Last year I wrote about the shaping of words, and how we can learn from music and the spoken word when writing books. Scriptwriters Galton & Simpson explained how long they argued over the word ‘very’ in the sentence, ‘Why, that’s very nearly an armful!’ in their famous radio/TV episode ‘The Blood Donor’. The trick of this was in the performer’s desperate attempt at precision in a moment of indignation. Certain words fit into actors’ mouths better than others. The writers understood their actor’s speech patterns and altered their lines accordingly.
This is a rare skill and not applied often enough. I’ve had actors read my lines without understanding them so that the words fall flat however they’re said. Happily in my audiobooks the excellent Tim Goodman ‘gets’ what he’s being asked to say. An actor can often make lines resound in a way that surprises the writer. PG Wodehouse and EF Benson were both masters of the musicality of language, reworking plots into ever more abstract forms. To hear the wonderful Geraldine McEwan strangle and stretch Benson’s dialogue is still a joy. A BBC remake failed to capture the oddness of Lucia and Georgie’s speech. Lucia is almost singing – Georgie is in a permanent fugue state.
As a songwriter, Victoria Wood constructed sentences like lyrics. Phrases like ‘I tapped her on the cleavage with a pastry fork’ is only amusing if you keep ‘pastry’ in there. This is because a lot of her dialogue loosely fits iambic pentameter, the beating of the heart, the natural pulse of words. Musicians recognise cadences in the human voice, and writers should know that there’s a bounce and flow to musical language that can be applied to books. It helps if you’ve worked with actors. and know the natural rhythm of their speech.
This musicality in language is, I think, essential to finding the rhythm of a character. It goes back to folk music reflecting calls, chants and the rhythmic sounds of daily life, a turning wheel, a squawking bird, the sounds of nature and the city, of machinery and church bells.
Debussy’s seascape music, Radiohead’s song ‘Creep’, Groove Armada’s ‘At The River’, the Modern Major General from ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ and the Kinks’ ‘Lola’ all match word shapes with sounds. Tim Minchin, another fine songwriter, causes ripples of shock with unexpected word changes. A consonant can lie ahead like a brick in the road and cause you to trip. The trick is not to over-analyse which words are funny but to fit sentences like items of clothing, finding out which goes with what. Rhythm is the key.
Mike Leigh’s collaborative social dramas and comedies added heightened realism but create a unique sense of theatricality around the words, especially when you consider they’re ‘devised’, not written. In ‘Short & Curlies’ Alison Steadman adopts an extraordinary tone of nasal suburbia that turns her every utterance into a catchphrase.
Theatrical dialogue is often call-and-response, especially if it’s comedic – and the response is often funnier if it’s shorter than the call. People misunderstand each other all the time, something I can exploit in the Bryant & May books. It’s got to the point where you get the gist without entirely understanding what they’re talking about.
‘Good idea,’ said Bryant. ‘Don’t worry about the cow going blind.’
‘I think it’s a horse.’
‘Going blind. Not a cow.’
‘I have no idea, John, I live in Zone One.’
So when writer consides plot, characters, atmosphere and themes, they would do good to consider the musicality of language too.