This week the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an absolutely heartbreaking story on the death of one child who was failed by a system designed to protect him from the monsters in his own family. It will absolutely make you cry. I read it twice. And it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck both times. It is an unhappy story of the short life and horrible death of Eric Dean who didn’t make it to his fourth birthday. It begins like this:
Bruises covered 3-year-old Eric Dean’s face. A scab formed above his lip. His ear bled from a red welt.
Before his stepmother, Amanda Peltier, left him at his new day care, she bent down to meet his blue eyes and told the boy to say he fell down.
Day-care provider Colleen Myslicki watched in disbelief. After studying the strange puncture wounds on Eric’s face and ear, she realized they were bite marks. Later that day, she asked him what happened.
Eric’s reply: “Mommy did it.”
Try reading that passage aloud. Do you notice the musical meter? Three short, declarative, sentences are followed by the languid comma-filled second paragraph. In fact, the first three sentences form a rhythmic funnel. They are sentences of 11 syllables, followed by eight, followed by six, before the second paragraph allows you room to breathe. After that, the sentences unfold like this: Short, longer with one opening clause, repeat. Finally crescendo: Eric’s reply: “Mommy did it.” …
This is how Mozart would do it.
There are other points worth making about this story. It’s not click bait. It doesn’t lend itself to art. Staff crafted some digital tricks in the form of a timeline and other stuff online. It’s short on quotes because people implicated in the death of a 3-year-old don’t talk about it much. It makes excellent use of public records.
But the lesson today is in the beat. Please consider the rhythm of your prose. Make music and you win readers. Let the beat serve you.