Dialogue as Music Part 1: A How-to Guide for Beginners
Clever people tell us that good writing is musical. Qualities like cadence and cacophony; pitch, rhythm, dynamic; pace, tempo and metre, can improve what we write. To do this, the mystical “rules of music” must be applied.
We are, occasionally, assured that these rules can’t be taught. Which is odd, because musicians get taught this stuff all the time. So, in this series of 5 posts I explain how some of the basic concepts of music apply and show them in some new writing. What simple ideas can we use to make our writing musical?[i]
The starting point for this series of posts was a lesson in the Aaron Sorkin Screenplay Masterclass. Sorkin, who writes amazing dialogue, described how he hears it as music and gave a general overview of how he approached this idea. It was inspiring but not particularly technical. I wanted to go into more depth. To help me understand and try out some ideas, I did a bunch of research of musical thinking as applied to writing and turned it into a series of lessons. Although Sorkin (and the title of these posts) talks about dialogue, musical thinking can and should be used with any sort of writing.
It is good advice to listen to opera and musical theatre, watch and read good, musical texts, and read out aloud everything that we write. Yet it won’t teach us how to apply rules of music to writing, or what any of these musical qualities mean to a writer. My original effort to write a blog post that explained some basic rules of musical writing got a little out of hand. My wife tells me that nobody reads long blog posts, so I’ve split it into parts that I will publish over the course of the next week (depending mostly on how much time I need to beat wordpress into obedience)[ii]. All the posts are up now – thanks to everyone who stuck with me while I finished this project!
This was one blog post that grew out of control and had to be split into five parts to save lives and the author’s sanity.
Part 1: “A How To Guide for Beginners.” Introduces the concept of music in writing and shows how we create rhythmic structure through stressed syllables.
Part 2: “Repetition, Alliteration and Assonance.” Explores creating patterns of sound using repetition, alliteration and assonance, and how these drive rhythm, tempo and pace.
Part 3: “An introduction to Cadence.” Introduces the idea of cadence, and describes ways we can use structure to bring all the sounds of a scene together.
Part 4: “Cliché and Rhetorical Figures.” Looks at the use of rhetorical figures to help us create cadence without re-inventing the rhythmic wheel.
Part 5: A Worked Example.” Gives a worked example that takes a script outline with dead dialogue and converts it, using all the techniques described, into “musical” dialogue. Or as close as I can manage.
What is music, and when is writing musical?
Music is an art form that arranges sound by pitch, rhythm and dynamic to produce an emotional effect. Writing becomes musical when it uses the sound of words to give meaning beyond simple definition. So, if you’re thinking about how words sound as much as what they mean, well done, you’re on your way to writing musically!
After individual sounds come groups of sounds. Perhaps the most important quality (and weakness) of human intelligence is that ability to form patterns. Our brain evolved for pattern recognition, and we take a deep, fundamental pleasure from spotting them.
Have you ever noticed that after your first listen through a pop song you know most of the words (and are possibly singing along)? Simple, instantly recognisable patterns are highly effective. If you’re a connoisseur of patterns, however, that sort of candy will only satisfy you for so long. Some people like Coldplay[iii] and Cusslar, others like Joyce’s Ulysses and Jazz. Your appetite for complexity will depend on taste and mood.
But it all comes back to the fact that people enjoy patterns. We can please our audience by building structures they recognise, then playing with their expectations once they seem to be established. So what makes patterns of sound in writing?
The building blocks: Pitch, Rhythm, Tempo and Dynamic
Pitch is the highness or lowness of tone, rhythm is the recurring pattern of sound, tempo is the speed or pace, and dynamic is a measure of change – big changes are more dynamic.
Now if you are looking at qualities like pitch, tempo and dynamic and thinking “but those things belong to the actor,” well, you are absolutely right. If you’re thinking “great, I’ll just write ‘he said, high pitched and fast’” then slap yourself on the head[iv]. If you write pitch and tempo instructions in a script, you’ll piss off the actor. If you do it in prose, you are showing, not telling.
