Monday, January 16, 2006

Say it Loud

As a screenwriter working alone, you are relying on your storytelling talent and gut instincts about what works and what doesn’t in your script. You’ll mull over the structure, torture yourself over the protagonist’s arc and ponder deeply on the wider reaching theme.

However, apart from the obvious form of imagery that the medium demands, there is another vital component that is integral to your film’s success.


At the script stage, most of the sound will come from the characters’ dialogue. In a previous post about dialogue, I said that it has four main functions: exposition, characterisation, subtext and humour. And most of the time, you will convince yourself that you’ve achieved these key facets just by saying the lines in your head as you write them.

This is not ideal. What you need to do is perform your script. Say it loud and say it proud.

I’ve just moved house. My previous abode was a maisonette flat that had upstairs neighbours as well as next door neighbours, and the walls, alas, were thin. You could hear conversations, arguments, toilets and TV. And when I was writing, I felt too self-conscious to say my script aloud. I would murmur the action and dialogue to see if my script was working.

Now I live in a detached house in a quiet area. I could detonate a small nuclear device in the kitchen and no-one would know. So now, delight, I get to openly shout and deliver my dialogue as if I were a leading thesp on Broadway. And, after only a month, what a difference!

Dialogue that I thought was inspired, funny and full of subtext is given short shrift after I perform a one man show of my latest epic. Be warned. It’s an exhausting, nay, insane exercise. Complete privacy and a willingness to make a fool of yourself to yourself is a must.

There is however, an alternative. You can get others to perform the script for you so you can coolly observe what’s hot and what’s not. There are a few ways I know to enable you to do this.

First, the free version. Get your friends to do a ‘table read’ of your script. Convince and cajole them around to your place. Stock up on some beer and nibbles. Assign them a character (give them the script a few days before so they can read and get accustomed). Then, once you have them seated around the table, you speak the action lines and they act out the characters and dialogue.

As well as this being fun, it will help you recognise that Aunt Maisie’s line about being a lesbian on page 54 isn’t quite working, plus your friends will give you feedback on how they felt (in their roles) and offer suggestions on possible improvements.

A more professional version of this can be found at Rocliffe’s Writing Forum. How it works: you submit a script, they choose a section from the story and cast professional actors to perform it in front of a small audience (over a pub in Islington). A guest from the industry acts as judge and adviser, and will give feedback on what he/she’s witnessed. Then it’s down to the bar where everyone mingles and schmoozes. This is free! You pay a small entry fee as an audience member.

The Script Factory offers a more comprehensive service, but it comes at a small cost. They do Performed Readings of scripts that are in good shape and are not ashamed to show it, as well as Private Readings for the scripts that are still finding their way but would like to HEAR what the story feels and sounds like.

So, if you find yourself muttering your lines at the screen like a crazed lunatic, it’s well worth considering any one of the above to give your script, and dialogue, the attention that it deserves. I’m off to Leeds for a few days so I’ll post again at the end of the week.


James Moran said...

What a thoroughly bloody good idea. I'm going to press Jo into service soon, and bugger the neighbours. I won't *actually* bugger them, but you know what I mean.

We had a workshop/readthrough with some proper actors when Severance went into production, and it was really handy for stealing improvised lines, er, I mean for hearing what worked and what didn't. Usually somebody would fiddle with the line to get it to roll off the tongue more easily, which always made it better. One line didn't work and sounded like a nursery rhyme, but we left it in so the character would have an awkward moment where he's stumbling over his words.

James Moran said...

Hang on - Aunt Maisie's a lesbian??

Tim Clague said...

And don't forget to throw the 'read it out' feature in Final Draft into the bottom of your bin. Its useless except for a gimmick to show your mates

James Moran said...

...unless you've written a script where all the characters are Stephen Hawking.

Piers said...

I tend to use the Final Draft voicething rather than reading it aloud myself, then follow up with a beer-and-pretzels reading just before my final draft.

It's fun, and you soon notice the really sucky lines.

And if you happen to know any actors or wannabes, that's ideal.