Shifting tempo

I’ve been reading Elaine Sciolino’s new book, “The Only Street In Paris.” In addition to giving us a window on the social fabric of a Paris neighborhood, Sciolino offers some very skillful writing.

Check out these lines where she’s describing the types of people who populate the street at different hours:

By day, the rue des Martyrs belongs to longtime residents, stroller-wheeling parents, curious outsiders, and shoppers of all ages. Bicyclists and motorcyclists compete with bus drivers and motorists to frustrate even the most determined pedestrians. On the lower, more gentrified end of the street, young people might linger over an iced green tea and white chocolate cookie at KB Cafeshop or a waffle at Café Marlette, known for its prepared organic muffin and pancake mixes.

By night the tempo shifts. The night belongs to the young.

Notice how Sciolino pulled this off. She starts with long, leisurely sentences that mirror the rhythm of a stroller-wheeling parent or the slow progress of pedestrians threading their way through traffic. A 19-word sentence, followed by a 16-word sentence, and finally a luxurious 40-word sentence. By now we’re at the gentrified end of the street. People linger over their food, and Sciolino lingers over her scene.

With the coming of night, the tempo of the street changes, so Sciolino changes the tempo of her sentences: five words, then six words.

A well-crafted sentence matches style with content.

That doesn’t mean every single sentence has to be perfectly sculpted in this way. Once Sciolino has alerted us to the change in tempo, she stretches out again with long sentences. The key is in using a few of those well-crafted sentences to set a scene.

As you get into the fine-tuning of your writing, see how well you use the tempo of your sentences to evoke a mood. Luxurious and restful? Tense? Skipping along like a kid who has just run outside the school for recess? Or perhaps a steady march from Point A to Point B?

Sciolino made her name as a reporter, first for Newsweek and then for the New York Times. She wrote about the Iranian revolution, the CIA, the United Nations and other hard-nosed subjects. So while the new book is a lot of fun, it’s also full of solid reporting. Of course you should buy a copy. But Sciolino also knows about marketing through social media, so she has posted a few videos to complement the text.


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