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Rhythm in Quentin Tarantino's Hateful Eight
Are you studying writing? This is from a series of posts on rhythm in fiction. The first post is here.
The first time I noticed the rhythm in Quentin Tarantino’s work, it was when I was reading the directions found between dialogue blurbs in the screenplay for Hateful 8. I will describe those a bit further down, but it got me thinking about just how smooth and effortless a read the screenplay was. Which reminded me of how smooth and effortless his movies are to watch. And that was interesting.
I will make a case here that Quentin Tarantino obsesses over rhythm in the things that he creates - to an extent I have rarely seen.
Allow me to elaborate.
Note: this kind of rhythm is different than the sort I’ve discussed in previous posts. It is not syllable by syllable, but larger rhythms. A future post will discuss this.
Rhythm in Dialogue
It’s easiest to just begin with a quote so that we have something to talk about:
John Ruth wants to take you back to Red rock to stand trial for murder. And… IF…. you’re found guilty, the people of Red Rock will hang you in the town square. And as the hangman, I will perform the execution. And if all those things end up taking place, that’s what a civilized society calls JUSTICE.
However if the relatives and loved ones of the person you murdered were outside that door right now. And after busting down that door, they drag you out in the snow, and string you up by the neck………. that would be FRONTIER JUSTICE.
…only two paragraphs and there is already so much to talk about.
For one thing, notice the repetition in the structure?
For another, did you notice the punctuation?
The author of that passage is not using punctuation to indicate grammatical structure. He is using punctuation to denote pauses in rhythm.
(Elsewhere in the screenplay, he is also sometimes using a lack of punctuation to indicate a lack of pauses.)
A book called ‘Steering the Craft’ briefly describes this practice. In this style, a comma represents a short pause; a semicolon represents a longer one, or tells the reader to expect a change. A period means a full beat’s pause… and an ellipsis represents a long pause.
Basically, what we are seeing is that the author is not only writing the lines that he wants the characters to say, but he is also indicating, as clearly as he can, the timing by which to deliver those lines.
He even uses statements like (beat) to explicitly indicate that he wants a certain kind of pause (but not a long pause) between blocks of dialogue. This isn’t uncommon in screenplays, but it’s an interesting convention without much equivalent in prose.
There is slightly more to this actually.
Quentin Tarantino is also semi-infamous for not allowing his actors to deviate from his written scripts at all. This seems to make him unusual, and it becomes a semi-frequent topic in his interviews. In one of those interviews, he said:
Tarantino: No, no, no. Actors aren’t there to riff. They’re there to say the dialogue. Uma [Thurman] had a quote once that’s really true. She said that when actors improvise, if they’re not just adding mmms and ahs, then that is all writing. And that is not what you hire an actor to do. You hire an actor to learn the lines and say them. Now there are exceptions to that. Sam Jackson is the exception.
When I first read that quote a year or two ago, I assumed that this was in order to keep anybody from messing with the particular concepts in his head about who the characters were.
These days, I wonder whether there isn’t a different, slightly more musical explanation.
Before moving on, I’d like to share one more quote about the intentional rhythm in the dialogue he writes by somebody who has worked with him:
(…) when you read it, I mean you should know [how to perform it]. I’m sure Quentin will sort of slap me around for saying that, but just from my perspective, you look at the page and you go, “Jesus.” And it’s laid out for you. There is a cadence. There is a rhythm. There is a music to what he’s done, what he’s put on the page. It suggests itself to you, anyway. But you do find that you can grind to a halt suddenly. For example, Quentin is the only director I can think of, with possibly the exception of Tom Stoppard or Harold Pinter, who you would go to them and say, “OK, say that line. Give me a line reading.” Because it’s important. Suddenly I find myself in the middle of a speech and it’s going along, it’s going along, it’s going along and you’ve got it all, it’s all in place and you’re flying through it and then you stop. You creak to a halt. And then you say, “Quentin what were — say it for me. Say it for me. OK, got it.” And then you’re back up and running. Because it’s so important.
Rhythm In Descriptions
So. There is a heavy focus on rhythm in the dialogue that Tarantino writes. However, the focus on rhythm does not end at dialogue.
He is so conscious of the rhythm of his scenes that he won’t even break the sentence-to-sentence rhythm when a conversation pauses and he has to describe an action.
Below, two men have been speaking, and one asks to see a certain letter. The conversation has flowed extremely smoothly until now, and why ruin that? Observe the directions below:
John ruth breaks into a big grin.
Maj. Warren carefully takes out an envelope from his inside jacket pocket.
John Ruth watches the envelope…
Maj. Warren ever so carefully removes the letter inside the envelope…
John Ruth puts on his spindly reading glasses.
…then carefully opens up the letter from its folded position…
…then hands the open letter to John ruth.
Daisy Domergue has no idea what’s up with this letter.
If that doesn’t read like an author who obsesses over rhythm, I don’t know what other example I could find: he split one paragraph into eight in order to deliver those lines to the reader in the way he intended.
Interesting, is is not?
Some of this of this is screenwriting convention. Eg, sometimes you break up directions by character, but in other examples, he often has 5-6 directions for a single character, or even just their thoughts, and he breaks those up over many lines as well.
Uh… the other examples I wanted to include in order to illustrate this point all use the n* word a lot, and that was maybe a bit much for a nice place like this newsletter.
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This is from a series of posts about ‘rhythm in fiction.’ The first post of the series is here: