The introduction to this series is here.
The idea is simple: one quick writing exercise a day for several days. Post the results in a comment below, or, if you prefer, email them to me (at daniel wallace at gmail).
(Thanks to everyone who shared this series on Reddit!)
Exercise two: Blank Verse Prose
“We didn’t always live on Mango Street.”
— Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street
Iambic meter is probably the standard, most commonly deployed meter in traditional English poetry. The alternating pattern of weak-STRONG syllables has become ingrained in our sense of the language.
There are a lot of theories about why this is: I spent a while, some years back, reading about the history of iambs and trochees, and I felt quite confused at the end. What is undeniable, however, is that readers have heard iambic rhythms before, if only in an Emily Dickinson poem or “Amazing Grace.”
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
Some iambic meters, like the famous “ballard rhythm,” which you hear all over Dickinson’s verses, always sound like poetry.
However, unrhymed iambic pentameter — ten syllables per line, alternating in a weak / strong pattern, so that each line ends up with five noticeable “beats” — also known as blank verse, has the unusual characteristic that it can sometimes can blend into prose. You can read a sentence of blank verse and just think it oddly nice-sounding. When it is used continually, as in Shakespeare or Milton, the impression is broken, but in isolated moments, it just catches the reader’s ear, makes her pay a touch more attention.
Look at the opening sentence of The House on Mango Street, above. Would you have noticed, without this context, that it is a blank verse line?
Other lines of blank verse in literature include “And after that the weather was ideal,” by Katherine Mansfield, in the short story “The Garden Party,” and “It goes a long way back, some twenty years,” by Ralph Ellison.
Five beats: “And AFT-er THAT the WEATH-er WAS i-DEAL.”
Whether you think blank verse rhythms are “divinised prose” (according to J.A. Symonds) or not, it can be useful to listen for, develop, and weave in iambic rhythms into your fictional sentences. Sometimes this might be a full blank verse line; sometimes it might just be three iambic beats to round out a long winding phrase.
Exactly how this is supposed to work is tricky to explain in full, but the minimal version is:
Articles, prepositions, and short conjunctions (he, she, to, the, with, and) are usually unstressed.
Verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and nouns are usually stressed. “Not” is often stressed, too. If verbs and nouns have more than one syllable, the heaviest sounding part of the word bears the stress.
Sometimes this is obvious, and sometimes it’s a matter of personal ear, accent. I say GAR-age; my wife says gar-AGE.
You make a single iambic foot by combining a weak and then a strong stress:
You make a line of blank verse by combining five iambic feet:
She went to see her aunt at dinner-time.
Just like yesterday: the aim isn’t necessarily to write beautiful lines, but to exercise your brain. Trying out small challenges like this should build up writing muscles you didn’t know you had.
- Write, on any subject you like, two back-to-back sentences, both of which are complete five-beat iambic pentameters. They should definitely not rhyme, however. If you would like inspiration, write your sentences about the picture, above.
- Complete this sentence (make it as long as you want in the middle) with three iambic feet (or “beats”): “But when they got home, they…”
- Follow the Twitter account Pentametron, which retweets tweets that happen to be (unintentionally) ten syllables long:
One example from me:
- But when they got home, tired and mud-stained, laughing about everything they had seen, they found the door ajar.
(they FOUND the DOOR a-JAR)
For more on iambs and beats of all kind, see this related post of mine.