What is Cadence?
To me, it’s Like Porn, in that it’s not easy to define, but I know it when I see it.
Webster did manage to define it though (which makes me want to look up ‘porn’):
- The beat, rate, or measure of any rhythmic movement
- A slight falling in pitch of the voice in speaking or reading, as at the end of a declarative sentence
Though Webster wasn’t talking about writing in the above definition, he came close. To me,
Cadence = rhythm
This is a writer’s tool that is often overlooked, which is sad, because it’s a powerful one. It’s not just the words, but how they’re put together that can convey a mood. To the reader, it’s subliminal – they feel it subconsciously. It’s a way of layering your message – and it can work like glue to stick readers to your pages.
“I was also a shrimper’s son in love with the shape of boats.” Pat Conroy, Prince of Tides
Yes, there’s alliteration there (repeating ‘s’ words), but there’s also cadence. Read it out loud. To me, it rises and falls with those ‘s’ words, making the sentence wave-like. Which is brilliant, because it ties to the subject – water. Have I mentioned that Conroy is my hero? 😉
“A nimbus of black curls overwhelmed her deathly pale, sharp-boned foxy face.” Laura Drake, The Sweet Spot
See how the stops of ‘sharp’, ‘foxy’ and ‘face’ help convey the hard planes of her face?
“Judy was a big sturdy woman, without much softness. Hers was the handsome, hard-chiseled face of a Western woman: strong cheekbones, wide mouth, hooded eyes.” Barbara O’Neal, The Secret of Everything
The sentences above convey hardness in the words, but in the cadence, as well. Read it aloud, and see how the beats are stops. Jerks. The ‘h’ words make a tiny pause.
You can also use cadence to speed up the action and convey fear or panic:
“My hand was on the door handle when for a split second out of nowhere I was terrified, blue-blazing terrified, fear dropping straight through me like a jagged black stone, falling fast. I’d felt this before, in the limbo instants before I moved out of my aunt’s house, lost my virginity, took my oath as a police officer: those instants when the irrevocable thing you wanted so much suddenly turns real and solid, inches away and speeding at you, a bottomless river rising and no way back once it’s crossed. I had to catch myself back from crying out like a little kid drowning in terror, I don’t want to do this anymore.” Tanya French, The Likeness
See how the run-on sentence emulates your thoughts when you’re afraid? The hardness of “jagged black stone, falling fast.” Almost batter you.
“The bean bag chair had been slashed — tiny styrofoam peas shifted in a line across the floor, dancing in the breeze from the broken windows.” Laura Drake, work in progress
The cadence and word choice in the above is at odds – ‘shifted in a line’ and ‘dancing in the breeze’ is lyrical, but ‘slashed’ and ‘broken windows’ foreshadows that something bad is about to happen.
“This is how it feels when you realize your child is missing: The pit of your stomach freezes fast, while your legs go to jelly. “
“There’s one single, blue-bass thud of your heart. The shape of her name, sharp as metal filings, gets caught between your teeth even as you try to force it out in a shout. Fear breathes like a monster into your ear: Where did I see her last? Would she have wandered away? Who could have taken her? And then, finally, your throat seals shut, as you swallow the fact that you’ve made a mistake you will never be able to fix.” Jodi Picoult, The Tenth Circle
Wow. “Blue bass thud. Sharp as metal filings. Breathes like a monster into your ear.”
All very well and good, but how do you do that?
- Word choice. I use the Thesaurus. A lot. Say you’re trying to convey softness. ‘S’ words do that. Words like: silky, sultry, soft, spongy, smooth, supple, serene. I’ve been known to spend ten minutes looking for a word beginning with an ‘G’ to convey abruptness.
- Read aloud. You may not catch the cadence reading silently, but I promise you will when you read it aloud. My final edits for any book I turn in involves reading it aloud to my cat (who is a tough critic; she sleeps through most of it)
- Be aware. Don’t expect that this stuff will just flow out of your fingers. I get the scene down first, then go back and layer this in. it takes rewriting to get it perfect. And you need that quality to hold your reader. This will seem hard at first, but the more you work with it, the more it becomes ingrained.
Tom Robbins says, “Challenge every single sentence for lucidity, accuracy, originality, and cadence. If it doesn’t meet the challenge, work on it until it does.” Seems a daunting task, I know. But if you want to grab readers, and sell well, that’s what it takes.
Tom Robbins, has been known to rewrite a single sentence 40 times. Yikes, right?
But cadence is worth the work, because this is the sentence he ended up with as the last line of Jitterbug Perfume.
The lesson of the beet, then, is this: hold on to your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown. Once you’re brown, you’ll find that you’re blue. As blue as indigo. And you know what that means: Indigo. Indigoing. Indigone.
So what do you think? have I convinced you to work on cadence? We’d love to see some of your ‘before’ and ‘after’ samples in the comments!