Shakespeare was the best at this (is). You can induce emotions in the reader with the arrangement of the sounds that you use in your word choices. If you need the reader to feel excited, you can build a quick pitter-patter into your rhythm; if you need the reader to feel slow and melancholy, you can stretch out the words and sounds to create a funeral pace.
Let’s Get Started!
Meter and Rhythm
Every word that you choose is a small piece of music; the vowels and consonants combine to create a beat. Look at these different words, and at the way they break into patterns of emphasis: shivering, molten, reams, chest, steadily. Both the length of individual words, and the softness or hardness of each consonant at the beginnings and ends of the words determine the overall effect of the language on the mood.
Here are some examples of rhythmically-arranged prose. Read each excerpt, and see what emotional effect the language creates in you.
Reams of strange, watery blood from the sky land, and shivering chunks of molten gold light under the floating earth flew up at the approach of the two furious kings.
Four pigeons quarreled over the corner of a turkey sandwich.
I first decided to kill my father when the snow was falling outside my window. I was watching the flakes fly hither and yon, and a vivid picture of my mother’s shears, sticking straight out of my father’s chest, filled my vision. I could see the blood pumping steadily, surely out of the place where the scissors pierced, and I wanted, I longed to hold the handles of the shears, and to wrench them out of the hole.
The Context of Individual Words
One of the reasons writers are constantly advised to read so much is that individual words have very specific social connotations; each word is like a collage of emotions, pre-established stories, and unique flavors. For example, if I choose to use the word “quixotic” in my fiction, I need to be familiar with Cervantes’ work, with the popular musical adaptation of the novel, Don Quixote, and with three or four of the most notable depictions of the main character by actors.
If I choose to ignore the long and storied history that has become attached to any word containing the construction, “quixo,” I risk looking like a fool, and introducing elements of nuance and emotional tone into my fiction that destroy the effect I was going for. (For example, if in my heroic saga I mention that my dashing protagonist has a quixotic bent in his personality, he may begin to seem ridiculous to my readers.)
Instead of telling writers to read widely, it would, perhaps, be more to the point to tell them to read a great deal of what we may term source material; the farther back to the original branding and emotional connotation of a word you can go, the more power you gain, and the more range you will have in your use of words.
Combining Strong Words for a Harmonic Effect
If we know that words have many specific emotions and flavors pre-attached, and if we become aware of the effect of consonant and vowel sounds on the mood of the writing as a whole, we can begin to make powerful word-music.
Let us look at the master of this music, Shakespeare. I want you to take note of the repeated ‘n’ sounds, the constant soft vibration of the voiced consonants, and the occasional, very spiky use of the ‘t’ and ‘k’ plosives.
‘Tis not alone my Inky Cloake (good Mother)
Nor Customary suites of solemne Blacke,
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitfull Riuer in the Eye,
Nor the deiected hauiour of the Visage,
Together with all Formes, Moods, shewes of Griefe,
That can denote me truly.
Bear in mind that this speech is one sentence; it is a very drawn-out, complex thought, but it is one thought, and each addition to the described behaviors adds urgency, speed, and emphasis to the whole. The contrast of the hard ‘c’ and ‘k’, in combination with the dense use of ‘s’ contributes to a simultaneously biting and hissing effect.
Tying it all together
When you use rhythm and meter in your work, it is important to be aware of the overall tone and effect of the story as a whole. Each story will function best when it maintains a musical consistency from beginning to finish; when a piece of fiction changes the rhythmical palette partway through, the reader becomes jarred and annoyed. You can avoid this kind of harmonic upset by establishing for yourself the total emotional range of the story, and making rules of creation for yourself that pertain to the specific work in hand.
And now, to finish
Deliberately arranging words to create mood and emotional resonance in the reader is an excellent way to add sophistication, depth, and lasting impact to your work. If you have questions about this process, or want to share some of your own prose that creates this effect, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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