The Rhythm of Dialogue

Thinking about film equivalents of "prose" and "poetry".

I am a Dialogue Person.

When writing a first draft of fiction, my building blocks are made of dialogue. After, I go back in and add setting, and interiority, and descriptions. But the dialogue is the foundation for the piece. At some point, I trained myself to track real-life conversations as they happened, to better understand how people arrive at specific topics by chance.

IN MY OPINION – and for the sake of argument in this article, I urge you to agree, even if temporarily – in television and movies, there are instances of “prose” and “poetry”. The equivalent of “prose” is the dialogue and the action on the page: the literal words in the screenplay. The equivalent of “poetry” are the visuals, the audio, the atmosphere, the impressions created around the dialogue.

Let’s take a look.

You can always tell when a new character on Gilmore Girls is here to stay. Thus surmises my sister: you can tell by their speech pattern and whether or not it matches the famously quippy, rhythmic patter of Lorelai and Rory.

That pitter patter is a big reason why viewers tuned in to Gilmore Girls for so many years. (And might keep tuning in?) It is “prose” distilled to its essence – there really isn’t much “poetry” going on.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have more experimental films without dialogue, where the ambiguity of the scene is the point.

I was thinking about the rhythm of dialogue, since Emma. is streaming on HBOMax now and my patient muzh has agreed to sit through it. (It was the last film I saw in theaters before the pandemic, so whether or not I continue to love the color palette and the people who look like aliens [except for Jane Fairfax! why is Jane Fairfax the only normal-looking person in this movie!!] and the glorious costumes until the end of time, it will always hold a special place in my heart. No joke, I will probably burst into tears the first time I sit in a dark theater again.)

Emma. has a great combination of “prose” and “poetry”.

It’s got such a tight screenplay, while at the same time it makes use of a charming score and soundtrack and a pastel visual palette for the gods.

The rhythm found in Emma.’s dialogue is an essential part of its comedy. Comedic timing, the surprise element – they rely on expectation and its subsequent subversion.

(Don’t look into that too deeply; I try not to philosophize or read about comedy too much, for fear that it will disintegrate before my eyes and cease to have meaning.)

But rhythm can be found even in the unassuming conversation. Why is it such a treat to listen to well-structured conversations?

It’s a known fact of television and movies that dialogue is an idealized, heightened version of reality.

Movie talk is what would happen if everyone said what they mean on the first try.

Part of the enjoyment of movie dialogue may be a wishful thinking on our parts to be able to talk like that on a whim, but there’s also pleasure to be found in the musicality of a well-crafted scene.

Flirty dialogue is fun, because it makes talk sexy.

There are other kinds of rhythm, though.

The long, meandering conversations in Before Sunrise have their own dreamy rhythm that is just as reliant on chemistry as the aforelinked pickup scene in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days:

The other element wrapped into both of those scenes is the utter delight of watching two attractive people flirting. It changes the scene completely! Instead of being goal-oriented – where you’re like, Okay, these two people are going home together, or, These two people are about to embark on a crazy journey together – we actually get to experience some of the pleasure that the characters are experiencing. They’re creating pleasure for us, not just to be watched by us.

And I’m not saying we should all go Edgar Wright and fetishize rhythmic editing like he does in Baby Driver (warning: profanity ahead):

And of course it’s interesting to hear the opposite, such as when Steven Soderbergh eschews the banal standards of Hollywood to make his dialogue sound like “normal” conversation, replete with stutters, in Magic Mike.

Using the sensibilities of poetry to craft dialogue elevates it. Awareness of rhythm and how words sound together, apart, in sequence, contrasting to each other, spaced out, squished together, affects the words’ impact.

There’s power, I think, in finding different perspectives about the aspects with which I’m most familiar.