Sing me a Story

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

The opening sentence of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca has always stayed in my mind even though I haven’t read it since high school. It’s haunting. It pulls me immediately into the story and makes  the reader want to continue. It’s iambic. The rhythm of the line is hypnotic, and its musicality takes it to the next level of great prose.

It’s all in the rhythm:

I’m talking about prosody – the poet’s tool of meter. Briefly, meter measures the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line (or in this case a sentence) that make it sound musical. We all know the phrase iambic pentameter from Shakespeare, and I remember having to recite the sonnets while making my voice bounce along with it, but meter is about more than enforcing a beat.

Why can we memorize song lyrics so much faster and more permanently than we can the constitution? The melody. Why do adults everywhere still remember Jack Prelutzky’s “Homework! Oh Homework!” from grade school? Because he wrote it in a strict meter that sticks in my brain and doesn’t let go. I remember Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again because the iambic rhythm matches my heart beat.

Now it’s about to get really nerdy, but stick with me. Iambic pentameter is the backbone of poetry because it is linked with our body’s natural rhythms. The repetition of an iambic foot – an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one – sounds like a pulse. Pentameter – five iambs in a row, or ten syllables altogether, is about the length of a normal breath. When you’re reading it, and it’s written so naturally that you don’t even notice it’s there, it’s becoming a part of you. You remember it. It has the “ba-BUM ba-BUM ba-BUM ba-BUM ba-BUM” that is built into our design.

I’m not saying you should intentionally write all of your stories in iambs, but it’s important to keep in mind. Even without knowing all the metrical feet of prosody, rhythm in a sentence is crucial. When I’m reading a novel and a sentence has impact, stands out and gets my attention, upon second look I can identify its poetic meter, and it’s usually iambic. With or without knowing it, that author was in the zone and that sentence came right from the heart. Here it is, the example from Shakespeare: “If mu-sic be the food of love, play on….”

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again takes more than just meter out of the poet’s toolbox. All of the consonants are soft. There are no harsh sounds that wake you out of the spell Du Maurier is casting. Also, “night” “dreamt” and “went” are slant rhymes that fall on the stressed syllables of the first three iambic feet in sync with the meter. The word “again” adds a sixth iambic foot making it hexameter, not pentameter (an “Alexandrine” if you want to get really technical). The extra beat is intrinsic in the word “again.” The rhythm even extends into the beginning of the following sentence, which avoids breaking the trance, “It seemed to me I stood….” Ms. du Maurier knew what she was doing.

When an editor tells you a sentence is “awkward,” he or she probably noticed it because it fell heavily on the ear and didn’t sound right. The emphasized syllables need to be rearranged. If you’re struggling with a sentence, read it aloud. There are so many voices out there competing to be heard these days that it takes more than great characters and a great story to get noticed. Incorporating the music of poetry into your prose will take you into another league.


This article also appeared on the Mash Stories Blog on August 19, 2014.



3 thoughts on “Sing me a Story

  1. mdp says:

    “Incorporating the music of poetry into your prose will take you into another league.”
    I wholeheartedly agree! Think of Bloody Mary – “You saxy, lootellan…” Is that a good example?


    1. blacksquirrelworkshop says:

      Close, MDP. With “You saxy, lootellan,” it’s easy to read it many different ways with emphasis falling in different places depending on interpretation. With “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” or the line from Shakespeare, you can’t avoid the beat when speaking naturally. Thanks for engaging!


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