Why does this word rhythm work really well?

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002
So I just picked up James Herbert's The Rats - the first adult novel I ever bought.

Opening sentence:

The old house had stood empty for more than a year.

There's a wonderful rhythm to it, and I can't figure out why. It just trips on the tongue. If you don't believe me, read it out aloud.

When I think in terms of syllables, it has a pattern of 3,4,5. But I have no idea why that works, other than it makes for a total of 12, which is like 3 beats of 4 in music, or 4 beats of 3. But I can't see the numbers 3,4, and 5 working well with a 3 and 4 beat rhythm.

I tried my WIP opening and it's 4,3,5 syllables, and that seems to work too. So you could rewrite the Herbert line slightly and still maintain something of the rhythm, so long as you used 4,3,5 instead of 3,4,5:

The old building stood empty for more than a year.

In fact, a 3,3,5 rhythm seems to work as well:

The old house stood empty for more than a year.

Which seems to blow apart the idea of it being 3 or 4 beats.

Does anyone have a technical answer for why this all works so well in terms of rhythm?

I'm familiar with iambic pentameter from Shakespeare - but I'm not sure how rhythm applies elsewhere.

Or is this all just in my imagination??
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Not your imagination, though I'd perhaps disagree with you about the two alternatives to the line, since I prefer "... building had..." to your choice, and I wasn't so fond of the last "... house stood..." line, as that cried out for an extra syllable to my mind.

I think rhythm and the feel of a line is tremendously important, and it's a great pity so few writers think about it, being content just to bash out words without any consideration of how they sound grouped together. Sadly, though, I can't help with any technical stuff, as we barely covered iambic pentameter at school, and I've never got to grips with all the other forms of meter. But I'm not sure it's necessary to know the whys and wherefores -- I'm a great believer in this instance of writing from the gut, and letting your ear be your guide**, rather than trammelling the prose by rules of 3,4,5 or whatever.

** Sorry -- should have sounded the mixed metaphor alert there.
I'm a total and utter anorak for assonance, rhythm, and alliteration, so I found this really interesting.

However, I don't like the h of house after the h of had and the sentence doesn't really strike me the way it has struck you. It's a nice does-what-it-says-on-the-tin kind of line, but I don't find it particularly pleasing.

I'd like a more mellifluous lilt to it but I'm not sure I could do my wish justice. I don't think a couplet would work without prior set up but I'd like something a bit more catchy.

I like the complexity of half rhyme in this:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within...

I know it's a cliché to use Shirley Jackson's opening paragraph but it just nails it for me. You have to give a pause after itself an extra beat for it to truly work so you can't rush it, but I think that's true of the entire book.

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I don't think it's the 3-4-5 syllable thing, but more the fact that the emphasis is on every third syllable. The old house had stood empty for more than a year.
I must have a tin ear to this one.
I think it's all the monosyllable words with 'empty' being the exception.
By the time my brain sorts out the stresses I end up with a stress on 'more' and that causes a half pause.
I end up with 3-4-(2-3)
The first line of a Lewis Carroll rhyme goes thus:

You are old, father William, the young man said

And I've always thought "said" would work better (or maybe just smoother) as a two-syllable word, eg:

You are old, father William, the young man declared

Interestingly, assuming you run "William" into two syllables, as I do, this would then give it the same rhythm as:

The old house had stood empty for more than a year

So I think that demonstrates that the rhythm is inherently satisfying. And I think TDZ has it right that it's because you can place the stress (however subtle) on each third syllable. Sort of a reverse waltz.
And I think TDZ has it right that it's because you can place the stress (however subtle) on each third syllable.
So what is important here? Is it that the stress appears every three syllables -- and I agree that William feels, when spoken, like a two-syllable word -- or that there's a regular pattern, as if the words were set to tuneless music** with a fixed time signature (which would be ¾ time in the examples above)?

Would a sentence in common time -- four beats to a bar** -- also work? (Note that We are very familiar with duple time rhymes, in doggerel, with the stress on every second word.)

** - Note that, in music, the norm is to stress the first beat, not the last beat, of a bar, so this analogy only works so far (but there's plenty of music where the first beat*** isn't the stressed one).

*** - And, of course, there's music where the first beat is the one being stressed, but before the pattern begins, there are a few (unstressed) introductory notes (which, in the examples above, would be represented by the first two words of the sentence).
The only iambic hexamater I know is the classic opening: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Try mixing that up, by placing 'last night' at the end of the sentence and it loses an incredible amount.

Likewise James Herbert's opening line. Intentional, do you think? Or creative chance - the muse telling the writer the absolutely correct order for the words. But does make me think about my openings!
But does make me think about my openings!
I've tried removing a single syllable from the opening sentence of my WiP1 and while the description/action suffers a bit -- a 'just as' has been replaced by an 'as' -- it reads so much better (as it then follows the 'beat every three syllables' pattern).
I've been reading up more about this and apparently the issue of syllables is a red herring and indeed it's all about stress. But I'm beginning to drown in the technicalities, rather than feel that anything is explained.

While at times I felt there was a rhythm in my writing, without understanding why, I guess this all comes down to the common writer advice - read your work out aloud. On the grounds that your ear should pick up something of the rhythms you're using.
I agree with the poetry idea. For me, I think it's more the where the beats fall in the sentence than the actual words.

The old house had stood empty for more than a year

All of the emphasised words are pretty important. My first thought on reading it was:

And the villagers shunned it in terror and fear

in fact:

They laid poisoned cheese, and bought giant cats
But nothing could save them from death by THE RATS.
I think, like Phyre says, it's quite personal as well. I keep tripping on that "had". I don't read other people's stuff aloud very often, and I don't "hear" text in my head (I never know how to pronounce names because I don't really read them). On the other hand, some writers do have a rhythm I love -- Nabakov's opening to Lolita springs immediately to mind, and I remember loving the opening of The Crying of Lot 49 as well.
Oh well, now you are talking songwriting. If you submit lyrics for a song, perhaps a real nice bit of prose or poetry that you have writ - two things may need to change. First, the words themselves - even if they are exactly correct, they may not enunciate or 'trip off the tongue' and will need to be altered. Same for the rhythm of the line, words may need to be chopped or replaced to make the 3,4,5 or whatever it is, work. This happened a lot when people were adapting poems, nicking bits from olde poetry books to base pop songs on. But then it was discovered that screeching or talking was technically singing.... and this lost art sank into the mists of obscurity.
For ex: you may need to leave the word 'had' out, for the line about the house to sing well. Stretch another word to fill in the rhythm and bingo, top ten lyricism. Rhythm is invisible in prose, but probably very important.

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