(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Many writers, including some famous ones, write with no consciousness of the poetic effects available through prose rhythm. They put wine on the table, put the cigarette in the ashtray, paint the lovers, start the clock ticking, all with no thought of whether the sentences should be fast or slow, light-hearted or solemn with wedged-in juxtaposed stresses.” John Gardner

“No one can fail to notice the poetic beauty of Joyce’s closing lines in ‘The Dead,’ but the poetry comes from the rhythm of the sentences (rhythm so subtle only prose can achieve it).” John Gardner

“By keeping out a careful ear for rhythm, the writer can control the emotion of his sentences with considerable subtlety.” John Gardner

“The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence—to keep the story going. . . . But the pace and movement depend above all on rhythm.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Its rhythm is part of the rhythm of the whole piece; all its qualities are part of the quality and tone of the whole piece. As a narrative sentence, it isn’t serving the story well if its rhythm is so unexpected, or its beauty so striking, or its similes or metaphors so dazzling, that it stops the reader, even to say Ooh, Ah! Poetry can do that. Poetry can be visibly, immediately dazzling. In poetry a line, a few words, can make the reader’s breath catch and her eyes fill with tears. But for the most part, prose sets its proper beauty and power deeper, hiding it in the work as a whole. In a story it’s the scene—the setting / characters / action / interaction / dialogue / feelings—that makes us hold our breath, and cry . . . and turn the page to find out what happens next. And so, until the scene ends, each sentence should lead to the next sentence.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Prose consisting entirely of short, syntactically simple sentences is monotonous, choppy, a blunt instrument.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The rhythm of Woolf’s prose is to my ear the subtlest and strongest in English fiction. She said this about it in a letter to a writer friend: ‘Style is a very simple matter; it is all  rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it. . . .’ I’ve never read anything that says more about the mystery at the very center of what a writer does.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Prose can’t rhyme and chime and repeat and beat as poetry can, or if it does it had better be subtler about it than the first half of this sentence.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“There are times when it means nothing and is forgotten, and this seems to be the function of rhythm in fiction; not to be there all the time like a pattern, but by its lovely waxing and waning to fill us with surprise and freshness and hope.” E.M. Forster

“I doubt that it [rhythm] can be achieved by the writers who plan their books beforehand, it has to depend on a local impulse when the right interval is reached. But the effect can be exquisite, it can be obtained without mutilating the characters, and it lessens our need of an external form.” E.M. Forster

“In music fiction is likely to find its nearest parallel.” E.M. Forster

“It is important to remember that many of the attractions in literature and oratory have a simple phonetic basis—rhyme, alliteration, assonance, crossed alliteration, and all the subtleties of rhythm. All these sound effects are used to reinforce wherever possible the other affective devices.” S.I. Hayakawa

“We celebrate prose that is musical.” Constance Hale

“Sometimes rhythm will tell you what word to use next.” Ulf Wolf

“Voltaire’s tempo is part of his philosophy.” Erich Auerbach

“In Voltaire’s case the rapidity, one feels almost tempted to say the alertness, of the tempo is made to serve the purpose of simplification.” Erich Auerbach

“Judgment about when to vary and when to repeat must naturally extend to the rhythm set up by the succession of words. . . . In the honorific sense, rhythm is altogether personal and, as such, it is a fundamental constituent of great prose.” Jacques Barzun

“In the nature of things, no advice can be given about constructing good prose rhythms. The mind’s ear is the only guide, . . . But if you will ‘listen’ to what you read . . . you will readily see how the sounds of words, their lengths and accents, make for motion, the prime virtue of prose.” Jacques Barzun

“I suspect that the elements of sound and meter that go into making a compelling fictional voice are, partly because they’re not foregrounded, trickier to deploy in prose than in verse. . . . Prose, too, lives and dies by the beat.” Will Blythe

“It may be that not all are equally sensitive to the rhythmic flow of speech, but it is probably that rhythm is an unconscious linguistic determinant even with those who set little store by its artistic use.” Edward Sapir

“The poet’s rhythms can only be a more sensitive and stylicized application of rhythmic tendencies that are characteristic of the daily speech of his people.” Edward Sapir

“The idea is expressed as a physical reality, a vivid image that recurs time and again in a great variety of circumstances, setting a rhythm, stimulating memory.” Philip Gerard

“The rhythmic resonance derives from the intersection of private passion—personal emotional experience, such as Steinbeck’s experience with extreme weather or McCourt’s with hunger—with the larger world: big ideas, public subjects, universal themes.” Philip Gerard

“I think the scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It’s visual, it’s Technicolor—something I see in a vague way. Then sentence by sentence into the breach. No outlines—maybe a short list of items, chronological, that may represent the next twenty pages. But the basic work is built around the sentence. This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences. There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look. The rhythm of a sentence will accommodate a certain number of syllables. One syllable too many, I look for another word. There’s always another word that means nearly the same thing, and if it doesn’t then I’ll consider altering the meaning of a sentence to keep the rhythm, the syllable beat. I’m completely willing to let language press meaning upon me. Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence—these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced in a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger—I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page—finished, printed, beautifully formed.” Don DeLillo

“I use ‘he saids’ and ‘she said’ mostly for beats, for pauses, rather than for identification. You sometimes want that little pause in time in between lines of dialogue.” Elmore Leonard

“Refrain is one of the most valuable of all form methods. Refrain is returning to the known before one flies again upwards. It is a consolation to the reader, a reassurance that the book has not left his understanding.” John Steinbeck

“The joy comes in the words going down and the rhythms crowding in the chest and pulsing to get out.” John Steinbeck

“For me writing is a question of finding a certain rhythm.” Françoise Sagan

“. . . and this over, as it really very nearly (how I hate that clash) is.” Virginia Woolf

“Suppose I could run all the scenes together more?—by rhythms chiefly.” Virginia Woolf