Friday, January 6, 2017

Zecora and You: A Primer on All the Syllables Except the Last One

As I've mentioned before, I'm pre-reading one DannyJ's ongoing fanfic, To Keep the Fire Burning.  And while editing his most recent chapter, the subject of Zecora dialogue came up.  We talked quite a bit about the rhythm of poetic writing--not just making the words rhyme, but making the meter flow.

Well, I'm not one to write something marginally intelligent and not get all the possible mileage out of it that I can, so here's an edited-for-OMPR-consumption look at my thoughts on writing everyone's favorite zebra.  If you've ever wondered how to give your writing that ineffable (actually, extremely effable) sing-song quality that poetry ought to have, head on down below the break for my thoughts.

For today's spiel, I'm going to be talking about Zecora specifically, but my comments will apply--at least, in the broad strokes--to most verse-writing. I'm also assuming that you have a good handle on what makes words rhyme, so we’re going to skip the Seuss lesson.  Instead, we’ll be talking about rhythm: the cadence of the lines.  What it all comes down to is stressed and unstressed syllables.

So the first thing I want you to do is say this sentence: “Proper enunciation is critical!”  Go on, say it out loud.  Don’t whisper it, either; say it like you mean it.  If you need to take a moment to get to a different room so that your parents/roommates/girlfriend don’t think you’ve gone crazy, go ahead.  I’ll be waiting right here.

Done it?  Good.  Now, if you spoke it like a normal person, you put a bit of emphasis on the first syllables of “proper” and “critical,” as well as on the fourth syllable of “enunciation.”  Those are stressed syllables.  You didn’t stress the word “is,” on the other hand; it’s an unstressed syllable.  That’s all “stressed syllables” and “unstressed syllables” are: the places where you naturally lean in or lay off while speaking a sentence or phrase.

As a further example, try saying that same sentence again, but really emote on the stressed syllables we identified while barely muttering the rest.  Say it like this:

PROper eununciAtion is CRITical!

Good?  Now, if you did that, it probably sounded pretty hammy, like you were an overeager Shakespearean actor intent on chewing every line into cud… but beyond that, it probably didn’t feel to weird.  Overdone, but not weird.

Now, try saying the same sentence like this:

ProPER enunCIation IS critICal!

It took me multiple tries to say it like that at all, because it puts the stresses in the wrong places.  When you said it, it probably sounded like you were having a stroke--where the previous example sounded exaggerated but otherwise natural, this one is a misapplied mess.

Now, let’s talk about Zecora!  She speaks in couplets--presumably, you already know that.  But the rhythm of her lines is (typically--the show screws this up sometimes, too!) four stressed syllables, each split by an unstressed one: dah-DA-dah-DA-dah-DA-dah-DA.

This is called "iambic tetrameter." An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, and tetra- means four, and -meter tells us we're talking about rhythm. Put it all together, and it just means "Zecora speaks in patterns of four unaccented/accented pairs of syllables"--but it sounds fancier if you say "iambic tetrameter." With that last bit of wisdom, you're all well on your ways to getting English majors.

Okay, you say, but how do I tell whether a syllable is accented or unaccented? Well, let's go back to speaking out loud. Again, assuming that you can speak English like a normal human being (not always a fair assumption over the internet, where English might be a language which someone knows only by writing, but one I'm making regardless), you already stress those lines a bit when you talk. And when you did the exaggerated Shakespearean Ham voice a moment ago, you had no trouble telling what lines you were accenting, right? Here, try saying this next sentence like a Shakespearean Ham:

Talking like this is kind of fun!

Now, you--wait, did you actually say that line out loud? You aren't just reading silently along again, are you? Go back and read that out loud, in a really dramatic, over-the-top voice! Come on, we're doing a thing, here.

Okay, now: even though I didn't tell you what syllables you should exaggerate, I'll bet that you really emoted on, say, the first syllable of "talking," as well as on "fun." That's because those are stressed syllables! You can find them without any help from me, as long as you're willing to sound kind of silly. Don't overthink it too much: if you speak English fluently, you already know where the stressed syllables are. You just need to listen to yourself speak, and you'll find them.

Some people find it easier to emote when they're mimicking someone, by the by. If you're one of those people, I highly recommend doing your best BRIAN BLESSED impersonation when reading a sentence to find the stressed and unstressed syllables. Both because he's a line-chewer extraordinaire, and because I just really like him.

Another note: it's generally also okay to play with the unaccented syllables at the start. Take this famous piece of tetrameter:

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,  
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.  

