The Sound of Your Writing
The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right? The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. Both the meaning and the beauty of the writing depend on these sounds and rhythms. This is just as true of prose as it is of poetry, though the sound effects of prose are usually subtle and always irregular.
Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia; they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places. Some writers keep this primal interest in and love for the sounds of language. Others “outgrow” their oral/aural sense of what they’re reading or writing. That’s a dead loss. An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. Fortunately it’s quite easy to cultivate, to learn or reawaken.
A good writer, like a good reader, has a mind’s ear. We mostly read prose in silence, but many readers have a keen inner ear that hears it. Dull, choppy, droning, jerky, feeble: these common criticisms of narrative are all faults in the sound of it. Lively, well-paced, flowing, strong, beautiful: these are all qualities of the sound of prose, and we rejoice in them as we read. Narrative writers need to train their mind’s ear to listen to their own prose, to hear as they write.
The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence ?— ?to keep the story going. Forward movement, pace, and rhythm are words that are going to return often in this book. Pace and movement depend above all on rhythm, and the primary way you feel and control the rhythm of your prose is by hearing it ?— ?by listening to it.
Getting an act or an idea across isn’t all a story does. A story is made out of language, and language can and does express delight in itself just as music does. Poetry isn’t the only kind of writing that can sound gorgeous. Consider what’s going on in these four examples. (Read them aloud! Read them aloud loudly!)
The Just So Stories are a masterpiece of exuberant vocabulary, musical rhythms, and dramatic phrasing. Rudyard Kipling has let generations of kids know how nonsensically beautiful a story can sound. And there’s nothing in either nonsense or beauty that restricts it to children.
Rudyard Kipling: from “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin” in Just So Stories
Once upon a time, on an uninhabited island on the shores of the Red Sea, there lived a Parsee from whose hat the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour. And the Parsee lived by the Red Sea with nothing but his hat and his knife and a cooking-stove of the kind that you must particularly never touch. And one day he took flour and water and currants and plums and sugar and things, and made himself one cake which was two feet across and three feet thick. It was indeed a Superior Comestible (that’s magic), and he put it on the stove because he was allowed to cook on that stove, and he baked it and he baked it till it was all done brown and smelt most sentimental. But just as he was going to eat it there came down to the beach from the Altogether Uninhabited Interior one Rhinoceros with a horn on his nose, two piggy eyes, and few manners. [. . .] And the Rhinoceros upset the oil-stove with his nose, and the cake rolled on the sand, and he spiked that cake on the horn of his nose, and he ate it, and he went away, waving his tail, to the desolate and Exclusively Uninhabited Interior which abuts on the islands of Mazanderan, Socotra, and the Promontories of the Larger Equinox.
This passage from Mark Twain’s early story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is totally aural/oral, its beauty lying in its irresistible dialectical cadences. There are lots of ways to be gorgeous.
Mark Twain: from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”
“Well, thish-yer Smiley had rat-tarriers, and chicken cocks, and tom cats and all them kind of things, till you couldn’t rest, and you couldn’t fetch nothing for him to bet on but he’d match you. He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’lated to educate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He’d give him a little punch behind, and the next minute you’d see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut ?— ?see him turn one summerset, or maybe a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat. He got him up so in the matter of ketching flies, and kep’ him in practice so constant, that he’d nail a fly every time as fur as he could see him. Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could do ’most anything ?— ?and I believe him. Why, I’ve seen him set Dan’l Webster down here on this floor ?— ?Dan’l Webster was the name of the frog ?— ?and sing out, ‘Flies, Dan’l, flies!’ and quicker’n you could wink he’d spring straight up and snake a fly off’n the counter there, and flop down on the floor ag’in as solid as a gob of mud, and fall to scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indifferent as if he hadn’t no idea he’d been doin’ any more’n any frog might do. You never see a frog so modest and straightfor’ard as he was, for all he was so gifted. And when it come to fair and square jumping on a dead level, he could get over more ground at one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever see. Jumping on a dead level was his strong suit, you understand; and when it come to that, Smiley would ante up money on him as long as he had a red. Smiley was monstrous proud of his frog, and well he might be, for fellers that had traveled and been everywheres all said he laid over any frog that ever they see.”
In the first example the more-than-oriental splendor of the language and in the second the irresistibly drawling aural cadences keep moving the story forward. In this one and the next, the vocabulary is simple and familiar; it’s above all the rhythm that is powerful and effective. To read Hurston’s sentences aloud is to be caught up in their music and beat, their hypnotic, fatal, forward drive.
Zora Neale Hurston: from Their Eyes Were Watching God
So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.
The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and...