Cadence and Orson Welles

My favourite shot of Welles as I believe that smile and those eyes tell me everything I need to know about the man

My favourite shot of Welles as I believe that smile and those eyes tell me everything I need to know about the man

Being a good writer necessitates having a good eye and a good ear.

The good eye is the attention to details that will help you paint a word-picture of what you have seen with your physical eyes and processed in your mind’s eye. It’s not necessarily about writing long-winded passages of backgrounds or going into minute detail of a character’s physical attributes (I’ve done plenty of that), but rather in choosing the most precise and meaningful words to describe the environment or the person.

The good ear is the attention to how people communication and how they speak, not always the same thing. Again, it involves finding the right words and inflections (at least implied inflections) that give the reader and actor clues as to who this person is. And perhaps just as importantly, it is about finding just the right cadence for your character’s speech patterns.

If you listen really closely to a conversation, you’ll realize that there is little difference between speaking and singing. There is a rhythm, a cadence to speaking. Conversation is an improvised duet sung a capella. But unlike a traditional song which may have a subset of arrangements, each of us sings to our own tune, with our own rhythms and inflections. It is one of the many things that sets us apart from each other.

When writing characters, it is important to keep this in mind as all too often, a group of characters can have a certain monotone, which I use not to imply flatness so much as sameness. Often, I believe, it occurs when the writer neglects to add variety to his characters’ speech patterns and instead writes them with one voice; his or hers.

The best writers don’t make this mistake…or at least minimize its occurrences. Each character he or she presents us is truly unique, jumps off the page or screen, provides his or her own internal musical accompaniment.

One of my favourite writers of the last decade or so is Aaron Sorkin whose overall writing has its cadence but whose characters also tango (or more often tarantella) across the screen. Read the pilot to The West Wing or the screenplay for The Social Network and you will know you’re reading Sorkin.

But for me, perhaps a better example is Orson Welles, the man who would be Kane.

Recently, someone discovered a long-lost unproduced screenplay by Welles called The Way to Santiago, written in 1940-41. Another blogger discussed the find recently, and provided a link to the actual screenplay (see link below). You only have to read a couple of pages to remind yourself (or educate yourself on) how Orson Welles wrote and the energies he imbued in his characters, each one a snowflake of facets and reflections.

The opening page of The Way to Santiago

The opening page of The Way to Santiago

Now, listen to the films or read the screenplays of The Third Man, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil. Although you may question the choice of actors, you can clearly hear or see the distinctions in the characters. Bathe in the richness and depth of each one as he or she is captured for this brief moment. This is the stuff of which dreams are made.

It is also interesting to consider that Welles got his start on stage and in radio, where the human voice plays such a larger role in conveying a story than it does in film. There is much less to occupy the mind onstage or in radio and so dialogue carries a significant burden of not only informing but also entrancing the listener.

Although the stories I write are distinctly different from the Wellesian oeuvre, there is much I can and do learn from this master of the written word. He is worth the read and the listen.

A classic image of Welles in his radio days

A classic image of Welles in his radio days

Links of interest:

The Way to Santiago at Cinephilia and Beyond

The Way to Santiago, starring Howard Hesseman on Vimeo (A valiant but not brilliant attempt)

“Thank You, Mr. Welles: Definitive actor, consummate director, and true auteur” at Curnblog.com

“Screenplays by Orson Welles” (listing) on Wikipedia

Me and Orson Welles A light but adorable movie that probably portrays Welles’ character better than Welles

Two’s company, three’s a story

As I read through a lot of early-stage screenplays and stage plays (including my own), I have noticed an interesting trend: Any scene that only involves two characters is boring.

No matter what the posturing, no matter how violent or loving, no matter whom the characters are, a scene with only two characters quickly loses steam for me. The dynamic peters out, and I find a lot of writers try to overcompensate for that by simply making the characters’ gestures larger. As though they believe talking louder to someone who does not speak your language will make you any more intelligible.

I speak for the trios: Turns out there may be some behavioural psychology behind this…at least, if you’re a rock hyrax—no, no, not “Lorax”.

Last week, a research paper was published in the journal Animal Behaviour that looked at the dynamics of triad relationships between these small creatures living in the hills of Israel, and the results were fascinating.

In a dyad relationship (two individuals), the authors say, you cannot make any predictions about the future other than friends will likely remain friends and enemies will likely remain enemies. With a triad (3 individuals), however, a social power dynamic is established that can morph in any number of directions, although some directions are inherently more likely and more stable than others.

The researchers found plenty of examples of the standby relationships, such as the friend of my enemy is my enemy (+ – -) or the friend of my friend is my friend (+ + +), and found that these relationships were highly stable in that they were likely to remain unchanged from year to year for any set of three individuals.

Enemy mine: What was fascinating, however, was that the seemingly unstable and counter-intuitive state of the enemy of my enemy is my enemy (- – -) occurred a lot more often than expected by chance and that it could be quite stable from year to year. This completely flies in the face of the standard that the enemy of my enemy is my friend (- – +).

From a story perspective, however, it can make complete sense. What if all 3 of you are vying for the same objective? As one of the enemies, you have to be constantly wary that any effort to thwart one enemy will provide an advantage to the other enemy.

Friend of a friend: What was also interesting was how gender played a role in the evolution of the unstable triad the friend of my friend is my enemy (+ + -). In females, this triad tended to morph toward (+ + +), while in males, it tended toward (+ – -), suggesting the need for female cooperation in raising young and male competitiveness in breeding. Typical men, eh?

From a story perspective, though, consider the power of (+ + -). What if the friend of your friend pushed them to do something contrary to your desires? This would make them your enemy—whether you’re being altruistic or selfish. A much more interesting dynamic as you may inadvertently push your friend into making a choice between the two opposing forces.

Dynamite dynamics: Regardless of the way your scenes play out, the triad dynamic gives you so much more room to play with emotionally and socially than a dyad. At any given moment, one of the trio can switch poles and the dynamic changes. With a dyad, the sudden switching of poles better have a good rationale in your story or it won’t be believable. That brings me to my next point.

Two characters: Now, before you go out and scrub all your two-person scenes from your screenplays, novels and stage plays (because yes, my hubris states I am that influential), let me remind you I said two characters, not two people.

Environment, situation and unseen third parties can also be characters in a scene between two individuals. It is those subtextual elements that convert a vomitously dull scene into one that sizzles. The challenge is in making sure the reader/viewer knows it’s there through carefully selected word choice and narrative (NOT exposition).

Two friends meet, but one hides a secret from a previous conversation that muddies their exchange in ways unexpected by the ill-informed (- + – or + + -) (e.g., plot to every spy movie ever made).

Two men with diametrically opposed viewpoints have to set aside their differences to deal with an external threat (- – -) (e.g., Hooper’s shark to his Quint is his enemy), which turns into (- + -)).

So, when you find yourself creating a scene with only two people, ask yourself who or what is influencing this scene aside from the two people and remember to incorporate them or it into the dialogue and narrative.

As Jed Barlett said to Sam Seaborn while playing chess in a scene from West Wing, “Look at the whole board.”

Didn't want to play your silly games, anyways

Didn’t want to play your silly games, anyways