Writing is a lot like performing music. I know this because I studied vocal music in college and spent a little time running around stages singing in musical theater and opera productions. While I still sing on occasion, the main advantage I now find in having a musical background is that the techniques I learned also apply to writing. Not surprisingly, many people describe my writing as “lyrical” or “musical.”
What does that mean exactly, and how can the answer inform your own writing?
First let me say that no one should try to train or clone a writing voice into something it was never meant to be. Some people just naturally write with more rhythm than others. And yet, even if you feel you have a tin ear, you can improve your sentence rhythms.
Staccato is a powerful technique in music where singers punch out notes in a short, choppy rhythm. Similarly, short sentences create intensity in action scenes. But beware! Too much choppiness and your sentence rhythms will sound mechanical, as if written to a metronome.
In music, legato describes smoothly connecting notes, usually during a slower passage. To adopt this technique for writing, use longer, flowing sentences to let the reader savor descriptions, sweet romantic encounters, and other story elements where a slower pace makes sense.
Tempo is the overall pace or speed at which a musical composition should be played. In writing, let the objective of a scene and overall tempo of the story as a whole dictate the pacing in a scene. A suspense novel, for example, will have quicker, more driving pacing than a sweet romance. Suit the length of its sentences to the pacing in each scene. The middle of an action scene is not the best place for longer sentences, for example.
As you practice these techniques, remember to vary your sentences. Musical pieces contain pauses called rests. These are a lot like commas, periods or dashes in sentences. They create anything from a slight hesitation to a jarring stop in the action and can occur close together, farther apart or somewhere between. This prevents the music from falling into monotonous patterns. Make sure you do the same in your writing.
Does your own background inform your writing in unique ways?