The music of fiction

May 21, 2010

God help me, I’m learning poetry.

Let me elaborate on that: I’m an awful poet but I recently decided I would study it a little more as a means to hopefully liven up my everyday writing.

When I was back in school (which for all you young-un’s out there is practically as long ago as the invention of the wheel) I switched-off whenever the subject of poetry was broached. It was an alien world to me – filled with strange terminology: meters and caesuras, end-stops and enjambments, trochees and spondees, iambs and dactyls. Dactyls for chrissakes – like the prehistoric bird – WTF?

This wasn’t writing to me, it wasn’t art. It was more akin to math. Too much structure, not enough freedom. Too much thought, not enough emotion. Screw those turtleneck-wearing, pretentious ponces with their coffee cups and fake upper-class accents; that world wasn’t for me. I wanted to be a storyteller dammit. I wanted to talk about ghosts and monsters, starships and serial killers, not about being as lonely as a cloud or about keeping my head when all about me were losing theirs.

How much of a shock it was then, to start studying it again as an adult and to come to realize I’ve been using the techniques of poetry all along, in a roundabout way at least. I won’t say I was “a poet and I didn’t know it“, because that would be a dirty insult to all the true poets in the world who actually study and master their craft, but I’d been at least toeing the line without realizing it. I guess in a way, you could say I’ve been pissing in poetry’s backyard.

How so?

I think I always understood intuitively that good fiction has a cadence to it – a musicality of sorts that, while not as evident as when it’s structured into verses and stanzas, is still vastly important to the overall quality of the prose. Characters, for instance can live and breathe or stagnate and die depending on the cadence of their dialogue. In a narrative description, the way the flow of words relate to each other may be equally as important as the words themselves in setting a scene or evoking a mood. The music the words make together can really make the difference between okay writing and truly great writing.

Whenever I write, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always read the passages back to myself out loud. This is why I don’t like writing in public, because when you start blathering about demons in a crowded Starbucks in the middle of the afternoon you tend to get a few funny looks. I never quite realized why I was doing this until I started looking into poetry again. I knew it always led me to dramatic revisions and usually (hopefully) to a better story, but I wasn’t quite sure how or why.

Now I think I understand.

When we read our own words aloud we can really get our senses around them. Instead of existing only as fragile concepts in our silent minds, they become real, textural things – physical shapes in our lips and tongues; literal waves of air pushed into our ears. When you make the words real like that, it’s much easier to hear the musicality of them. You can hear the stressed and unstressed syllables, you can hear the beats of the punctuation, and just as importantly you can hear the white-space that surrounds and contains them.

I sense I’m in imminent danger of sounding like a literary snob here, so I think I’ll wrap it up. Good prose may not be structured into meters with fixed feet and a common patterns, but it is certainly musical. Here’s an exercise for you: pick up your favorite book and open it to a random page. Read a few passages, but read them aloud and listen to them. I almost guarantee you’ll be able to hear the music of the words.