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How Do I Handle Sentence Rhythm in My Novel?

Often in fiction writing, it’s not what you say but the way that you say it. All of us will have an instinctive feel for how a sentence should be structured and the rhythm that should result. When a writer does something different and unexpected it makes the reader sit up and take notice.

This can happen in a negative way; if the writer has diverged from the norm by mistake it will be an unnecessary distraction to the reader and potentially undermine the credibility of the novel.

Changes in sentence rhythm, however, can be used by a skilful writer to add variety and emphasis to their manuscript, further drawing the reader into the world they have created.


What is anaphora in a novel?

In days gone by, one of the most well-thumbed books in any writer’s library was likely to be their thesaurus. While they may turn to an online version these days, the aim remains the same; to find new ways of saying things and so avoid repetition.

The importance of being fresh and original in fiction writing can’t be overstated. Using the same tired old words and phrases in our writing is likely to be a huge turn-off for readers – conveying the impression that we lack the vision, creativity and inspiration to find new ways of saying things.

And if that’s the case, why should they bother investing their time in reading anything we’ve written?

Like all good rules, though, there is an exception: anaphora.

This is the deliberate repetition of words to emphasise moods and emotions.

Take the case of a young boy, Jack, who, after years of inheriting things that his older brothers have grown out of (or grown bored of), has finally been able to afford his own pair of trainers.

We could portray his excitement by telling the reader how he feels:


Jack was almost giddy with excitement. After months of saving and window gazing, he’d finally done it. No more hand-me-downs, seen-better-days, they’ll-do-for-Jacks. He was going to be the first person to wear these trainers and that thought gave him such a thrill.


Or we could do it by showing his behaviour:


Jack shot upstairs, ran into his bedroom and slammed the door shut behind him. He put the carrier bag down in the centre of his bed. Taking a deep breath, he slowly pulled the box out of the bag, clasping it firmly in his trembling hands. And then … he lifted the lid and stared lovingly at the trainers.


A third option, though, is to play with the sentence rhythm and use repetition to impress upon the reader how this is a real rites-of-passage moment for Jack.


Jack made it from the sports shop to his bedroom in a new personal best time. And now he stared wide-eyed at everything laid out neatly on the bed before him. His plastic bag. His shoe box. His trainers.


Which of the three examples above is best will always be a subjective decision. In truth, all three techniques (telling, showing and anaphora) have a part to play in a successful novel. Just as the skilled writer varies the length of their sentences to keep their readers hooked, so they will use contrasting ways of displaying emotions.

And the use of anaphora is a vital weapon in their armoury.  

What’s more, it doesn’t only have to be used in a literal sense; it can also be used ironically.

Many of us from school days spent studying Shakespeare will be familiar with Anthony’s speech from Julius Caesar. Addressing the crowd at Caesar’s funeral, Anthony refers to Brutus as ‘honourable’. At first it seems he is being genuine and heartfelt in his description of Brutus’s character. As he continues to speak, however, it becomes clear that he is using the word in an ironic and mocking way; he thinks that Brutus and his fellow conspirators are anything but honourable.

In this way Anthony turns the crowd against Caesar’s killers and brings about a crucial turning point in the play.

The made-up example below shows how ironic repetition can be used in prose to give us an insight into a character’s feelings.


Susan continued to wave at the bus as it receded into the distance. She turned to begin the walk home, a happy look on her face. Happy the kids were spending half-term with him. Happy this was the perfect chance to get the house looking half-decent for once. Happy she would finally have a bit of time to herself. She was happy.


By the end of the paragraph, we’re sure that Susan is extremely unhappy about her children spending time with her ex-husband. Not only that, but we have an insight into how she is trying to deal with her feelings – by putting on a brave face to the world and herself and pretending that she’s pleased about the situation. We also know that, whether or not she’s fooling others, she’s not fooling herself.

Let’s be clear; involuntary repetition is something we need to be on the look out for as it has the potential to seriously affect readers’ enjoyment of our work. Deliberate repetition for affect – anaphora – can turn this rule on it head, though. Used sparingly and in the right context, it can enable a writer to convey a feeling or mood in a way that will surprise and engage the reader, taking them further into the text. 


