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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Slow, Slow, Quick Quick Slow: Music in Writing

Today I met a favorite client of mine (hi Mike!) who just so happens to a funny and very gifted writer. As we went over his script pages we discovered that in a few set pieces, his rhythm was off. Just, you know, the scenes weren't working. Too little information was happening at too slow a pace. So we worked on the rhythm of his opening pages and the rhythm of subsequent set pieces and talked about rhythm in writing overall.

Firstly, rhythm is a word I always stumble on when I write it - what word has two h's!? I vote for: rithum. I wonder if in the year 2050 all words will be spelled in the shorthand of text messages. That would be super annoying. I also stumble over "dialogue" because according to my computer, that is a spelling error. Some people spell it simply "dialog". That looks both way wrong and way right to me. Must research.

Again with the digressage.

Just about everything in life has a rhythm or a pattern. The seasons, the day, your life. And so does writing. First act, second act, third act. Set up, complication, resolution. Feel, do, complicate, resolve. And all of this while other stuff is going on like walking, eating and picking up the phone. Your scenes should have an almost balletic feeling to them.

As every comedian knows - ya gots to land the joke. And in this case, ya gots to land the scene. Keep things moving - whether that means physically or the dialogue, or as is often the case, both. Look at the HOW on your page. Yes, you've got the beat, yes your character work is good, but does the scene flow? Imagine that you are a camera; how does this scene look when you watch it? Is the dialogue flowing back and forth between your characters fluidly? What is happening in the background? Is a waitress efficiently balancing an order in her arms? Is the front door opening and closing - what is the choreographed scene happening here and how are your main characters part of it?

In real life, a phone ringing can interrupt a conversation. In reel life it can too - but you made it happen just when it did for dramatic or comedic effect. Feel the rhythm on your page. Is it there or is it stepping on some toes at this point? That's okay if it's a little clumsy right now, but eventually you want to choreograph your scenes in such a way that the scene has a genre-appropriate flow to it. Do you need long pauses? How about short bursts of dialogue and action? Is your romantic comedy couple doing the mental tango while they eat dinner? Is your script a fox trot, a quick-step or a dramatic paso doble? If you were to set your script to music, what would the music be?

This scene from David Mamet's STATE AND MAIN could be set to music. Check it out:

ANGLE interior Walt's office.

I have to tell you, I can not express
to you how happy...

And we're glad to have you here...

My golly, you know? All my life I grew up in the city, but every
summer...would you like a cigar?

(of cigars)
Aren't these illegal?

Why would they be illegal?

...there's a trade embargo against Cuba.


Well, you know, Walt, I just wanted to say that anything I could do...

That's very kind a matter-of fact, one I hate to bother you with...

...not at all...

...we need the shooting permit for Main Street...

Whatever you need. The City Council, of course, has to pass on your...

...the city council...

On your "permit," but that is less than a formality.

WALT is?

I am the City Council. We meet Friday, and I...

George, that is so kind of you.

And, my wife wanted to, wanted me to ask you, we'd like to welcome you,
we'd, she'd like to have you to dinner at our house.
(beat) I don't mean to be...

He hands an invitation to Walt.

Are you kidding me? We would be

Phone rings.

Walt motions to an aide, who writes in green on a production board...Tuesday 12th, dinner, Mayor.

Well, I won't take more of your time...

Walt, it's Marty on the Coast...

We'll see you Tuesday, then...

Walt starts for the phone.

It's one of the great, great pleasures meeting you...

Mayor leaves the office.

It's Marty on the Coast -

On the coast? Of course he's on the coast, where's he gonna be, the

Walt goes to the phone.

(into phone)
What? Marty! Hi. We're...
The new town is cheaper than the other town. We're going to save a...for...because..because we don't have to rebuild the Old Mill, they've got
an Old Mill...they've got a firehouse...they...

A production assistant comes in, installing a piece of equipment. She brushes past the drywipe board, where we see she wipes out "Dinner with the Mayor."

Baby, baby, I want to save the money just as much as you, no it's not coming out of my pocket, it's going into my and your pock...yeah? Okay. A product placement - tell me ab...he's going through a tunnel. (to Production Assistant) Whoa, whoa, wiped out the board. DINNER WITH THE MAYOR, TUESDAY NIGHT, write it in red. That's all we need, to miss Dinner with...

First A.D. sticks his head into the room.

We can't shoot in the Old Mill.

(to phone)
Wait a sec, Marty.

Mamet uses ellipses to create breathing room around his dialogue. It makes it feel as if it overlaps more. Overlapping, slightly stilted dialogue is his trademark. It creates a rhythm in the scene.

And here's a scenelet from a comedy I wrote a million years ago. Quick primer: A newly empowered Ella spirits her Granny away, leaving Lena, the bad-gal-extraordinaire pinned to a tree.

Confused, Lena stares after Granny.

Hey! What about me?

Suddenly - THWANG!

- An arrow slices through Lena’s coat at her shoulder millimeters from her flesh. And pins her to the tree.

Lena looks at the pinned arm incredulously when -


- Another arrow pins her other arm.

Ella lowers the bow calmly.

Get in the car, Granny.

LENA (o.s.)

Lena struggles in vain.

You can’t just leave me here!

WHACK! A pine cone hits Lena’s head. She stares after Ella and Granny miserably.

A moment in a scene of mine has no business being next to a great Mamet scene - but my point is this. Do you see how, in that scenelet of mine, the movement is almost storyboarded? I draw attention to certain parts of the moment purely by where and how I used the words. Notice the creative choice I made:

- An arrow slices through Lena’s coat at her shoulder millimeters from her flesh. And pins her to the tree.

I didn't write:

- An arrow slices through Lena’s coat at her shoulder millimeters from her flesh and pins her to the tree.

I chopped the sentence up because it "lands" better. It's a little funnier to note that the arrow pins Lena to the tree after the brief pause that the punctuation mark created.

Does your scene have a rhythm? Or is it clumsy? Is it as pithy as possible? If you took away the dialogue could you still understand what was going on based on body language, etc.?

Well, as Gene Kelly sang in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS - I got rhythm. I got music. I got my gal, who could ask for anything more? Who could ask for anything more?

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1 comment:

Future Man said...

I got rhythm. I got music. I got my gal, who could ask for anything more?

To drive the point home, I attended a German choral concert and, though I don't know the language, it was evident the singers had nailed the perfect tempo while performing traditional German compositions.

But for a reason I still can't comprehend, the group concluded with an homage to Gershwin. Try to imagine eighteen tall, stiff Germans swaying awkwardly and belting out in Schwarzenegger-mangled English "I got rhythm. I got music. Who could ask for anything more?"

This perfectly encapsulates the experience of reading a script that lacks flow.