Finding The Rhythm Of Words

The Arts

Words can fall so perfectly on notes that you can’t tell which came first.

Whenever I’m stuck on a chapter, particularly one that demands an amusing situation, I read about other writers discussing their craft, from Noel Coward or the Simpsons/Seinfeld writers to stand-ups.

Recently I returned to the older end of British comedy writing. A new set of ‘collectables’ has been released by the BBC, still milking their old radio shows, but there was an interview I hadn’t heard before with Galton & Simpson explaining how long they took arguing over the word ‘very’ in the sentence, ‘Why, that’s very nearly an armful!’ in ‘The Blood Donor’.

I fully appreciate the trick of this. The outburst is Hancock’s desperate attempt at precision even in a moment of indignation and hard to get right (the writers were finally scuppered by their star’s collapse of confidence and reliance on cue cards). Certain words fit into actors’ mouths better than others. Galton & Simpson wrote sounds for Hancock’s intonations. They understood his speech patterns and fitted their lines accordingly.

This is a rare skill and not used enough. As a wordsmith you’re only as good as your actors. I’ve had actors read my lines without any understanding them at all, which means the words fall flat however they’re said. The two best comic actors I ever worked with in terms of understanding why certain phrases are funny were Leslie Nielsen and Kenneth Williams, both of whom could have read telephone directories and lent them drama. I wish I had worked with Betty Marsden, who also had this odd ability to wring humour and pathos from the flattest lines.

Wodehouse, obviously, was a master of the form, reworking the same plot over and over into ever more abstract forms. But as a songwriter, Victoria Wood instinctively knew which words were funny when placed together, understanding that the addition of a detail adds peculiarity. She made simple phrases like ‘I popped the triplets in the Wolseley’ and ‘tapped her on the cleavage with a pastry fork’ inexplicably amusing.

Or is it inexplicable? Much of her work fits iambic pentameter, the beating of the heart, the natural rhythm of words. Musicians often know how to script well because they hear the music in the human voice. The Gershwins knew how to make words flow in precise harmony but were also able to incorporate social comment into them. Words fell so perfectly on notes that you couldn’t tell which came first.

This goes back to folk music reflecting calls, chants and rhythmic sounds of daily life, something I’m researching for a book at the moment.

Radiohead in the song ‘Creep’, Madness in ‘Our House’ and Beyoncé in ‘Love on Top’ all match word shapes with sounds. Tim Minchin, another fine songwriter, can actually cause ripples of shock with sudden word changes. In Neil Simon’s ‘The Sunshine Boys’ Walter Matthieu has a rant about words, insisting that those starting with a K are funny. The trick, I feel, is not to over-analyse which words are funny but to fit sentences like items of clothing, finding out which goes with what.

Tennessee Williams was also a fine short story writer; ‘The Mysteries of the Joy Rio’ concerns visits to a cinema and sexual discovery, but its language is entirely created to evoke an atmosphere. Words lengthen and stretch to create sensuality, just JG Ballard using the language of jewellery to evoke ‘The Crystal World’.

MRC Kasasian’s Sidney Grice books are a recent discovery for me, for it seems he has this rather old-fashioned skill of phrase-turning. Kate Atkinson has an elegant fluidity with her descriptions, although her characters often strike me as cold. This gracefulness can be found in non-fiction too; Jason Goodwin’s ‘Lords of the Horizons’, about the Ottoman Empire, is astonishingly visual in its creation of word images.

Why then are so many crime novels flatly written? It’s as if someone has told the author that the only way to maximise readership is to simplify the language to the point of imbecility. Why should not a book or a script be as pleasurable to read for the words as the plot?


16 comments on “Finding The Rhythm Of Words”

  1. Bronwen says:

    This is fascinating, Christopher. Who else would appreciate Radiohead’s word shape? Thank you.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Arthur Bryant certainly uses words in a unique and very enjoyable way, mon vieux fromage.

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    I think it will turn again. there was a time purple prose was the fashion, we slowly moved away until terse became simplistic. Readers want something new and someone with a flair for rhythm will start to move it back. For words there will always be Will Self.


  4. Liz Thompson says:

    Look forward to the book with the folk lore/music research in it. Big fan of folk tale and Childe ballads.

  5. Roger says:

    ” Leslie Nielsen and Kenneth Williams… could have read telephone directories and lent them drama.” Michael Redgrave read from “The Anthology of Huntingdonshire Cabmen” with suitable drama.