What is syndeton in a novel?

We might not realise it but all of us are familiar with syndetic constructions; it’s the way we were taught at school how to write a sentence that contains a list of three or more items.


Colin’s less adventurous hobbies included rock climbing, scuba diving and windsurfing.


We separate the items with a comma and use the conjunction ‘and’ before the final item. If we opt to use the serial (or Oxford) comma we would write the sentence as:


Colin’s less adventurous hobbies included rock climbing, scuba diving, and windsurfing. 


Whether you use the serial comma or not (and, whatever your choice, it’s important to be consistent), syndeton is the standard way of listing items in both fiction and non-fiction.

Some novelists, though, also make use of literary devices called asyndeton and polysyndeton to create particular effects.

What is asyndeton in a novel?

Let’s have a look at Mike, a man who is clearly struggling to stay happy and motivated due to the mundane and repetitive nature of his job.


Mike would park in his designated spot, say good morning to Gladys on reception, crunch numbers for four hours, eat his ham and pickle sandwiches on the park bench, crunch numbers for three more hours and park his car on the left-hand side of the double garage. 


This sentence, which uses syndeton, is fine from a grammatical perspective and certainly gives the reader a sense of Mike's less than thrilling working day.

By using asyndeton in our fiction writing, however, we make a subtle change to the sentence which reinforces the tedium with which Mike regards his life.


Mike would park in his designated spot, say good morning to Gladys on reception, crunch numbers for four hours, eat his ham and pickle sandwiches on the park bench, crunch numbers for three more hours, park his car on the left-hand side of the double garage. 


Removing the ‘and’ before the final item speeds up the sentence and highlights the drudgery which Mike experiences each day.

Listing each item in the same way (without the contrast of the ‘and’ before the final item) gives a feeling of uniformity to the sentence – reflecting the fact that all Mike's days seem to be just the same as each other.

Using non-standard sentence structure like this in a novel will also subtly alert the reader to the fact that this is a key piece of text which reveals important information about Mike.  


What is polysyndeton in a novel?

While asyndeton removes the ‘and’, polysyndeton has the reverse effect and adds in more of them.

Again this is non-standard, but again it can be an effective way of portraying a particular mood.

For example, perhaps our friend Mike is secretly extremely jealous of his wife, Cathy, who is a housewife and so, in Mike's eyes, enjoys a life of unrestrained freedom.

Polysyndeton can help us show how this isn’t quite the way Cathy views things.

Let’s look at her typical day, first of all using syndeton.


Having given Mike a peck on the cheek and his cheese and pickle sandwiches, all that remained was for Cathy to present Emily and Matthew with their breakfast, take Emily to nursery, drop Matthew at school, charge round Tesco, clean the house from top to bottom, do the washing and ironing, negotiate an end to all wars, pop over to Oslo to collect her Nobel Peace Prize, and get something nice on for tea.


We get the idea that Cathy doesn’t enjoy quite the idyllic lifestyle that Mike imagines. The use of polysyndeton, though, enables us to show her feelings even more vividly.


Having given Mike a peck on the cheek and his cheese and pickle sandwiches, all that remained was for Cathy to present Emily and Matthew with their breakfast and take Emily to nursery and drop Matthew at school and charge round Tesco and clean the house from top to bottom and do the washing and ironing and negotiate an end to all wars and pop over to Oslo to collect her Nobel Peace Prize and get something nice on for tea.


By separating each item with ‘and’ rather than a comma, we convey the impression that Cathy finds the non-stop demands on her stressful and overwhelming. Just as it seems as though the sentence is in danger of spiralling out of control and never stopping, so we get the feeling that Cathy desperately needs a chance to slow down.


How to use sentence rhythm in novels: Conclusion

Repetition, asyndeton and polysyndeton can be invaluable in subtly altering the way that a sentence is perceived.

What’s more they add variety and unpredictability to our work, keeping the reader engaged and intrigued.

It’s important to recognise, however, that these devices are effective partly because they are the exception to the rule. Overusing them will dilute their impact and lessen their effectiveness.

So use them sparingly – and keep the reader on their toes! 

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