Tuesday, June 28, 2011

TTYU Retro: Some Thoughts on Meter

I was writing a song for my most recent short story over this weekend, and I ended up drafting it, having it turn out awful, then realizing I had a bit of a metrical structure developing. When I followed that, the song totally changed and turned out quite well. As I say sometimes to my friends, I'm not so good at rhyme, but meter I can do.

I thought I'd share this post with you again so that you might be able to do some meter, too.

I'm talking about poetic meter. You know, what we learned when we learned Shakespeare, mostly iambic pentameter, but also spondaic tetrameter or trochaic hexameter or any of those other bizarrely named things.

Here's a brief review of a few terms, with examples.

foot: a set of grouped syllables that form the most basic unit of a metrical pattern.
iamb: a foot with one weak syllable followed by one strong syllable. x X "She comes."= 1 iamb
trochee: a foot with one strong syllable followed by one weak syllable. X x "Hit her." = 1 trochee
spondee: a foot with two stressed syllables. X X "Bob Smith" = 1 spondee
anapest: a foot with two weak syllables followed by one strong one. x x X "He has gone to the edge of the road."= 3 anapests
dactyl: a foot with one strong syllable followed by two weak ones. X x x "Gone are the days of the foresters."= 3 dactyls

Meter is not just for poetry and Shakespearean plays.

Whether in poetry or prose, meter is all about flow - the feel of the language as it streams by. I once read a discussion on the Absolute Write forum which concerned the difference between "on" and "upon" and which should be used in a particular context. My own sense came far more from an instinctive desire to align the meter of the sentence in question than from a general preference for "upon" versus "on."

It is often said that the natural meter of English is iambic. This is because we generally like our sentences to have an alternating pattern of strong and weak syllables. I have a character in a novel of mine who speaks entirely in iambic pentameter, and while he does sound archaic at times, my goal is not to have any of his lines come across as ta-TUM-tee-UM-tee-UM-tee-UM-tee-UM. Fortunately, there is some flexibility in the metrical rules which allows for the occasional foot with reversed stress, and the occasional extra syllable.

Here's a random couplet of iambic pentameter (totally unrelated to my novel!) which doesn't sound much like poetry to me:

"In utero, the baby undergoes a lengthy process of uneven growth."

By altering this natural rhythm, you can achieve effects that act a lot like onomatopoeia. In action and situations of stress you can use strong syllables to break flow intentionally: a few trochees and spondees can go a long way. This is one of the things that can help you create the effect of a regional accent, for example, without requiring extensive alterations of spelling.

When I'm looking for a voice for an alien, I make sure to consider the meter of his or her speech, even if I don't use that meter strictly in the alien viewpoint. The gecko-girl Allayo (Let the Word Take Me, Analog, July/Aug 2008) spoke in an unmeasured meter that I based on the intonation of sacred readings, because that fit well with the fact that she considered her language to be sacred. When I thought about designing a wolf alien (Rulii, Cold Words, Analog Oct 2009), I tried to use anapests to influence the dialogue so that the speech would come across in a loping rhythm.

All right, that's enough for now. I'll let you go have fun with it.


  1. What an interesting - and lovely - post. I'm very sensitive to meter in prose and write for the ear as much as the eye. In my current manuscript I have passages that need to suggest origins different from our everyday world, though not aliens as such. I'm using meter to suggest a dreamlike state, which works on the reader like a song-beat.

  2. Thank you, dirtywhitecandy. Your story sounds mysterious and fun!

  3. That's very cool. I like the idea of using cadence as another way to distinguish voice between characters, even when they are of similar backgrounds. And I have changed orders of words in a list to fit better in sound.

  4. Jaleh, thanks for commenting. I think a lot of people are sensitive to meter but don't realize it.