One of the greatest compliments a reviewer can bestow on a children’s story is to call it a “great readaloud.” But how does a story come to merit such praise? The secret is rhythm—rhythm in language and rhythm in structure.
Rhythm in Language
The primary rhythmic unit of language is the sentence. Children’s writers are often told to keep sentences short, but this mostly takes care of itself when we aim at rhythmic vigor. More to the point is to practice these two rules:
Reduce the distance between beats.
Reduce the number of beats.
A beat occurs at every syllable that is “stressed” or “accented.” To practice the first rule, choose and arrange your words and phrases so that the smallest number of unaccented syllables falls between accented ones. Try to allow only one or two, and rarely more than three. To follow the second rule, choose and arrange your words and phrases to produce the smallest total number of beats in the sentence.
Of course, just how tight the rhythms should be will depend on the mood you wish to create. For a leisurely, lyrical story, you would allow more unaccented syllables and more beats per sentence. For a lively, active story, you would allow fewer.
The above rules have two familiar corollaries: Delete unnecessary words. And use short words—generally words with one or two syllables, and rarely those with more than three. The primary reason for using short words is not that they’re easier to read and understand but that they help the rhythm.
For instance, the difficulty with a word like “difficulty” is that it contains three unaccented syllables. In the previous sentence, this makes a total of five unaccented syllables between the beats on “dif-” and “word.” That’s all right for a professional article, but not for a story! Better to use a word like “problem,” or a phrase like “what’s wrong.” Other long words, such as “nevertheless,” add two beats to the sentence, instead of the single beat from a word like “still.”
But length is not the only criterion of word selection. Two words with the same number of syllables often have different rhythms, depending on where the accent falls. “Over” and “above” will each work best in different settings.
Almost as important as selection of words and phrases is arrangement. By changing the order, you might avoid a long string of unaccented syllables or get rid of a beat. It is well worth trying a sentence in several different forms to find the one with the best rhythm.
Arrangement also helps fit your thought into the inherent rhythm of the sentence. The greatest stress in a sentence naturally falls at the end, and the second greatest stress at the beginning. A skilled writer uses this by aiming to place emphasized words and phrases in these positions. Language and grammatical form then support each other, and both are made stronger. With proper sentence construction, a writer seldom needs italics for emphasis.
In regard to rhythm, the most crucial sentence in the story is the final one. This sentence must wind down the story and signal itself as the ending. The most tried-and-true way to achieve this is with a “slow three,” as found in “hap-pily ev-er af-ter.” Here are examples from my own stories:
But I’ll bet he still aims at the heart.
And never a brush stroke in sight.
“At last I’ve got the willies!”
The paragraph is another important rhythmic unit of language. Just as you aim at minimizing beats in a sentence, try also to minimize the number of sentences in a paragraph. Take out any sentences that aren’t essential. See if the thoughts in two sentences can be efficiently merged in a single sentence.
For a picture book, I recommend allowing three sentences per paragraph, and rarely more than four. Allow one or two more if a paragraph combines dialog and narration, but still allow only three for dialog.
As in the sentence, the most important position in the paragraph is at the end, and the second most important is at the beginning. Sentences containing the most important thoughts are best placed in these positions.
Rhythmic interest is achieved in language by both variety and repetition. Sentences should vary in number of beats from one to the next, and paragraphs should vary in number of sentences. Alternatively, you can create interest by rigidly repeating a pattern of beats or sentences.
Variety is also produced by mixing dialog with narration. For a picture book, I recommend making dialog one-third to one-half of your text.
Rhythm in Structure
Plot structure generates a larger rhythm to the story. This structure is made up of one or more incidents, which are in turn made up of one or more scenes. (I use scene in roughly the sense it would be used for a play: a setting with distinct time and location.) With these elements too, interest can be created by both variety and repetition.
Different story ideas require different plot structures, but those with appealing rhythms often follow the folktale’s “rule of three.” For instance, a simple plot might consist of three central incidents—perhaps of parallel construction—framed by an introduction and a conclusion. Sets of three usually work well rhythmically because they satisfy without becoming wearisome.
Another satisfying rhythm is produced by scenes or incidents alternating between opposites—good and evil, wise and stupid, night and day, cause and effect. Of course, these alternations too can be presented in sets of three.
Scenes and incidents convey stronger rhythms when they are clearly demarcated. This is most important for picture book scenes. The first paragraph should set the relative time and location and launch the action. The last paragraph should wind up the action and convey a sense of what has taken place. This paragraph should end with a punch, often in the form of dialog. If picture book scenes are constructed properly, correct placement of page divisions should be obvious without blank lines or other notation in the manuscript.
Alongside the story’s plot structure is its dramatic structure, which bears its own rhythm. Most successful stories follow a similar pattern: Dramatic tension starts at a low level, then rises until the climax point is reached near the end of the story—then plummets back to the starting level as the conflict resolves. But the climb is generally not steady. Progressive rises are separated by shallow dips that act as resting places.
It is the breadth of this rhythm that largely determines the story’s impact. The higher the level of dramatic tension you attain, the more memorable your story. Of course, the tension level must not rise too high for the age group.
A writer works with a multitude of rhythms as surely as does a musician or a dancer. By becoming aware of the rhythms and using them effectively, your stories can earn the coveted label of “readaloud.”