Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Critical Rhythm of Dialogue

Oh, the depths to which I've sunk! Yesterday, I heard the cast of Seinfeld on "Live with Regis and Kelly" and they were discussing the critical role of rhythm in dialogue. Stop snickering! I wasn't watching Regis and Kelly. The kids left the television on. Really. I was busy ordering books at Barnes and Noble online with a gift card from my mother (happy birthday to me!). Of course, when I heard discussion about scriptwriting and dialogue, I did step away from my computer and pay attention.

Now, puhleeeze stay with me on this. I think it's important.

The point made by the Seinfeld cast was that producers and directors rarely, if ever, allowed any of them to deviate even one word from the script. It wasn't that the cast didn't have good ideas, but the rhythm was critical to the comic value of the dialogue. No flexibility.

Okay, so botch up the rhythm and the laughs are gone. That's the first thing you learn in Stand-Up-Comedian 1.01, right? But, I'd heard it before related to script writing.

Ted Elliott says something similar on the Pirates of the Caribbean commentary. There was a portion of dialogue that one of the actors felt was too harsh or brutal or out of character. I don't remember it exactly so if you want a direct quote, put your DVD in. Ted's response was not an objection to change in dialogue as long as the rhythm didn't change. Flexibility as long as the rhythm doesn't change.

Okay, that got me to thinking about other films, programs, and characters who relied heavily on the rhythm of the dialogue. All the examples that come to my mind, however, seem to be for comedic effect. At the moment, I cannot not come up with a single non-comedic situation where I think changing the rhythm of the dialogue would ruin the dialogue.

So, this is my quest: to find out from screenwriters and from studying films if rhythm can be critical in non-comedic situations. I'll report my findings later.


Brett said...
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Brett said...

I've long maintained that rhythm is one of the great under-appreciated factors in any form of writing or speaking. When it's there and working, it's obvious, but when it's not there or not working, everything seems somehow off, and you hear words like "stilted" and "awkward" but seldom do you hear people put their fingers right on the button and said "rhythm."

I always — **ALWAYS** — try to read my stuff aloud (even if so quietly as to be unintelligible to anyone else who might be within earshot) as there's no faking it when a sentence stumbles badly. When I do a dialog pass on a piece, I'll always end up doing a private internal table-read, listening to the character's rhythm and pacing and syncopation.

Great non-comedic examples of rhythm done right?

• Pretty much any line by Red (Morgan Freeman) in Darabont's SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Red's final two minute speech ( "I hope the Pacific is as blue as in my dreams. I hope...." ) is among my all-time favorite movie monologues

• Pretty much anything Kenneth Branagh has said onscreen (THE WILD WILD WEST is absolutely useless and unwatchable for me with the notable exception of Branagh's scenery-chewing Loveless character who has some deliciously florid yet rhythmic rants and speeches).

• Re-read the final courtroom scene in Sorkin's A FEW GOOD MEN and be reminded of just how good the words are — Cruise and Nicholson grab the attention, but it's the words they were given which make that scene.

• CHINATOWN, GODFATHER, and most other of those great classics from the early '70s

When the words are hitting on all cylinders, it's something joyous to behold — like poetry, or a great jazz ensemble, or a fast break in basketball being run to perfection. It's a hundred tiny things not being done wrong, and it's almost never a mere accident. Rather, it's the result of a ridiculous amount of perparation and practice and perfection.

At least, thems my thoughts.

Your mileage may vary.

[previous attempt deleted when I realized I'd only pasted in half of my comment!]

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Excellent examples, Brett.