Dialogue as Music Part 2: Alliteration, Assonance and Repetition.
This is part two of my beginner’s guide to writing musical dialogue. How can we use sound and rhythm to create beautiful writing? In part one I introduced the idea of music as a predictable pattern of sounds and beats, and showed how in English we can organise the stressed syllables in words to produce rhythm. In this part I will expand the idea to include the sound of words, through alliteration, assonance and repetition. I will talk about how this impacts rhythm, tempo and pace, before finishing with the concept of cacophony and noting that you can indeed have too much of a good thing.
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.
More Patterns: Alliteration, Assonance and Repetition
Syllabic stress is not the only way that we can build patterns. The easiest way is simple repetition of words. Using the same word several times can become heavy handed, particularly in the same sentence, but it builds powerful rhythm and symmetry. Got a word you really want the audience to hear? Repeat it. Repeat it three times. Repeat it three times and then add a flourish.[i]
More subtle than repeating words is repeating sounds. Alliteration is the repetition of constants and assonance the repetition of vowel sounds; working with words, always stays astray. The pattern is pleasing to the ear. More than that, alliteration and assonance lend meaning beyond the words. Alliteration is punchy and emphatic. It speeds things up. Vowel heavy assonance is emotive and musical; o’s and a’s may sound sad, while i’s can sound energetic and determined. Contrary to alliteration, assonance usually slows you down (but read it out loud to see how it works with the rest of your text – your actor will usually try to emphasise the repetition, which may in turn speed things up!)
Rhythm, Tempo and Pace
Ok, so we’ve used syllabic stress, alliteration, assonance and repetition to create a rhythm. But what’s the point? Maybe “beauty for beauties sake” – in which case, congratulations, you’re a poet, get thee to a poettery[ii]. But rhythm is practically useful beyond mere beauty.
Tempo and pace have an enormous impact on the emotional message of the words. Slow tempo can be more considered and thoughtful. Broken rhythms come across as confused and hesitant, and will be delivered with varied pace. High tempo and pace are dramatic and exciting, while faster dialogue also tends towards higher pitches. Changing tempo and pitch creates dynamic, making the body of the work more interesting to read and stimulating emotional range. Dance my actor puppets dance.
Short words are fast paced. A longer, more elaborate sentence constructed around clauses, sub-clauses and the occasional glorious linguistic adventure slows us down. It’s not just a question of syllables. Did you notice that “occasional glorious linguistic adventure” lacks alliteration or assonance? Occasional oddly ornamental orthography is faster-paced even though it has harder words and makes less sense. We don’t have to tell the actor to speak quickly or slowly. That sucker works for us now.
Finally, and crucially, short sentences between two or more actors build pace. Move between thoughtful a polysyllabic monologue and a short stabbing duologue, and your scene will be dynamic before it even has content.[iii]
Cacophony is a discordant mixture, a bad noise, it is your six-year-old with a recorder. That sounds like it should be avoided[iv], at least unless you’re an exceptionally talented jazz aficionado. But, unless you’re an epic poet, you don’t necessarily want your text to be consistently musical. Fixed metre is beautiful but exhausting – even Shakespeare used to break it down and mix it up – and by moving between cadence and cacophony (musical and non-musical) text you can achieve greater dynamic (contrast).
It’s well worth taking a careful look at transcripts of real speech (try googling transcripts of court cases). Real speech a mess. People, sometimes even trained barristers, are really very bad at talking. But good dialogue can work anywhere on a spectrum between the real and the operatic. Being able to move between one and the other is a powerful tool.
Of course, a cacophony is more extreme than simple “real” dialogue. If you’re really clever you can go beyond simple non-musical speech into the truly cacophonous – rhythms and structures that sounds truly bad, ugly noises that break the ears and hurl the mind through the cellar door[v]. Good luck with that and let us know how that poetry retreat at the poettery[vi] is working out for you.
Sound and Rhythm
In this part I talked about alliteration, assonance and repetition as ways to make patterns of sound, that both form meaning beyond the words and help create a structural flow to the text. In part 3 I will introduce the concept of cadence, where the sounds of the whole scene are drawn together to a satisfying close. Buckle your seatbelts. Things start getting complicated from here!
[i] Yes, I’ve snuck in a rhetorical trick. We’ll come to that soon!
[ii] That joke was funnier in my head. Except now I’m dreaming of poettery’s where everyone wears robes and speaks in deep, sonorous sentences. Or is that just the inns of court. Lawyer joke! Aaaaah!
[iii] Content is also recommended.
[iv] Not your six-year-old. I’m sure they are very talented.
[v] Tolkien joke! Probably didn’t work! Was cellar door supposed to sound good or bad!? Aaaah!
[vi] I figure any joke that bad is work repeating.