  6. Richard says:

    I’ve always enjoyed my namesake’s ability to make any old tosh sound dramatic, doom-laden, or plain threatening. ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy’ probably wasn’t something the writer imagined becoming the best-remembered line in his novel/script.

  7. Martin Tolley says:

    The rhythmical qualities of writing, I think, depend on slow reading, or reading aloud to oneself as you go along. Many of the writers you cite are thinking in those “aloud” terms – Coward and Wood were songwriters, Galton and Simpson radio writers. As I recall many writing partnerships like Nordon and Muir spoke their lines to each other as part of the process

  8. Ken Mann says:

    Denis Norden recounted the anecdote of watching a film that contained the exchange “Women are different from men – Ah, Monsieur is a philosopher” and laughing out loud. The only other person in the audience laughing was Frank Muir.

  9. Ken Mann says:

    Also – rereading some Gene Wolfe. He wrote good sentences.

  10. Jan says:

    I’m sure lots of present day writers read police reports which are written in a very flat style giving position of witness in relation to the recorded incident, length of time incident took p!ace over.etc. The acronym for this being “ADVOCAT”. ( I’ll e mail you a little joke about that particular acronym ). Then I reckon writers copy either consciously or unconsciously this police Sometimes it works quite powerfully. More often than not it is snooze style.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    I’m pleased that you mentioned Madness. They have always used language as illustration. If they sing about a person, place, or object, one can picture it perfectly. Even on ‘B’ sides or EP tracks, the detail is there. ‘Deceives The Eye’, about a shoplifter, for example. The heartbreaking ‘One Better Day’, is another. ‘We Are London’ yet another. I could have written a list of 100+ Madness songs, all of which can be easily visualised and remembered because of the flow of the lyrics, the careful juxtaposing of intelligent and inane, serious and funny, the dark and light. Not bad for a band that some people, even after forty years, consider a ‘funny pop band’. Those people have obviously never actually listened properly to their music.
    Another band who know the value of juxtaposing light with dark, and the joy of language, were Swindon’s finest, XTC. My favourite track of theirs is a late one: ‘Dear God’, which took my breath away the first time I heard it.

  12. Jan says:

    Ian you are well right about “Madness”.

    Suggs, who is a real Londonista by the way, is a really talented bloke I reckon. Yet he’s almost overlooked.

    1. Because he never takes himself or his work in a very serious fashion and 2. (Which I think I am going to put very badly) he’s classless in a way a very ordinary man from an ordinary working class background who doesn’t operate in the same sphere as many other London biographers I believe that lots of London writing does take the form of people writing biogs. of the place. More so perhaps than any other city I can think of.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – If you haven’t already, may I suggest that you read ‘Suggs And The City’. It’s a superb book, and very definitely a love letter to London, and a London that was vanishing fast. It’s a book full of brilliant stories, both from the past of London, and the past of Graham McPherson, esq. (or Suggs, as most people know him). I’ve read it many times, and it still entertains.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Madness do create material which can be very dark indeed, sometimes enclosed in a jaunty tune, to sugar the pill, so to speak. Stuff like: ‘Mrs Hutchinson’, about medical malpractice; ‘Time For Tea’, about the perils of kids playing with an old fridge, and possibly one of the most chilling songs recorded by anyone, ever. ‘Tomorrow’s Dream’. It seems jaunty enough – until you know the lyrics, and realise that the ‘person’ singing the song, is in fact, an ape in a laboratory, watching the other animals in the lab being experimented on in the name of ‘progress’. It’s one of the few Madness songs I don’t play very often.

  15. Dave Kearns says:

    This is, to me, the big difference between Christie and Sayers. Christie was a plot genius, but Sayers knew how to write so that you wish to re-read and keep reading her words. THe same could be said of M.C. Beaton and Peter Lovesey: both writing of Scotland, both with good plots, but Beaton always makes me wish for more .words, more flow, more lyricism. Lovesey, of course, makes all of his characters so very interesting that you want to sit down with them, have a pint, and talk about whatever topic should arise.

  16. Jan says:

    Ian I’ve got “Suggs + the City” it’s a smashing book. My Xmas pressie.

    He recently did a Radio4 series about London which to my shame I didn’t get to hear at all. This guy knows his stuff certainly.

    Breadth of his knowledge is impressie

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