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What Is Iambic Pentameter?
In the English language, iambic pentameter is a rhythmic way of speaking and writing that stresses every other syllable. The first is a short syllable followed by a second, long syllable.
Rhythm in English is measured by groups of syllables called “feet” and the foot in iambic pentameter is the “iamb,” which is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. “Pentameter” refers to the fact that it’s written in groups of five iambic feet.
What Are the Uses of Iambic Pentameter?
Iambic pentameter appears in all types of writing, from the Shakespearean sonnets to classic English poetry to blank verse poems. Iambic pentameter is an effective tool for writing dialogue in plays or movies, as it mirrors a comfortable cadence of speech.
Because of its structured stressed-unstressed format, iambic pentameter is generally not found in free verse writing (though, those writers who are particularly in tune with the musical nature of natural human conversation might end up subconsciously adding iambic pentameter to their free verse).
5 Classic Examples of Iambic Pentameter
If you’re looking for examples of iambic pentameter, consult the following famous works:
- “Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart three-personed God” by John Donne
- Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
- Paradise Lost by John Milton
- “The Miller’s Tale” from the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
How Iambic Pentameter Is Used in Contemporary Writing
If you’re thinking iambic pentameter is only for the dead masters, though, look no further than the work of award-winning playwright David Mamet. A prolific dramatist, David won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1984 for Glengarry Glen Ross and earned a reputation for writing working-class characters and for his trademark dialogue.
According to David, iambic pentameter isn’t just a style of writing we learn when we’re forced to read Shakespeare’s sonnets. Instead, he says, it’s the most rhythmically natural way humans speak. So if you want to write dialogue like David, first learn the basics of iambic pentameter then apply them to your characters to lift them off the pages and into real life.
How to Write Better Dialogue With Iambic Pentameter
David is known for his dialogue because it feels natural, both to the actors who are speaking it and to the audience.Your dialogue should be rhythmic because human speech is naturally rhythmic. When you listen to people having a conversation, they’re creating rhythmic poetry; pauses are filled, sentences are capped by the other’s interruptions, all amounting to a patterned cadence. A play is essentially a poem written for several voices.
“You have to write in rhythmic way, because human speech is rhythmic,” David says. “And if you listen to people having a conversation, what they’re doing is creating a rhythmic poetry. They’re filling in the pauses and capping each other’s speech and so forth in a way that is rhythmic.”
The secret to great dialogue therefore lies in the writer’s power of observation. The next time you go to a cafe, bar, or restaurant, take note of the cadence of speech, the “ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM” of iambic pentameter, and translate that into well-crafted yet natural-sounding dialogue.