But rhythm belongs to us. Because we choose the words and the order of the words, we control the patterns of sound and the dynamics of dialogue. From the rhythm the pitch and tempo are inferred. Which is nice, but how do we do it? From where does rhythm come?
English is a language that uses implicit stresses. Unlike, say, French, where sentences are all spoken on the same godless, monotonous level[v], English follows a beautiful, mobile flow of emphasise and de-emphasis, stress and calm. Each and every word has its own stress pattern within:
Where you place the stress can even change the meaning of the word:
Contest (noun, a competition)
Contest (verb, a challenge to a statement)
A rebel rebels.[vi]
The stressed part of the word has more force, and as such will usually be said slightly more slowly. Equally, the unstressed parts can slip by like a demoiselle in a floaty dress. Note that single syllable words tend to end up stressed, except joining words (of, and, to), which usually get set aside for the more important parts of the sentence.
Unfortunately for us, regional accents can change stress patterns (Americans put their stress in all the wrong places). But, even taking this extra difficulty into account, the way a word is stressed is an essential part of its use, and if you don’t use it then it will use you. You absolutely have to pay attention to stress patterns.
Organising the pattern of emphasis is the foundation of Anglophone poetry. The example with which every English schoolchild is familiar is iambic pentameter:
But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)
Iambic pentameter just means five pairs of syllables (pentameter) with a stress on every second syllable (iambic), so it comes out sounding like this: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. Shakespeare, clever bugger that he was, organises the words both to make this rhythmic sound and also to stress the important parts of the sentences (light/east/Juliet/sun). Musical writing. Note that, if you’re really good, you’re not just stuck organising one or two syllable words:
Their wand’ring course, now high, now low, then hid
Progressive, retrograde, or standing still. (Milton, Paradise Lost)
The relation of long and short stressed and unstressed syllables is the most fundamental means of managing the musicality of language. Don’t worry, you aren’t stuck with iambic pentameter (for a start, there are lots of other classical structures). But whether we know the name or not, we quickly recognise the rhythm in the words if we organise patterns of stress. And as soon as there is rhythm there is music. Those choose their words to meet a metre, soon will find the music in their words.[vii]
Am I suggesting that you should write in formal metre? Well, only if you want to. I cheated in my example and you should cheat in yours. But by arranging the syllabic pattern we can bring a lyrical flow to our language or, equally usefully, take it away. In my example, the emphasis hung on the last word “words” because it broke the form (Shakespeare does a similar thing with “to be or not to be, that is the question”). Yes, I just compared myself to Shakespeare. But now you can too!
Setting the Beat
In this part of the series I introduced the idea of music as patterned sound, and showed how you can create clear and powerful patterns by organising the stressed syllables in your writing. Part 2, expands this idea to look at the sounds of words, particularly through alliteration, assonance and repetition, and how this changes the rhythm, pace, tempo and pitch of your text. Thanks for reading!
Click here to move on to Part 2: Alliteration, Assonance and Repetition.
[i] Fair warning: the ideas are simple, the implementation is endlessly and magnificently complex.
[ii] WordPress is great and very user friendly. You can tell because I am able to use it at all.
[iii] Cusslar and Coldplay aren’t a particularly good equivalence, but I couldn’t resist the alliteration. Also I’ve been listening to Coldplay today so they were in my head. Likewise, jazz is pretty damned broad while Ulysses is ball achingly specific (love Joyce, hate Ulysses). My point: there’s a lot of room to play with pattern recognition, and different people like different things.
[iv] Don’t actually slap yourself. This blog does not endorse writer self-abuse. Beyond, you know, actually writing, which probably qualifies.
[v] French is a beautiful language. But as a France residing Englishman who struggles with his French I can’t help but take an unfair dig.
[vi] Why yes, now that you mention it, I am rather excited about the new Star Wars film.
[vii] Better examples are available! But, seriously, have a go. Writing in iambic pentameter is really easy if you just do it and don’t think about it, and especially easy if you regularly and liberally cheat (just like Shakespeare).