You often bring up things I may have learned in school and forgot (it WAS a long time ago) or never learned. I’m glad you’re out there for us keeping us real (real writers that is.) Thanks.

    Like

  6. Heartbeats are nice and fluffy, but really it has more to do with the natural stress patterns in English. Latin and Greek meter are quite different, and orators were expected to use specific meter in their speeches, and it wasn’t iambic.
    It only sounds forced if you don’t know what you are doing (see http://oneschemeofhappiness.wordpress.com/2011/10/02/if-i-could-change-how-schools-work/ for an excellent example of ‘sounding forced’).
    Self deprecation aside, the point of using meter is that it easy to get it right in a particular language but have it sound terrible, and a challenge to make it sound natural. The art of it is in having self-imposed limitations and still expressing your feelings. I would say that this tension forces the artist to look more deeply into his or her feelings. The choice is not arbitrary, but comes about through the need to be challenged in the context of a particular language, and yet still be successful at that challenge. Paradise Lost by Milton is in (a lot) of iambic pentameter. It sounds very natural, well at least to someone in 17th century England. Convoluted at times, most definitely, but not forced.

    Like