Finding The Rhythm Of Words
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?