Dialogue as Music Part 4: Cliché and Rhetorical Figure
This is part 4 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. In this part I will talk about how cliché and rhetorical figure can be used to create pattern, and how building a toolbox of rhetoric sets you on the path to writing musical dialogue.
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.
Cliché and Rhetorical Figures
The hard way to achieve cadence in your scenes is to build the patterns from scratch – you may have noticed how hard it was for me to give an example in part 3! But you don’t need to re-invent the wheel. There are, thankfully, a great many pre-made structures to help us out.
Clichés are the easiest way to create pattern recognition, but also the ugliest. They are the Backstreet Boys of literature. Your reader/listener will recognise that the beautiful young man loves them most and true, but it will only trigger any depth of emotional response if your reader/listener is also pre-pubescent[i]. Which is cool if that’s your audience, but even then, candy, bleurgh, who wants to be a dealer of candy[ii]? Her eyes sparkled like diamonds, he took her breath away, the minute I saw her I knew she was trouble. There’s an instant buzz of recognition followed by the hollow rub of malnutrition. Steer clear.
The study of rhetoric, however, teaches us a number of structures and tricks that are timeless and effective. These are known as “figures”: musical phrases that provide focus on key segments. Not only do they make clever use of rhythm, symmetry and structure, but more than two-thousand years of use have made them instantly familiar. If cliché is candy, figures are knowing the right temperature curve at which to melt your chocolate.
Some examples (chosen at whim, there are many more):
Antitheses: “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Neil Armstrong)
Putting opposites together not only provides dramatic tension, but it presents a deeply predictable pattern. One of the first reading exercises you do with young children is opposites (hot/cold, big/small), and it stays with us. If you build a sequence of antitheses the reader will automatically start guessing ahead, a subconscious game of call and response, which either builds to a satisfying climax or opens up opportunities for humour, surprise and subversion.
Progression to Climax: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” (Francis Bacon)
Repeated elements can be used to build towards the most important. This combines well with other rhetoric figures: you may have noticed I like to build concepts in climatic thirds, and it’s easy to see how this could be interwoven with antitheses (above) or anaphora (below). The important part is that your idea grows with each repetition, until it explodes outwards with what you really want to say. Swallowed is bigger than tasted, but smaller than chewed and digested. You get the idea.
Anaphora: “We shall fight them on the beaches… We shall fight in the fields and the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender.” (Winston Churchill)
The repetition of a key phrase at the beginning of each segment creates a sense of inevitability and flow, like rhyming in reverse. This always feels like it works best with nice, active, futury verbs – but maybe that’s just because of the most famous examples. How about: Elephants never prosper, Elephants never pause to think, and Elephants will never, ever stop until each and every one of us is dead! Looks like anaphora works with just about anything…
You will notice that repetition and symmetry are at the core of the figures, and that in turn ties us back to the fundamentals of musical writing. The more you learn and play with rhetorical figures, just as with poetic metres, the more you will internalise the sounds that work and automatically integrate them into your writing. My favourite book of rhetoric is Mark Forsyth’s “The Elements of Eloquence”, but there are a lot of other options and it is well worth investing in one or two.
Your Rhetorical Toolbox
Trying to write without learning rhetoric is like building a house without buying a hammer. Or nails, a saw, a workbench, a drill with a selection of drill bits and a small wifi-enabled device that lets you youtube “how to build a house.” I’m not saying you need to go away and take a classics degree at Oxford. And you’ll know a lot of rhetoric already, because everybody you like who is good knows and uses this stuff already. But you need to grab these techniques in a conscious fashion and make them your own. That doesn’t mean going and buying all the books you can find on rhetoric. That means taking specific rhetorical techniques and trying them out in your own writing. Which is exactly what we’re going to try in Part 5.
Click here to move on to Part 5: “A Worked Example.”
[i] …Or first encountered those clichés when they were pubescent and still finds they carry powerful connotations. Which is why I am convinced that all the music I listened to when I was a teenager was actually deep and meaningful, not like this rubbish pop trash the kids listen to nowadays. “Everything I do, ooooooh, I do it for you” – so deep, so meaningful, thankyou Bryan for the hours of pain pre-pubescent Keith inflicted on his parents!
[ii] You want to be a dealer of candy? Great, good for you. A certain amount of well-placed cliché has helped any number of authors sell millions upon millions of books. Personally, however, I am not brave enough to believe I know the difference between a well-placed cliché and a boring cliché. Easier, by far, to be original than to be good with cliché.