Monday, 18 May 2009

The music of language

This is an old article of mine, originally posted on a writers' site, that might be of interest to the few of you who haven't seen it already:

A fellow writer had said:

"Repetition and echos can be a powerful tool if used conciously and occasionally."

And then posed the question "Is the following sentence overwritten?Burnishing the sky blood red, the orange glowing sunset hung over the dark western forest of the smoldering city ."

My response wasYes - let me say why I think it doesn't work, though (other than the fact I'm not 100% sure it makes as much sense - if something's orange how come when it burnishes something that something ends up red? Forest of a city - a metaphor too far? The metaphor's confused, but assuming it wasn't, the problems are:

1. too many participles - nowt much is actually happening (the sunset hung being about it), which adds stodge.

2. I know it's unfashionable, but I love beautifully written sentences even if they are overwritten - but a beautiful sentence has a rhythm - it slides off the tongue (kinda the opposite of pitjhy dialogue that you chew up and spit out). Why this doesn't do that is you have three bits - sky blood red", "orange glowing sunset" "dark western forest" that are all constructed in essentially the same way - so there's no development. What you need is best described like music - you either have to have rhythm - with ups and downs, quicks and slows, or cadenzas, where you move slowly and very calculatedly up or down the scale of (over)writing, or sometimes an arpeggio (sorry if this is patronising - that's a chord, only where you play the notes that make it up separately), where you take a big word (by which I mean an important noun not a long word)and tease it out by delivering a series of complimentary fragments (somewhat like a haiku). Let me make a fool of myself by offering to rewrite the sentence in these 3 ways:

a. The sunset hung above the smoking city, burnishing the sky with its blood-red glow. Here the emphasis is entirely on how the words come off the tongue - "above" works where "over" doesn't, for example, because the stress is on the second syllable not the first. You can't have a qualifier for "sky" because for the rhythm to sound right to our ears, it has to go with "glow" and leave a pause with "sky", had to replace "smoldering" with "smoking", because only a 2 syllable word works there and so on.

b. The sunset hung over the smoldering city, its orange glow burnishing the sky blood red. We start simple (no adjectives), then build to the most impactful bit of the sentence (blood red) - the progressive descriptions now serve a purpose.

c. The city smoldered, an oil-black forest under a bloody sky, burnished in the sunset's orange glow. I've changed what words refer to what because I like the idea of the buildings black but glistening (like blood does in moonlight), but what I've done is: present what's happening ("the city smoldered"), give a metaphor - "oil-black forest under a bloody sky" - then echo the metaphor in non-metaphoric terms (OK burnished's kind of a metaphor becsue normally you'd burnish metal not buildings, but...).

That probably sounds really anal, and none of the sentences is any cop (partly because I think you need to "overwrite" very selectively and only to further the plot,and I don't think a sunset does that for me unless we're in a prophecy situation - "you will die when the sy turns red" say), but that's how I'd approach it. And yes, I really do go through that kind of thought process and deconstruction of rhythm with every sentence I write - I might try getting a life instead.

3. Repetition works best when it reinforces, builds, goes somewhere - music again - it's like the theme you vary then return to -this kinda says the same thing a few times.


  1. If language is music, then American English has a ton of mischords ;)

  2. Whereas Engligh English just has a tonne of 'em. Or is that a tun?

  3. Sam Shepard said his (early) plays were composed like jazz riffs (Ornette Coleman being his favourite). They are superlative - "Suicide in B-Flat" and "Angel City" being the 2 that best demonstrate his words I think.

    Both Dan and I have pointed up the importance of getting the soundtrack that accompanies our writing on a specific project sorted out precisely and then playing it over and over as a way of accessing the rhythms within that novel each time we sit down afresh to tackle it.