Cadence is the variation in a person’s tone, the rhythm created by the rise and fall of his voice. Poetry relies on cadence to create rhythm patters, but novelists can employ the device as well.
Poets, of course, are meticulous about their word choices so that each not only carries the meaning they desire, but also the proper order of accented and unaccented syllables.
Novelists, not concerned with a regular rhythmic pattern, create cadence in several different ways. First is through the length of sentences.
Long, luxurious sentences and paragraphs slow the tempo of a passage. Conversely, short sentences quicken the pace and frequently produce a tense, staccato effect.
The best passages employ both strategies to effect a paragraph with rhythm and balance. (“How To Tell,” Michael Orlofsky, Writer’s Digest, October 2002)
A second rhythmic device involves conjunctions—either their addition or their omission. The first, called polysyndeton, repeats a conjunction between each of the words or phrases in a series. The latter, asyndeton, omits the conjunction, even before the final element. Here are example of each:
Polysyndeton: An avalanche of rock and dirt cascaded beside him and over him and under him.
Asyndeton: His brother picked up another plate, piled it with a variety of stuffed pastries, a handful of baby carrots, a couple cauliflower clumps.
A third way to create cadence in prose is to purposefully use repetition. For instance, a proposition can be used over and over or a key word in one sentence can be repeated in the opening of the next sentence.
The first use creates a staccato rhythm which can be enhanced if short phrases are written as sentences.
Repetition of a preposition in a sentence: Away from Laguna Beach, from Eddie, from the tatters of his career.
Repetition of a preposition in consecutive sentences: Away from Laguna Beach. From Eddie. From the tatters of his career.
Repetition of a key word from one sentence at the beginning of another: “But my sister, Ainsley, puts her key in the lock five mornings a week. She straightens the over-sized posters that shift every time a train goes by on the tracks across the road from the strip mall that houses the headquarters. Posters of a beautiful little girl with strawberries on her sundress and a makeshift wreath of flowers in her hair.” (From The Color Of Sorrow Isn’t Blue by Sharon Souza).
Parallel construction is another method to create rhythm. The parallelism can be within a sentence or within a paragraph, but the idea is that multiplies—phrases, clauses, or sentences—have the same basic structure.
Here’s an example of phrases each consisting of a verb each followed by a prepositional phrase:
He slid behind the wheel of his Porsche, backed from the driveway, and accelerated onto the road heading south.
Anaphora, or “the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses” (Oxford American Dictionary), is another way novelists create cadence in their prose. The following excerpt from Caught by Harlan Coben illustrates this technique:
And that was when Marcia started to feel a small rock form in her chest. There were no clothes in the hamper.
The rock in her chest grew when Marcia checked Haley’s toothbrush, then the sink and shower.
The rock grew when she called out to Ted, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. It grew when they drove to captain’s practice and found out that Haley had never showed. It grew when she called Haley’s friends while Ted sent out an e-mail blast—and no one knew where Haley was. It grew when they called the local police, who, despite Marcia’s and Ted’s protestations, believed that Haley was a runaway, a kid blowing off some steam. It grew when forty-eight hours later, the FBI was brought in. It grew when there was still no sign of Haley after a week. (As quoted by Margie Lawson, emphases mine)
Cadence is not a device that readers will necessarily notice unless they stop and think about the prose—not a plus if they are to remain immersed in the story world and wrapped up with the character’s problems. However, the absence of cadence can work against readers, causing them to stumble and retreat to regain the flow.
Writers want readers moving forward, fully engaged with the story. Proper cadence can help to accomplish this goal.