Dialogue as Music Part 3: Introduction to Cadence
This is part 3 of my beginner’s guide to musical writing. How can we use sound and rhythm to create beautiful writing? Parts 1 and 2 looked at the building blocks; stress, alliteration, assonance and repetition to create satisfying patterns. Part 3 starts pulling these things together with the concept of cadence. How do we build an overall pattern, and how to unify it with a satisfying final note?
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 Cadence?
Cadence is a word with many meanings, including a specific linguistics meaning (to do with pace and the speed at which we speak) and a musical meaning (to do with satisfactory resolution of a phrase). Often, when writers talk about cadence, they just mean “it sounds good” and everyone nods sagely. Which is great, but totally unhelpful if you’re trying to learn how to do it.
So, how might we apply cadence from music theory to achieving that sort of cadence in writing?
Cadence in music means a configuration of notes that gives a sense of conclusion. Strong cadence gives a strong sense of finality. But weak cadence doesn’t mean bad cadence. It may draw things together while leaving movement into the next phrase. Cadence is a way of finishing well, whether it is the big bang at the end of the play or closing notes that tie up a scene while leading us on to the next.
In music theory cadence is usually derived from the positions of notes in scales. An authentic (and strong) cadence moves from the V to I note or chord at the end of the sequence, used frequently by, for example, Beethoven, might be compared to a half (and weak) cadence where the cadence ends on the V note or chord of the sequence. Confused? Don’t worry about it. There are many, many more types of cadence than this. Being confused goes with the territory. But the important part is that there are patterns in music that we recognise as finishing off a sequence.
It’s not just a question of tonality. Rhythmic cadence – cadence achieved by the beat rather than the notes – is important in both music and poetry. For a start, strong cadence is more likely to be achieved on a downbeat (the DUM rather than the DA). Equally, the natural flow and pauses of ordinary speech encourage certain patterns of breathing, and so you are likely to get a stronger cadence from a moment where you might ordinarily take a breath. Using a particular metre makes achieving rhythmic cadence easier, but then there’s a whole school of poetry[i] that argues one should use rhythmic cadence as a substitute for metre!
So we achieve cadence in writing by drawing together a section, rhythmically and tonally, to complete the pattern established in the section, either for a strong finish or with a lead in to the next phrase. That’s great, but how the heck do we do it?
The clever way of achieving cadence
To achieve cadence, first we make a pattern, then we complete the pattern.
I have talked about using rhythm, repetition and sound to emphasise the ideas and emotions in your passage. This works on a phrase by phrase basis, but also creates an overarching structure in your scene. The alliteration in line 30 will call back to that in line 10. You can create patterns of sounds in exactly the same way as a pattern of numbers or a pattern in a drawing: regular repetition while playing on themes.
The important concept is that you need to end the scene in a way that either ties together and moves us forward from the pattern of sounds (weak cadence) or brings everything together with a bang and closes us up (strong cadence – I’m afraid of Virginia Woolf.)
Now, you can’t just make a formula for this and chuck your dialogue inside. Even if you could (and people have tried), you would end up with prose that was lifeless, dull and dead. I don’t want to sound like all those people who say “it can’t be taught”, because usually that just means “I don’t understand this well enough to teach it,” but essentially you’re going to have to find the patterns for yourselves.
But, if you need somewhere to start, there are some standard patterns with which you will already be familiar. Remember being taught essay writing in schools? The four paragraph essay (syllogistic essay, don’t ask) goes like this: introduce your topic, make an argument for, make any argument against, then synthesise the arguments with a closing statement.
If you substitute argument for sounds, then you start with the key sounds, play with it and expand upon it in the first section, make a contrary sound of shift in the second, then return to the key sound with an element of the contrary in the conclusion.
In poetry, sonnets work a similar way. They are structured around three stanzas (four lines rhyming A,B, A,B) followed by a rhyming couplet. The first stanza introduces the core idea, the second and third play with it, then the rhyming couplet at the end provides a “turn” – either shifting the mood or revealing an idea while calling back to that original idea.
Here’s a deliberately silly example of stealing a syllogistic structure for sound to achieve a semblance of cadence:
|Fred: What’s a long low load?||1. Introduce the idea and the sound|
|Bob: You don’t know?||2. Explore the idea and expand on the sound – lo and know rhymes, obviously, but also we’re expanding on the concept.|
|Fred: How do you know?|
|Bob: I studied. I went to school. I majored in poetry as a Sophomore.||3. Provide a contraposition. Note I’ve switched rhetorical technique, and the sound and pace shifts with it. I don’t really know what a Sophomore is, but went with it for the “so” sound and the impression of expansion of story.|
|Fred: Your parents are proud?|
|Bob: I don’t know.||4. Draw the ideas together and return to the first with a twist- here, we’ve just repeated the first sound and added the hint of the “so” from section 3. Of course, with actual substance you can make your turn much more interesting!|
|Fred: So, that’s a long low load.|
It’s a very silly example, and probably sounds more like Green Eggs and Ham than decent dialogue. In a normal scene your sections would be meatier, you’d have more ideas to play with coming into your conclusion, and of course you’d be just as interested in the meaning of the words as the sound. But hopefully the example shows a type of process by which you can achieve cadence.
There are lots of other ways you can explore rhythm and tone to establishing a pattern in your scene. Shifts of direction, for example where you start with simple words, raise into a complex monologue, then return to similar simple words, create a natural symmetry. You can build rhythm steadily, suggesting it in one or two phrases before realising it in the turn. It’s well worth exploring other examples of poetic structure, beyond simple sonnets, and stealing liberally!
Conclusions on Cadence
Cadence is a concept both difficult and controversial. I am keen to avoid embroiling myself in the arguments of poets and literary theorists. But, as a writer, it is worth bearing in mind that achieving cadence in your text is not a magic trick. Think about a) the overall structure and dominant sounds, b) introducing your key tonal and rhythmic theme early (like, first lines early) then returning to it with a turn at the end of the passage, and c) using rhetorical figures and metre to highlight key points (explored in part 4). Read poetry, read texts of rhetoric, write poetry, write your own examples of rhetoric, and think about your writing as a whole rather than a collection of individual phrases.
Having introduced cadence in its broadest sense here in Part 3, in Part 4 I’m going to look at rhetorical figures as a means to achieve recognisable patterns that can put you on the path to cadence.
Click here to move on to Part 4: Cliché and Rhetorical Figures.
[i] The imagist movement.