“The novelist is like the conductor of an orchestra, his back to the audience, his face invisible, summoning the experience of music for the people he cannot see.” – Sol Stein
I’ve always been fascinated by the sounds, rhythms, and melody of language. When I was a child, one of my favorite books was Margaret Wise Brown’s Nibble Nibble, a collection of dance-on-the-tongue poems. In high school I took French because the sounds of the language were so beautiful. (My teacher said that no matter what a person said in French, it sounded like, “I love you.”)
Of course English is beautiful, too. Grammar expert Constance Hale in Sin and Syntax quotes the Spanish-born writer Salvador de Madariaga: “They are marvelous, those English monosyllables. Their fidelity is so perfect that one is tempted to think English words are the right and proper names . . . and all other words are pitiable failures. How could one improve upon splash, smash, ooze, shriek, slush, glide, squeak, coo? Is not the word sweet a kiss in itself, and what could suggest a more peremptory obstacle than stop?”
Poet Steve Kowit is also an expert in playing and working with language. In his book In the Palm of Your Hand, he says, “In English there are harsh sounds and softer ones, phrases that seem quick and energetic and others that are slow, deliberate, meditative or mournful, while still others might seem to have a humorous and playful lilt.”
Why pay attention to the music of words? As Constance Hale puts it, we “use words to mainline emotions.” Emotion is why readers read, so evoking emotion is the essence of our business as writers of fiction and creative nonfiction. If you want to use words that will enhance your writing, start by cultivating an awareness of sound at the basic level of letters, which alone or in combination create subconscious feelings.
At the basic level:
Short vowels feel quick, sharp, light: bat, led, up, hit, dock
Long vowels feel slow, heavy, serious, especially doubled: delay, sigh, croon, seen
Hard consonants (like p, b, k, d, t) sound strong, even harsh: pop, beat, kite, dark
Soft consonants (like m, n and ng) create a smooth, slower feel: hum, none, song
Constance Hale says:
A short i often suggests smallness.
An fl- at the start of a word can convey awkward or jerky movement.
Hard consonants feel explosive or sudden (especially when followed by -ash).
A closing -sh often suggests soft, rustling sounds.
Ending a word with -in, -ing, and -ong conveys a bell-like chime.
A sensitivity to the sounds of letters and words is especially important for writers of poetry and picture books. Children’s author Claudia Lewis describes the “acrobatics of sound”:
Short i‘s for speed
Long, wailing w sounds for woe
S for sweetness and a slow pace
Many factors go into a writer’s choice of words, including setting of time and place, genre (contemporary, epic fantasy, etc.), and who is speaking or thinking (aristocrat? modern teen? robot?). Even within those parameters, we still have choices. Does your protagonist cringe or cower, quail, or flinch? It may depend on whether you want the scene to feel sharp and quick or slow and spooky. (Case in point: the word pairs I just used – sharp and quick, with their short vowels, jab and poke us; slow and spooky, with their long sounds, run their fingers down our backs.)
A warning: “Though mood and color in language – major and minor key, heaviness or lightness – are highly dependent upon the interplay of vowel and consonant combinations, still one should not confuse oneself with a labored attempt to write according to preplanned formulas,” says Claudia Lewis. You could spend all your time agonizing over individual words and end up with stilted, labored prose. And focusing too early on individual words can keep you from completing your first draft. So in your rough draft, simply get the story down, however dissonant the language is. The time to focus on the music is toward the polishing end of revision. Still, cultivating a sensitivity to sound and rhythm in prose improves every stage of the writing process from rough draft to final proofread.
John Gardner in The Art of Fiction asks, “Shall we tell the truth in short, clipped sentences or long, smooth, graceful ones? Shall we tell it using short vowels and hard consonants or long vowels and soft consonants? – because the choices we make may change everything.”
In the next blog, we’ll see how the arrangement of words (syntax) can evoke emotion, and in the blog after that, we’ll take a look at rhythm in prose.
Meanwhile, Happy Writing! Happy Reading!
© 2013 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com