Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The voice is strong within some people

A question was posed on Wordplay today about character voices. How do you make your characters have a voice? The guy asking the question said his characters all had tons of dialogue but a reader said they had no voice. So how do you fix that?

I think this is a good example of how, even if you don't plan to write for television, doing a spec episode of your favorite show is a good idea.

On an episode of Pushing Daisies, for instance, Chuck talks at a mile a minute with no real sense of punctuation. Ned is terse and understated and tends to use a monotone. Emmerson speaks in a high pitched, constantly irritated speech. He says every line as if he's rolling his eyes, because he usually is. And Olive has a typical Southern bell style way of talking where she's all sweetness and light to hide the fact that she's a gossip hound.

Each character on the show has a distinct, established voice. Some of that is what the actor made it, but they only made it that way based on what was in the script. The monotone was Lee Pace's choice. The calm demeanor of Ned was clear in the pilot episode.

If you write an episode of Pushing Daisies, you have to capture the essence of their speech on every page. A feature is no different.

I have a tendency to cuss a lot. I say "For Christ sake" a lot too. In Not Dead Yet I originally had every single character say "For Christ sake" at one point or another until it was pointed out. So I went through and took them all out except for one character. Now she says it all the time but nobody else does. With some characters I dropped cusswords completely. I did one pass specifically through the script to make sure each character sounded like his or her own person. I'm pretty sure I succeeded, but voice has never been a big problem for me.

In my mind, though, nobody does dialogue with a clear sense of voice than JD Salinger. Just look at "A Perfect Day for Banana Fish" from Nine Stories (my all time favorite short story collection, I have it linked in the sidebar). You cannot take the words out of the little girl's mouth and put it into Seymour's. It wouldn't make sense.

So I guess I'm saying that if you want to be an expert at dialogue with a voice, write a spec TV episode and read Nine Stories. That should do it.

I just noticed I haven't written anything funny lately. I will try to rectify that tomorrow.

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