May 16, 2012

Five Tests to See Whether a Character's Voice is Working (from John August & Craig Mazin)

As screenwriters, we spend a lot of time writing, re-writing, and obsessing over dialogue.  Let's face it -- the audience won't read the amazing writing of our action sequences, but they will certainly hear our pithy dialogue.  But do each of our characters have a unique voice? Thanks to the ongoing generosity of John August and Craig Mazin, their most recent Scriptnotes podcast provides five tests to see whether a character's voice is working.  See the five tests from the podcast below and my personal take on each:

1. Could you take the dialogue from one character in the script and have another character say it?

Without unique voices, it can be difficult for readers and producers to distinguish between characters.  Also, if certain characters sound alike, perhaps they need to be combined or specific character traits need to be developed for each to make them necessary to the story.

2. Is the character speaking for himself or is he speaking for the writer?

Writing what the writer would say instead of what the character would say in a given moment can be a common pitfall.  Examining why a specific character is compelled to speak at a given time in a scene and understanding how that particular character would put thoughts into words can help separate the writer's personal inflections from the character's tendencies.

3. Is the character expressing her own feeling in the moment, or is she expressing what needs to happen next [in the story]?

The story must go on, and the character's dialogue needs to propel the story forward.  If it is an aside that isn't critical to moving the story forward, it may not be necessary.

4. What would a joke sound like from that character?

I personally found this test to be very insightful (and John August credited Once Upon a Time showrunner Jane Eppenson for bringing it up on a recent Nerdist Writers Panel podcast).  As John points out, even if a writer isn't writing a comedy, understanding how a character would tell a joke or say a funny line gives the writer insight into that character's humor.  This helps the writer understand how a character would handle a number of situations -- funny, sad, intense, etc.

5. Can you picture a given actor in the role, or at least preclude certain actors from the role because it doesn’t feel like they would say those things?

When we write, we can create our dream cast.  Having a particular actor in mind can help a writer hone a character's voice to that actor's nuances.  That doesn't mean the character won't work if that particular actor isn't cast, but envisioning a specific actor can distinguish a character's voice from others in the script.

Want to hear how John August and Craig Mazin approach these character voice tests? Listen to the podcast below, download it from the link or subscribe on iTunes.

Play

Jump ahead to the ten-minute mark to hear their conversation on these tests.

Do you find these tests useful to test a character's voice?  Do you have other techniques to make your character's voice unique?  Let us know.

Link: ScriptNotes, Ep 37 - John August

 

Your Comment

7 Comments

Nice post. I'm currently writing 2 scripts for the same movie. One being an almost feature length (65 minutes estimated) and the other being a scaled down 10 minute version of the almost-feature length. The 10 minute version will be used as a proof of concept to attract some higher quality actors, budget, and crew for the long version. I'm on my 5th draft of the short film script and finding the characters within the limited dialogue is challenging to say the least. I really believe a well written script with believable, memorable characters will make for a better movie. regardless of what it's shot on.

Thanks for the tips and I also just subscribed to that podcast.

Do you guys know of any website that writers post their scripts to in a effort to find directors and have them made on an indie level? Just curious if anything exists like that. Cheers.

May 16, 2012 at 2:39PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Matt

Matt, your best bet for getting a script out there is probably Inktip.com they're well established so you don't need to worry about scams etc. and they have many, many producers and production companies signed on to their service in the hunt for scripts.

Uploading is easy and there are a lots of options to check so that your script comes up in the right searches. They also provide tracking tools so you can see who's checking out your synopsis. A good synopsis will get producers interest and hopefully an email from them requesting to read your screenplay. I used the service for a screenplay a few years back and though I didn't end up getting an Option sold on it I sure came close and the whole experience was a great tool for realizing what I needed to work on for my next script.

May 16, 2012 at 9:44PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Neil

"The story must go on, and the character’s dialogue needs to propel the story forward. If it is an aside that isn’t critical to moving the story forward, it may not be necessary."

Good throw-away dialog may not move the story forward, but it can enhance the story.

May 16, 2012 at 6:28PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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c.d.embrey

Cool post

May 16, 2012 at 10:06PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Sal

Really enjoying the screenwriting articles recently. Good inspiration and just the bump you need to get writing.

May 17, 2012 at 5:45AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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MrBenGolding

"Also, if certain characters sound alike, perhaps they need to be combined or specific character traits need to be developed for each to make them necessary to the story."

So the characters, if they sound alike, are perhaps extraneous to the story? What if the story is perhaps extraneous to the characters? What if both characters and story are extraneous, except for making the movie, or wanting to make the movie?

"The story must go on, and the character’s dialogue needs to propel the story forward. If it is an aside that isn’t critical to moving the story forward, it may not be necessary."

If it were up to me, I'd cut out "Put out the light, and then put out the light" and "Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound. Upon a wheel of fire...." For starters, that is. I mean, jeez, it's pure irrelevant self-indulgence. Besides, it sounds too much like the writer, real people talk like sitcoms.

"... understanding how a character would tell a joke or say a funny line gives the writer insight into that character’s humor."

Yeah, imaging Oedipus, Othello or Tony Soprano doing stand up is sure to get the aspiring writer through the next draft of his magnum opus.

May 17, 2012 at 12:17PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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nadia

I try to never think of writing on a page (screen, etc.). You're writing a performance, filled out by real people, guided by another, in a contrived space. Don't think of it as a novel, or literature. And there are so many needs of that writing that differ, depending on the project. A live Greek chorus, Shakespeare play, or HBO show would be handled differently (wrighting vs writing- apologies nadia).
But every writer wants to hold an audience. How you do that best within the limitations of your platform is the goal. Not surprisingly, it's what an actor or director wants as well.
If I picked one word to guide them all it would be "specifics". Not just a cop on a show, one that pulled you over, or that you know. Instantly so many details fill in about this "character" based on a real person. Now apply the specific conditions they're under in the script, and they should speak to you truthfully.
I don't care if it's 30 seconds for Coke, or Clint Eastwood directing, I would never compromise my writing for the medium. I would seek to forge it into something exceptional for both cases. But I would have to temper it to reach and hold those audiences (one fast-forwarding, one paying). For me that is the magic, when your art can shine in a corporate world.
Now get back to the writing...

May 17, 2012 at 4:30PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Michael Locke