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Got Rhythm? - Get Rhyme!

Despite being buried up to my bottom in novel writing, Blogling has tried to keep his hand in with picture books by staying active in his critique group. As a result, I was reacquainted with the thorny issue of rhyming. I’ve posted about this before but it’s worth revisiting.

The biggest challenge I’ve seen when reviewing rhyming texts is rhythm. Poetry has a huge mass of rules regarding scansion. However, even if you think that a dactylic metre is a unit of measurement for flying dinosaurs, that’s not a problem, because you can pretty much discard all of those rules for the pure and simple reason that they make most children’s rhyming stories unreadable.

Instead, what matters is rhythm. Think of a rhyming story more like a song than a poem. Your song has certain time signature, such as 4/4. This means there are four (the top bit), quarter notes (the bottom bit) to a measure.

But we don’t need to know that either. What we do need to know is that the emphasis or stress falls on the first beat and is then followed by several more beats before the next emphasis. So, 2/4 timing would look like this (stresses shown in bold):

Twinkle, Twinkle, little star

3/4 timing would look like this:

Hey, diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle

And 4/4 timing would look like this:

Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.

In each case, there are two, three or four syllables before stresses. But what about something like the Gruffalo? That seems to have a stress every third syllable, but you wouldn’t read it to the same rhythm as ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’. What’s going on?

To understand this, we need to think musically again. If we were to turn The Gruffalo into a piece of music, it would look something like this:

As you can see, it is in a 2/4 time signature. However, the black notes on their own represent one quarter note, and hence one beat, and the linked black notes are half a beat each, so you can have twice as many, as long as you read them twice as fast. As a result, you can have three syllables in a single bar, even though you only have two 'beats'.

Although this might sound a bit complex, it’s quite straightforward as long as you follow three rules:

1) Stick to your time signature. If you think of your story as a song, all the bits that are sung should be in the same time signature. Set a metronome going and check that your emphases are falling on the beats all the way through. Alternatively, use some musical notation software – the score above was created in MuseScore, which is free.

Of course, every rule can be broken, but do it carefully. In the Gruffalo, there is a section that goes:

“A Gruffalo? What’s a Gruffalo?

A Gruffalo? Why, didn’t you know?”

This doesn’t have the same rhythm as the rest of the story, but still works. This is because it is short, like a spoken interlude. It serves to break up the rhythm and stop it becoming monotonous. However, immediately after, we’re back into the normal pattern, so the reader isn’t flummoxed. Which brings us neatly to point number 2:

2) Don’t make it hard work for your reader. In theory, any combinations of notes could be placed into a bar, as long as they add up to the right number – a half note, two quarters, a quarter and two eighths, etc. However, if you do this randomly, your reader will quickly lose the rhythm. In music, we tell the person playing it exactly what speed and time signature they should use. But picture book readers aren’t given any rules to follow, so have to pick up the rhythm from the story. If you keep changing the pattern, that becomes harder. For example, in the first two lines of The Gruffalo, we have a pattern that goes (in terms of syllables):

Dum diddy dum diddy dum dum dum dum dum diddy dum diddy dum dum dum

This sets a strong rhythm the reader can then maintain as they go into the 3rd and 4th lines, which have a slightly different (but consistent) beat structure:

Dum diddy dum diddy dum diddy dum dum dum diddy dum diddy dum diddy dum

But, I hear you ask, what about the ‘A’ at the start of the story? You haven’t included that. How does that fit in? I’m glad you asked, because…

3) Don’t forget about the start and the end of lines. Just like a song, your story doesn’t stop when the words stop – the beat continues and must be adhered to. Sometimes, like in the Gruffalo opening above, the first word of the second line is actually read as part of the last bar of the verse before, in order to keep everything flowing. Remember, the first beat of the bar is where your emphasis is, so a non-emphasised word (such as ‘A’ in this instance) must fall in the bar before.

If this all makes sense, brilliant! This is my 4th attempt to write this and it’s still complicated. Maybe some examples will help clear up any remaining confusion. At Christmas, I wrote this blog about the Aldi Christmas ad. Let’s take a few lines and see how they work. Based on the ad itself, it appears to be in 3/4 time:

So far, so good. Sister Sledge would argue ‘family’ is three syllables, but let’s not get picky.

Hmm, not so good. Again, we can cram the syllables in, but the rhythm has gone completely to pot – it would actually fit better as 4/4 timing now. Let's try another verse:

Or is it:

There should never be any debate about how to read a line – it should be intuitive for the reader once they’ve picked up the rhythm. Always get several people to read your story out loud, just to check if they are all picking up the correct rhythm and stresses. If not, change it until they do.

Thirty-something-odd years later, my Grade 1 Piano Theory exam has finally paid dividends.

Do you have any strategies for avoiding rhyme crimes? Why not share them below?

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