Note that there are two unstressed syllables at the start of each of those lines (if you don't note that, then try reading them aloud in your BRIAN BLESSED voice, and note how the first syllables you'll naturally accentuate in each line are "night" and "crea-"). When you're writing Zecora, don't worry too much about whether you start with one, two, or even no unstressed syllables (in the latter, case, there's an "assumed unstressed syllable" at the start of the line). As long as the unstressed-stressed pattern is maintained the rest of the way, your opening has a bit of flexibility--but you'll still want to make sure, as in the example above, that both lines of your couplet have the same pattern at the start.

Oh, and also: the reason all of this is important--because if it wasn’t important, why do it?--is because the steady stressed-unstressed cadence gives Zecora’s dialogue a lyrical, sing-song quality.  When properly executed, it makes her lines feel organically musical.  That’s a good thing: it both feels innately poetic, and gives a sense of Zecora's removal from normal speech patterns which even an untrained ear can easily detect (even if it can't quantify it). So give your favorite zebra some rhythm!


  1. Yep. One of the reasons why I've never written Zecora is that, being a Spaniard, my accent sounds like a mix between Indian and Japanese (I've been told, at least). This means that while I SOOORTA get the unstressed/stressed right, pronunciation is so off-the-wall that I plain and simple can't tell what rhymes and what doesn't.

    So, if I ever have to write Zecora for whatever reason, she talks in prose. Fuck it. Perfectly notmal prose, no hint of a rhyme, and whenever someone in-universe points out that she's not rhyming, she'll just be confused. Rhymes? She'll ask. What are you talking about?

    And they'll be like Zecora you've been rhyming every single thing you ever said since the day we met you.

    Well, Zecora will reply, that was. Like. A coincindence or something.

    Sorry what.

    Coincidence, I said.



    You rhyming everything was accidental.

    Yeah. I mean you know how sometimes you say something, and the next sentence rhymes with that? Crazy, but sometimes happens. Maybe I've been going through that for the past, uh, five years or so. I live in a weird magical forest, strange things happen here, cut me some slack.

    And there. Fuck it. It couldn't be more transparent if it were made of springwater, but I honestly see it as easier than just asking somebody who knows better English to write EVERYTHING SHE SAYS.

  2. Good sir, I must protest! I must protest at the characterization of the lines in "Twas the Night Before Christmas", which are not iambic at all, and with twelve syllables per line couldn't claim iambic tetrameter status if it begged for it. The unit you want is an anapaest, which stresses every third syllable in a dee-dee-DEE fashion. Observe:

    'Twas the NIGHT before CHRISTmas, and ALL through the HOUSE,

    Not a CREATure was STIRRing, not EEven a MOUSE.

    There is no way to parse those lines as iambic - even as iambic hexameter - without producing some extremely dysphonious pronunciations. It is tetrametric, though.

    Back to the OP: I agree, especially with the suggestion to read out lines to get a feel for the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables. I've written Zecora's lines in three fics, and while I've deviated from the tetrameter (sometimes I just want her to say more than usual in one go, sometimes I thought "she rhymes and it's lyrical, job done as far as I'm concerned"), I usually aim at giving her an iambic structure within her speech, and conserve the couplets. It worked especially well in a fairy tale format, where the rhyming slots into a fairy tale's whimsical anarchy naturally.

    The tricky part is usually making it seem like she's saying perfectly natural things, too. Good advice as it is to read poetry anyway to become familiar with the rhythm, I found Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes are good exemplars of breezy casualness and good order.

    AND I'm from England, home of the best poets in the world. I invoke my national stereotype's right to be an arrogant smartass, what? ;D

    1. I must protest, too! "Twas the Night Before Christmas" is not the poem's title! (A technicality, but hey, I love technicalities.)

      Yeah, there's no way those are iambs in "A Visit from St. Nicholas." I've encountered this before, and it's odd that people have such conviction about iambic pentameter when they misidentify it. There was another reviewer who'd heaped praise on a story-poem, saying it used flawless iambic pentameter, and when I had a look, the syllable counts and rhythms were all over the place. When I asked the reviewer what he meant, he conceded he didn't know poetry very well, which makes it odd that he made such a bold claim about it.

    2. Touché. "A Visit from St. Nicholas", I should have said.

      Bureaucrat Pascoite, you are technically correct. The best KIND of correct! :D

    3. Anapests:

      Are maybe my favorite type of poetic foot. In fact, I just won ten bucks in a poetry contest the week before Christmas with a little parody of "Visit from St. Nick" called "Not a Creature is Stirring."


