Friday, September 26, 2008

Mastering Your Character's Voice

A Guest Post by Chris Soth

"Every profession is a conspiracy against the layman."  
~ George Bernard Shaw

What did old GBS mean when he said this? Well, everybody who does a job, especially a specialized and high-paying job, is at great pains to keep their trade secrets to themselves, lest the secrets become widely known and the entire profession is demystified to the point that...anyone can do it. Then the initiated have just lost a good thing.  

Lots of people do this. In many professions. I used to work as a professional magician and, man, there's a conspiracy. If you've ever performed a magic trick for an audience you will definitely be thinking "I can't believe they're buyin' this." For about the first dozen times.  

But the conspiracy issue, especially the one going on among screenwriters, is the stuff of another newsletter.

Why do I bring this up now?

Last week, I put together a quick list of things that might influence a character's "Voice"...their own unique way of speaking, which sets them apart from all other characters in the script, and from speakers of their own language as well.  While I'm sure it's not complete, here it is again:

What will have an influence on a character's use of language?

1. Their job.

2. Their socioeconomic status and educational background.

3. Their cultural and ethnic background.

4. Any other languages they may speak and whether English (I'm assuming most of us are writing in English....) is their first language.

5. Who they're talking to in this specific scene...and what they're talking about.

Let's look at just that first one: Their job.

What's one of the fastest ways for a professional conspiracy to wall out the layman?  Create its own language. A specialized lingo. It's  own...jargon: the specialized or technical language of a trade, profession, or similar group.

No quicker way to make us outsiders feel dumb than to start speaking your own language that they don't speak -- and no faster way to make us outsiders think that the speaker is smart, inside and in the know…smarter than we are.  

Plumbers...see Volume 14 of the Kinsley Manual (email me if you know what I'm referencing). Doctors: "amytropic lateral sclerosis." Computer technicians: "54 gigs and skuzzy drive"...ok, I'm making most of these up.

Do you think screenwriters don't have their own jargon? Drop the phrase "slug line" at a party of non-writers or film people and see what happens...

I wrote something set on a moon base we don't have people who live on moon bases just yet, so I either had to make up the language I figured they'd speak, or have them speak plain old Earth-bound English.

But since I've always loved the space program, it didn't seem like too far a stretch that the first moon settlers would have come out of that program --

-- and that comes out of aviation. And those aviation characters are a bunch of can-do, rugged individuals whose very speech pattern, slang and word choice bespeak great bravery and derring-do.

So, I reread The Right Stuff, and every other book I could get on the space program, especially the moon missions.  

And boy, did I find a rich world of jargon. "A-OK" comes from the space program. "You are go for launch." And even "blast-off" and "splash down."  And the world is rife with cool acronyms too: EVA, SST and a bunch of others where I also don't know what they stand for... point is, I had found my way into these characters and their world that was rich, colorful and fun for me to write as well. And that quickly set them up as cool and least for me.  

So, if it wasn't obvious...every screenplay takes place in its own world, and every world has its own language. You may co-opt it from our world to a degree, especially where the worlds overlap, as I did in the example above. But be sure to craft it to be specifically the world of your movie – ie, in the screenplay above, I had to ask myself: "Moon dwellers were probably astronauts/aviators at one time and that influenced how they talk...but then what happened to their language?"   

One caution...and one tip...

Some professions have a jargon so dense that only the initiated speak it –- and understand it. It really is a foreign that it contains words we don't understand. You run the risk of losing your audience here, just as much as if you were showing them an unsubtitled film in a language they don't speak or understand. You can't do that...and yet, maybe, you can't have the character speak in layman's terms, he just wouldn't...what do you do?

Have a translator character repeat the line right after – get credit for the rich language and teach your audience to use it themselves.  For example:

Houston, we are go for extra-orbital
lunar injection!


Or have the characters translate for themselves-– if they're speaking to a layperson. So, walk the line between specialized language and everyday language – a tricky balance, but worth while in the end!

Chris Soth is a USC screenwriting MFA with two produced credits and 28 screenplays to his name, and the founder of He teaches his own "Mini-Movie Method" based on USC screenwriting techniques and runs a screenwriting mentorship program at

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice...
~ Mary Oliver, from her poem "The Journey," collected in Dream Work

Only you can write the story that's yours to write. And write it you must, regardless of the voices, inner and outer, that cry out for you to stop, that claim they're trying to save you.

There is no salvation in stopping, in turning away, in listening to those voices, however sensible they seem.

Your only salvation is the word that must emerge from the prison of your fear and into the light of your potential. This word, and now this one. And now this one.

One word following the next and the next, crashing through what you think you know -- about yourself and the world -- and carrying you into the Kingdom of the New, that wondrous realm beyond your imagining that has been waiting for you since the beginning of time.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do...
~ "The Journey"

Photo of Mary Oliver and her dog, Percy: Beacon Press

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Write What’s Right...for Right Now

If you find yourself feeling blocked on a particular project, ask yourself whether what you’re writing is the right idea for you right now.

Perhaps it’s the right idea for someone else but not for you. Perhaps it will be the right idea for you at some future time. Or perhaps this project was right for you when you began it, but is no longer.

It’s possible that you’ve outgrown it. It’s also possible that you haven’t fully grown into it.

I was 100 pages into the first draft of The MoonQuest when I set it aside for what turned into a five-month hiatus.

The day I returned to the book, I was afraid to reread those 100 pages. I was afraid the manuscript wasn’t any good, and I was afraid I had outgrown it and would have to abandon it.

What I realized, once I began reading, was that I hadn’t been ready to continue with The MoonQuest and that’s why my Muse had cut me off when it did.

As it turned out, five months away from the book gave me the life experience I needed in order to be able to carry on. I began writing that same day and three months and 300 additional pages later, the first draft was done.

Sometimes, what seems a block is a matter of timing. Sometimes, it’s just not the right idea. When we drop a project or leave it incomplete, we don’t always know into which of those two categories it falls.

If your discernment tells you to let the project go, don’t mourn the perceived waste of time and energy. Trust that you will either return to it when the time is right or that you’ve gained all you needed from the experience and can now move on to other writing.

A wrong idea isn’t necessarily wrong for all time. But if it’s wrong for right now, let it go and free yourself to write what’s right. For you. Now.

Adapted from The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write. For excerpts from The Voice of the Muse book and CD, click here.

Photo: My daughter, Guinevere, in her MoonQuest t-shirt.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Write, Write, Write

The only thing that matters is that you write, write. write. It doesn't have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, almost all first drafts are pretty bad.
~ Walter Mosley, This Year You Write Your Novel

Just write. Just get words onto the page.

It doesn't matter what you write or how you begin. All that matters is that you do begin. All that matters is that you write one word and then another. And then another.

However you begin, your first words will take you where you need to go, as long as you answer the call of your Muse, as long as you listen to your story, as long as you free your words onto the page and go wherever they carry you.

There's a time to revise, rework and reword. That time is later. Now is the time to write, to begin.

Have you begun? Are you writing your story, your poem, your book?

If not, close your browser and open your word processor. Or get pen and paper. However you prefer to write, write. Just one word. Any word. Then another. And another.

It's time to begin. Now. All it takes is the one word that gets you started.

Photo credit: David Shankbone