Writers in the Storm

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October 31, 2014

Cadence - Writer's Glue



photo credit: Defence Images via photopin cc

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!

About Laura:

Author Headshot Small Laura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women's Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central. The Sweet Spot (May 2013), Nothing Sweeter (Jan 2014) and Sweet on You (August 2014). The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award in the Best First Book category.

Her 'biker-chick' novel, Her Road Home, sold to Harlequin's Superomance line (August, 2013) and has expanded to three more stories set in the same small town. The Reasons to Stay released August, 2014.

In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She's a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

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45 comments on “Cadence - Writer's Glue”

  1. True but clunky: I love this post on cadence, Laura.
    Better: Many thanks for the lovely lesson on cadence!

  2. Bring on more examples, Laura. Don't make me hunt you down and sit on your stomach until you spill all you know about cadence.

    I knew reading aloud was the single best way to spot whether or not a sentence worked. I did not know specific letters had an impact on cadence.

    Worse, I've spent countless hours trying to break run-on sentences into a tidy mix of complex and POWs, when the scene might have been most effective with a word spiel. A pox on the green squiggly WP warnings when writing powerful, emotive scenes.

    Got it (!) on S and H. What others am I missing?

  3. Your cadence should match the mood, Gloria, whatever that is - to me, that's the biggest rule. Here's one I wrote this morning:

    She felt the tug of tired in her muscles and her mind. The same thoughts raced around the same worn track, like mice on crack: Angel. Bullfighting. Otherness. Failure. Angel, bullfighting, other—

    I wanted to show the repetition of when thoughts run through your head like an ear-worm song.

    So I used the 'T' on 'tug' and 'tired' and the 'M' on 'muscles' and 'mind'. Then I made 'track' and 'crack' rhyme, Then repeating the 3 words...hopefully I achieved it.

    Is it too much? Maybe. But the too much was conscious too. I'm hoping the repetition is like the ear-worm I'm trying to emulate.

    But even so, it could be too much. When the reader becomes aware of the author playing games, the jig is up.

    What do you think? Too much?

    Welcome home, Gloria - good to see you back!

    1. Definitely not too much, Laura. I have one wee problem with your excerpt. You now have Angel, Bullfighting, Otherness, Failure worming about in my noggin. And (curses!) it's body bye time.

      IMHO, the word choice was brilliant. I did not sense author intrusion.

  4. Awesome post, Laura!
    Although I'm still stuck on reading these words from you: "it takes rewriting to get it perfect." 🙂

  5. This article just entered my Top-5 list of articles on writing. YES! Cadence is what makes or breaks a book for me. To me, sometimes this ingrained metronome is more important than other components that are supposed to define a great piece of writing. What I try to do is give extra special attention to cadence at the ending of my chapters. That's one surefire way to create a page turner!

    I'll go as far as to say that a writer without inherent word rhythm is like a musician out of sync.

    Greetings from Greece!
    Maria (MM Jaye)

  6. Great examples, Laura. To me cadence is the synchronicity of sounds, like notes in a song ... short, long, beating out the relationship of the rhythm and the rime.

    It is something we do hear when we read aloud. And as I told you only yesterday, it is certainly worth the time to find the perfect relationship of sounds.

    From a new rewrite: "Yeah, it’s happened again, dismal, divorced, and downsized."

  7. I learned about cadence when I first started working with horses and I found it carried over to dogs, and to my writing. For me, it's hearing the music of footfalls, and later the melody of words. Reading out loud is a great help. Even better when someone who hasn't seen the writing reads it out loud and what I though was a symphony is actually a cacophony

  8. This is brilliant - and I love all the examples. I'm bookmarking this for something to review in a final edit. Many, thanks! Oh - and I also think reading poetry can help you develop an ear for how words sound and for special effects.

    1. Super tip, Debbie! I wouldn't have thought of that! Or, if you still have an aversion to poetry brought on my a forced diet of it in Junior High, song lyrics do the same thing!

  9. Wonderful article, Laura, thank you! And I still remember Margie's words from the workshop she did in Atlanta earlier this year.

    "Cadence trumps everything."

    Your article came at the perfect time since I'm diving into edits after letting my last ms sit for a mandatory cooling off period. Thanks!

  10. Wonderful post, Laura.
    Margie introduced me to cadence and I understood cadence as rhythm, beats, and even alliteration, but you reminded me that. . .
    "Your cadence should match the mood."
    And then you go further with looking for the sounds of words to emulate the feel of the mood. What a wonderful thing to learn today. 🙂
    I can't wait to play with my words.

  11. Lovely post, Laura, about something I believe can only be achieved through practice. If a writer isn't there yet, she can't force it.

    I'm also impressed by your clarity in explaining a difficult concept.

    1. Thank you, Eric! Margie Lawson taught me to use examples, examples, and more examples. I know that's what has made a difference in my understanding.

  12. This is really helpful. Thanks for sharing. I always feel self-conscious reading out loud, but it really is helpful.

      1. I do too, Jenny. I hate the sound of my voice, but it helps with cadence, flow, word choice, and so many other things.

    1. I know what you mean, Brianna - I read my books to my husband on road trips...and wince every time. I think it's like listening to your own voice on a recording. 'Ew, do I really sound like THAT?'

      1. Exactly, Laura. I really don't like the sound of my voice. Transcribing interviews I do is torture because I don't want to listen to myself.

  13. I can't even begin to count how many times I've heard, "read your story out loud." Better yet, read it out loud to your dog, or your husband/wife - if they can stand it. It serves two purposes, 1)you hear how the words sound, 2) it prepares you for open mic nights. 🙂

    Also, what's interesting about this post, agent Janet Reid recently posted a similar view on her blog. She actually used an excel spreadsheet to demonstrate random sentences and their "rhythm." It became a hot debate, not about finding rhythm, but about the use of the excel sheet. The difference in your post, it shows by the examples which words help to establish that rhythm - or cadence. Brilliant!

  14. Can you say Beach Music? Yes, someone is a genius! Laura, your post struck a note with me. Wow, cadence really does make a huge difference. Thank you for all the great examples. I will put this under just another skill that I need to focus on. But now I can put a name to it. 🙂

    1. Beach Music...sigh. Did you read South of Broad, Karen? Brilliant. I read the last page, put my head on the table and cried. Conroy is my all-time-hero.

  15. I ashamed to say that I have not read South of Broad Laura. The only other Pat Conroy book I have read is The Great Santini. May I just say that is one heavy story. And, quite frankly a bit too graphic for me. But wow, the story! I think you would have to live through something similar to that in order to write a story like that. And from what I've read, he did. I will have to go check out your suggestion girl. I'm on it! ...Oh, and congratulations to you! I know you worked very hard for it. (Said a little bird named Jenny Hansen. Who I think is one of your greatest fans!)

  16. Loved this and most of the examples, especially Conroy's and the one about the bean-bag. But the last one by Picoult didn't work for me. There was too much going on, too many metaphors that pulled me in different directions. First the music (or fishing!) reference, then metal filings, then a monster. I couldn't feel it or even picture it. The way I experience fear is more like a mounting crescendo moving in the same horrifying direction. I think it would have worked better if all the metaphors were somehow connected and increasingly horrific. I did like her last four questions though.

    Still, great topic, and couldn't agree more about the importance of cadence.

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