Cadence in Writing

Following on from last week’s article about purple prose, cadence – something many writers haven’t heard of – is something that writers aspire to but don’t always manage it, yet it’s the fundamental difference between poetic language and over-indulgent, flowery prose.
Cadence in writing is a sense of rhythm and pace, it lifts the narrative from the page and makes it dynamic; brings a certain tempo to the words and sentences; it’s what makes prose poetic, layered and fluid without it being extravagant. Cadence makes the writing visual and evocative, and to an extent, beautiful. It’s an important element in fiction writing, because without it, narrative certainly won’t be as effective.
Writers don’t actively think about cadence – they simply want to write and get the words down. It’s not until later, while editing, that they realise that a sense of rhythm might be missing from their narrative.
When poetic description works, it’s called cadence. When it doesn’t work, people refer to it as purple prose.
How Does it Work?
In laymen’s terms, it’s rhythmic writing. It works by conveying mood and meaning and emotional impact. It guides the reader to how the narrative should be read, and it does so by altering pitch, for example:
Sullied tears forged a path from eyes to chin; unhurried, where they lingered momentarily on the mouth as though to capture the light, while the golden band on her finger glimmered beneath the stark lights, an unbreakable reminder of what had been.
At first glance there may not be anything extraordinary about the prose, but if read aloud there is almost a beat to this; it flows and ebbs evenly, and it creates a certain reticent tone and sad mood.
Of course, it’s not just emotion or mood; cadence also helps to give the impression of varied pace, which can be quickened or slowed to suit.
How to Convey Cadence
It works when sentences are constructed with the right words, with effective punctuation, pauses and an understanding of the sounds that words create – known as sibilance. Sentences should be so smooth and fluid that the reader won’t even notice there’s a rhythm.
But it’s not just sounds or punctuation or pace; cadence is also created when writers employ other literary devices, such as polysyndeton, asyndeton, assonance and the aforementioned sibilance.
Polysyndeton is when a writer uses conjunctions close together to form a complete sentence, thus creating a slower, but rather rhythmic flow, for example:
Up and down and round and round…
The rain and wind and leaves and everything around them whirled…
Asyndeton does the opposite to polysyndeton – instead of using conjunctions, it omits them, leaving the sentence fragmented, which gives the impression of tempo and a quicker pace, for example:
Up, down, round…
The rain, the wind, the leaves; everything around them whirled…
You can see from these examples how they differ in pitch and rhythm with conjunctions and without. Whichever one a writer chooses, it lends to the cadence of sentences.
Sibilance is the softness of sound - usually the ‘sss’ sound - that certain words create when used close together, for instance, ‘the soft, silky sunset’ or ‘silent, the ship shifted through water’.
Assonance is the name for strategic repetition, which can also create cadence, because it naturally oozes rhythm, or a beat, for example:
The slow slow heartbeat of the woodland…
She turned, turned, turned...yet they had gone…
Always be aware of the words you’re using, even when in the throes of writing, and even more so when you edit your work, when you have the chance to add a sense of rhythm and punctuation and tempo.
You can also vary sentences – use short ones with longer ones, create an undulating rhythm, like the movement of the ocean, for example:
The colour of treason inked the assembled alabaster faces; carved elite in silent pose, their stern expressions rounding on him with disdain. Bold streams of fading sunlight found a path between robust columns, struck the marble floor with delicate patterns. His vision shimmered; an optical illusion in the heat.
His sandals were soft across the floor.
The right punctuation, such as commas and semi-colons or full stops can stress certain elements of the sentence to create fragmented sentences.
By combining many of the elements listed here, a writer can create cadence, something that would emphasise mood, tone and fluidity of prose. Done properly, the reader won’t know that the rhythm, pitch and flow of the prose is cadence at work, but they’ll read it and enjoy it. Without cadence, narrative wouldn’t be half as effective or indeed as beautiful to read.

Next week: Rewrites – Is there a right way to do them?


  1. Great post! Now to put it into practice...

    1. Keep working at it, Vivian. Practice eventually makes perfect.

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