Friday, November 20, 2009

I'm Not Listening, I'm Listening...

In another life, I worked in advertising and wrote lots of stuff for radio and I can tell you without reservation that radio ads are much more fun than television or print ads because you don’t have any visuals to worry about and thus words and sounds are all.

It was whilst writing for radio that I learned the most about the sound of words and the importance of the silence between them and I have used many of the things I learned back then in my subsequent writing.

This week I am going to blather on for the requisite number of words about the sound of things – not the words, nor the meaning behind words, but the way they are delivered and how that can be used to both develop and reveal character. In a comprehensively obvious statement, I will point out that most people sound different from most other people and although I know you are already well aware of that, I wonder how much you notice it – after all, you will hear hundreds of voices each day and it isn’t really all that surprising if you only really properly register those which are extreme in some way. In fact, virtually every voice you hear will tell you something about the character of the speaker and you will already, subconsciously, be reacting to signals hidden in the speaker’s delivery.

As an exercise, watch a foreign language channel, or a subtitled film. Close your eyes, so you don’t take any visual clues from expressions and just listen to the tone and the cadence of the speech. This isn’t a perfect exercise, because in television and film – as in life - people tend to shout when they’re angry, stutter when they’re embarrassed and speak softly when they are attempting seduction, and that makes it all a bit easy if we are looking to expose character by tone and nuance. Try and listen to a scene where people are just talking – ignore the words themselves and listen to the voice; extract character, not mood. Try it for five minutes and you’ll initially be irritated and frustrated, but then, slowly, it will begin to work. You will start to fade out the actor’s applied emotions – the exaggerated tics that they layer on top of the character to elicit mood – and hear clues to the personality underneath. Slowly, the voice will give up its secrets and the person will speak to you through the timbre, warmth and sound of their speech. Assuming that the casting director is up to the job – and on soaps, they nearly always are – you will be able to gauge character without an understanding of what they’re saying.

How will this help you write, you are probably (possibly) wondering. Okay, well look – even if you aren’t wondering how this will help you write, I’m going to tell you, because it is quite interesting and also I’m only four hundred and eighty-two words into an eight-hundred word article. Also, that’s what I am supposed to do – my brief is to tell you things that sometimes, almost by accident, veer into the area of ‘interesting’ and perhaps even nudge ‘useful’. I don’t want to oversell things, but this is possibly one of those times.

We’ve spoken about body language before – the way in which your people will move, hold themselves and expose character and personality through their physicality and how that might help you to more thoroughly reveal their character. The way they speak is inextricably linked to the way they move and also to the confidence, assurance and poise your character will possess – it is simply the aural, as opposed to the physical, manifestation of their personality.

Now you don’t get to choose who is going to say the words you write and you’ll have no say whatsoever as to how the actors who get the gig will deliver their lines, so why the fuss? Well, simply put; the characters in your script are yours and yours alone and they will eventually become someone else’s interpretation of the people you have invented. So it is your responsibility to get them right – to make them properly formed, fully-rounded, living, breathing, whole people. Which means that when you do your style sheets, the way they speak will be up there alongside the way they look, the way they... what? Style sheets? You haven’t done style sheets?

Okay. Well, here goes.

A Character Style Sheet is a grand name for a bit of paper with a few headings on it. This piece of paper needs to be filled in for every primary and secondary character that will appear in your script and it is absolutely vital if you are to end up with fully-rounded characters, as opposed to stock people who don’t have any real personality and thus aren’t believable. If you don’t do your character work properly, then you can’t complain when the actors and director conspire to fuck up your work of art. It isn’t rocket science, but it will help and it will probably look something like this (before you carefully add your words, obviously.)

Character Outline;

Character Age;
Character Appearance;
Character Job;
Character History;
Character Personality;
Character Positives;
Character Negatives;
Character Traits;
Character Speech;

I know it doesn’t look like much, but when you’ve filled one in for each of your characters, you will understand them better and they will sing off your page, because you will properly know them. In the world of a million scripts, any edge is worthwhile and the schmuck who hasn’t properly developed his characters is going to fall beneath the brilliance of yours. If you do the work and you do it right, you will win.

The alternative is almost too terrible to contemplate - get it wrong and you'll have to do a real job, like normal people...

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