Ken Follett opens The Pillars of the Earth with a stark and unsettling line.
The small boys came early to the hanging.
I was gripped and repulsed at once. Shocked and intrigued. And I read on, hooked.
I knew Ken Follett had done something right. And I wondered what.
I became sure it wasn’t just what the sentence said. As I thought about it, a couple of questions came to mind: What is the most straightforward, everyday way of saying those words? And how might I have written them? Well, here’s my answer:
The small boys came to the hanging early.
I was stunned. What had I done? I’d moved one word, and just like that, I’d ruined the sentence. In my view, it now sounded bland. I realised that I’d robbed it of music.
A term I’d heard before sprung to mind: cadence. I’d been assured it was important. I’d practically been implored to use it. But what is cadence? A Google search returned this definition: “a rhythmical effect in written text.” I saw that Ken Follett’s line had cadence, and my alteration did not.
Then, another line came to mind, and it wasn’t just any other line. It was the opening line of The Hobbit, penned by J.R.R. Tolkien.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
That line has been close to my heart for years. It brings a smile to my face every time I read or hear it. When I was considering the power of cadence, I saw it in a whole new light.
I thought I’d pose the same questions I had posed earlier. What is the most straightforward, everyday way of saying those words? And how might I have written them? Here’s my answer:
A hobbit lived in a hole in the ground.
Stunned! How much worse is that? I’d go for infinitely worse. And yet those were essentially the same words. I only changed their order.
All these thoughts of cadence came to a climax when my dad read me this line from one of C.S. Lewis’ letters. “Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.”
That sealed it for me. If I wanted my stories to have any of the brilliance of The Pillars of the Earth or The Hobbit, I would have to consider the cadence of each sentence. It wouldn’t be enough to ask whether I’d said what I wanted to say. I’d have to ask whether I’d said it in the right way. I’d have to get rid of this: A hobbit lived in a hole in the ground. And turn everything into this: In a hole in ground there lived a hobbit.
That sounds daunting, I admit. But that’s when I’ll remember The Pillars of the Earth. One word made all the difference for that opening line. One word! Surely, I can do that. I certainly know I need to. From now on, I plan to consider the different possible orders for my words. I’ll try them back-to-front, inside-out. And I’ll read with my ear, not my eye. And I’ll remember that I want the sentence with the most music, the most cadence, the most brilliance, and maybe a little poetry. I’ll remember that it’s not that hard. Sometimes it’s as simple as moving one word.
So, goodbye forevermore to this: The small boys came to the hanging early.
And hello to this: The small boys came early to the hanging.