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  • Writer's pictureRussell F. Hirsch

Making Music With Words

Great writing has two main components:

  1. The “storytelling” component — big, structural things, like an exciting plot, good pacing, and engaging characters.

  2. The “language” component — the word choice, sentence structure, and flow of the prose.

Novels for kids often focus on the first component. Without a great story, kids get bored and put a book down. But beautifully crafted language also has it’s place in kid-lit. Well-crafted passages can deepen the emotional impact of a key moment, enhance the action, and bring description to life. So, this week, we’re celebrating the “musicality” of language in books for kids.

Gary Provost provides a wonderful example of musicality. It’s a quote I use often with creative writing students:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

To drive Provost’s point home, I’ve highlighted the short sentences (less than 5 words), the medium-length sentences (5-12 words), and the longer sentences (13 or more words).

Now, let’s look at some examples from the wonderful world of middle grade novels.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon


Yes.There is a witch in the woods. There has always been a witch.Will you stop your fidgeting for once? My stars! I have never seen such a fidgety child.No, sweetheart, I have not seen her. No one has. Not for ages. We’ve taken steps so that we will never see her.Terrible steps.Don’t make me say it. You already know, anyway.Oh, I don’t know, darling. No one knows why she wants children. We don’t know why she insists that it must always be the very youngest among us. It’s not as though we could just ask her. She hasn’t been seen. We make sure that she will not be seen.

Sure enough, we see plenty of different colours on the opening page of Kelly Barnhill‘s novel. A sure sign of musicality! But Barnhill is a Newbery Medal winner, well-known for her gorgeous prose. Can we still find musicality in a more commercial, “popular” book for kids?

Well, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a children’s fantasy author more “popular” in the 21st century than Rick Riordan. Not only are his novels beloved by a generation of readers, he’s also spearheaded a publishing company, Rick Riordan Presents, that produces bestsellers by diverse voices from around the world. So, let’s take a look at the opening passage of the Percy Jackson series.

The Lightning Thief


Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.Being a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.If you’re a normal kid, reading this because you think it’s fiction, great. Read on. I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened.But if you recognize yourself in these pages–if you feel something stirring inside–stop reading immediately. You might be one of us. And once you know that, it’s only a matter of time before they sense it too, and they’ll come for you.Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Once, again, we see a variety of colours and sentence lengths. In THE LIGHTNING THIEF, the mix of short, medium, and long sentences keeps the tone conversational, while simultaneously making Percy’s warnings more engaging. You can’t help but keep reading!

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So, once the “storytelling” components of your manuscript are in place; once the plot is honed and the character arcs are clear, get your highlighter out! Look at the musicality of your language. Examine the length of your sentences. Strive for variety. You won’t be disappointed. This step in the editing process is what helps your words truly sing.

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