  3. Yeah, I tried reading out loud in the first instance, but then you suggested that I would have stressed certain words and I hadn't.

    I think I may have the wrong idea about what 'stressing' a syllable means, because after reading this I am genuinely confused about it.

    1. Same, and I have similar trouble with beats in music. I dunno what's wrong with me, but that's probably why I can't appreciate a lot of poetry. Thank God for people like Edgar Allen Poe. I can actually get his stuff

  4. I would've put it as "e-NUN-ci-A-tion" rather than "e-nun-ci-A-tion" (after correcting the spelling), but otherwise it scanned fine for me.

  5. I will bash writers for getting Zecora's dialogue too far off, but I don't sweat the small stuff. It kind of depends on my appraisal of how good the writer is and what he's actually trying for. Canon is close to iambic tetrameter for her, but it's far from exact, so that's generally all I require of stories I'm reviewing. Namely, I want reasonable rhymes, and while I don't enforce any particular rhythm, I will point out when the two parts of a couplet have badly unbalanced syllable counts.

    One thing which will be germane in a moment, and which came to mind when you spoke of variable numbers of unstressed syllables at the start of a line, is that there's a common practice particularly in sonnets to occasionally allow an extra unstressed syllable at the end of the lines in a couplet. This is called female rhyme.

    So I've only written Zecora a few times, and most of them were confined to a small bit of dialogue, because it takes me a very long time to hem and haw over poetry and get the rhyme and rhythm and content just right. I can't spool it out like horizon does.

    Then I got it in my head to write a story featuring her. The idea was she's speak in her couplets for normal dialogue, but that she chose more advanced forms when she told a story. I wanted to do one story as a series of sonnets, which require iambic pentameter (with the aforementioned female rhyme as an option here and there), and another story as a villanelle, which has no set meter, though if one is desired, iambic pentameter is the most common. As long as I was knee-deep in the iambic pentameter anyway, I decided to make all her regular dialogue couplets in that meter, too.

    The story's just over 4k words. It took me 4 damn months to write. Never again.

    And while the plot is more a vehicle for the poetry than anything remarkable, I am pretty damn proud of that poetry. "Friend of a Not-So-Different Stripe," if you want to check it out.

    1. How did I miss that one? Definitely checking it out!

    2. Pretty much this. Going back through the show, it's obvious they don't stick 100% to meter (or rhyme). So long as the two parts of the couplet are close and the rhyme is strong, I'm a bit more forgiving these days.

      Of course, I'll never forgive the show writers for "mon-STER". >:B

  6. Glad to have been an inspiration for a post, even if the inspiration was my ineptitude. But man, writing Zecora is a pain, and I'm never doing it again if I can avoid it. Rhythm and poetry is one of those things that has always eluded me.

    1. Or, to put it another way:

      "To write Zecora is a pain,
      I'm never doing that again!"

    2. Why do you hurt me like this? What did I ever do to you?

    3. "Behold how keen the sharpened tooth
      Of mockery reveals the truth.
      Ineptitude, like blood, will out.
      Two words for you, my friend: chill out!" :D

      (Sorry. Nothing personal; I just couldn't resist. I've used smiley faces in 75% of my posts on one thread already. I may be a bit giddy today...)

    4. @DannyJ: I don't know. What did you ever do to me? :P

  7. I was doing Shatner. Then again, though he's great for getting at least some clear positives for stressed syllables, he might not be so good for accurate or natural seeming placement.

  8. As a student Shakespearean actor, I'm very happy to see a discussion of scansion in a pony fanfic blog!

    I find scansion endlessly interesting, and what's most interesting is when meter is intentionally broken, as it can tell you about a character. (One of my favorite examples is right around the ending of King Lear, where Lear breaks into *trochaic* pentameter with "Never! Never! Never! Never! Never!," which I've heard described as a metric heart attack.)

    So Shakespeare broke perfect iambic pentameter quite a bit, and to apply this to ponyfic, Zecora needn't speak in perfect meter, either. It's best if meter breaks reflect the character's emotions or situation, though (like in Shakespeare). I agree with the suggestions to read dialogue out loud--often that is the only way to really feel rhythm in speech.

    (My favorite poem, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells," also occasionally breaks from its meter, but I still think that the poem has some of the strongest metrical rhythms that I've seen in a poem, so again, I don't think that Zecora's dialogue has to scan perfectly.)