Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Different Characters, Different Voices

Back in 2008 I wanted to know what sort of questions about screenwriting people who read my blog might have... and answered them.

Here are more answers to those questions....

Question: How to make a character fully dimensional? How to avoid the characters sounding the same?

Answer: Movie dialogue is better than real dialogue - it's that clever come back you came up with two days after the argument.

You don't want all characters to sound the same - each should have their own *distinctive* voice, vocabulary, pet words and phrases, and sentence structure - they should all be distinctive and unique... not boring and normal.

First - each of your characters needs to be different, see the world differently, react to the world differently, and have a secret agenda that drives them... and they need to have different attitudes, likes and dislikes, different pet words and phrases.

If all of your characters sound alike, it's because you don't know them. My characters talk *through* me - and I can hear their voices in my head (which makes me crazy).

I write in various coffee shops, and in one there is a girl behind the counter who could find the silver lining in the end of the world. She is *relentlessly* positive. That's her character, and it comes out in almost everything she says. After a while, I just want to slap her... but she'd find something good to say about that.

Another coffee shop has a guy that is all about himself - no matter what he says, it's about him. If the world were going to end in 5 minutes, he's find the way to make that all about him... as if nobody else mattered.

I have a friend who takes everything personally - another form of selfishness - if you say hello to someone else first, he thinks that's a snub.

I know another guy who is ultra negative - he'll find the cloud for every silver lining. You win the lottery, he'll tell you how lottery winners end up broke and miserable. Even when he pays you a compliment, it's got a negative spin on it.

All of these things are *character* - if you really know your characters, they will speak differently because they are different people. Know what is below the surface, what secretly drives them, how the see the world around them.

Next - on a purely cosmetic level - look at pet words and phrases. Make sure no two characters use the same common words: yes, no, true, false, hello, goodbye, etc. Make sure they don't have the same favorite curse word. And take a look at sentence structure - you may have a character that says almost everything in the form of a question. Or someone who talks in long run-on sentences. Or no more than three words in a sentence. Or talks backwards like Yoda. These are the voices I hear in my head when I write.

Knowing your characters is the key to every character sounding different.

Actor Proofing Your Dialogue - Timing is everything in comedy... and one thing we can't really write. That is brought in through performance.

Things we do control are situation and the actual words within the material. So that's where I concentrate. I don't write comedy... I write movies that often end up starring non-actors who are pro athletes. So I can not depend on the acting (delivery) of any line. I have to create an "actor proof" script. A script where *I* do the acting through my writing. That means I have to create a strong emotional situation that Wilson the volleyball could win an Oscar for. Then find lines of dialogue that have double meanings or are packed with emotion - again, something that will work if the actor reads it off a cue card in a monotone. Basically, my script is carrying the actor.

And that is not easy, but I thing some of those things translate to comedy writing. The material has to be funny just sitting there on the page, not dependent on an actor to add that zing that makes it funny. That zing is the bonus.

If we want to hear real conversation, we can just walk down a street. When we pay $11.50 (what it costs to see a movie in LA) we want to see something special. We want interesting dialogue, distinctive dialogue.

Here are some interesting bits of dialogue from the same movie...

"A pocket fulla firecrackers - looking for a match!"

"Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, "Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!" Or, "Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts." I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players... In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me."

"The next time you want information, don't scratch for it like a dog, ask for it like a man!"

"Who could love a man who makes you jump through burning hoops like a trained poodle?"

"You're dead, son. Get yourself buried."

"It's a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it."

"What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?"

"You've got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!"

"I don't relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don't you just shuffle along?"

"Maybe I left my sense of humor in my other suit."

"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."

"Don't remove the gangplank, you may wanna get back onboard."

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do! That gives you a lot of leeway..."

"Crow like a hen. You have just laid an egg."

"Tell me sir, when he dies, do you think he'll go to the dog and cat heaven?"

"Start thinking with your head instead of your hips."

"This syrup you're giving out with... you pour over waffles, not over me."

Different characters in the same movie released the year I was born. Movie dialogue has always been clever, witty, interesting - that's why we quote it, instead of quoting what the clerk at Safeway said about paper or plastic.

In fact, even in "realistic" movies, nobody talks like the characters talk. Watch any Scorsese movie - that's excellent, well crafted dialogue. Realistic dialogue isn't real - it's crafted to sound real, but more clever, witty, and concise.

You want the best possible dialogue in your screenplay - dialogue that shows us the character, and is memorable enough that the reader will be talking about it for years to come... after they’ve made the movie.

- Bill

Blast From the Past: 2008...


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Non-heroic leads.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Lamb plate with yogurt cucumbers and marinated lentils at Falafel King in Westwood, gearing up for...

Movies: OSS 117: CAIRO - NEST OF SPIES - Imagine carefully recreating one of those 1960s James Bond rip-offs, even down to the cheesy rear-screen projection whenever anyone is in a car or on a motorcycle. The same lighting style and film stock and use of stock footage and the occasional model plane as in those old films. The same costumes and acting style and... well, it looks like a film they found in a vault somewhere and are showing it for the first time. That’s OSS 117: CAIRO - NEST OF SPIES. Because an early 60s spy movie would look silly, now, they give this film the full AIRPLANE treatment - the characters are dead serious, the film is absurd.

The OSS 117 spy series has been a staple of French cinema since 1956, when OSS 117 IS NOT DEAD was released, but really kicked into gear in the James Bond era with a film a year for a while in the 60s. OSS 117 TAKES A VACATION brought the series to an end in 1970... but this film brings back the character in a great mix of Bond parody and GET SMART. The spy (whose name goes on forever - even in the non-parody films) is this completely clueless moron who accidentally manages to save the day. His main talent seems to be saying the exactly wrong thing at the wrong time - angering everyone around him. Movie opens in WW2 where our hero and his best friend Jack steal the plans for the V2 from the Nazis in a scene that could be from one of those serials INDIANA JONES is lifted from. One of the silly things in this film are the title cards - we get a stock footage shot of the Colosseum... then the word ROME in huge letters. The Eiffel Tower stock shot lingers before we get PARIS in huge letters.

Our hero (Jean Dujardin) gives the crazy code phrase at a restaurant, gets the counter phrase, and is taken to a back booth to meet his boss, who tells him that Jack is dead! He was working in Cairo, where a militant Muslim group, the Soviets, a King’s niece, and a bunch of other bad guys are all involved in... something.

They’re sending our hero down to find out who killed Jack and what all of these bad guys are up to. But first - a flashback to our hero and Jack frolicking on the beach together... Which seems *very* Gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that... by the way, this is the 10 year anniversary of SEINFELD’s final episode). From here on, every flashback of our hero and Jack becomes more and more Gay until they are in that beach scene from FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. And later in the film, a henchman has a flashback of him and another henchman on the same beach frolicking together.

Anyway, our hero flies to Egypt, where a dozen suspicious looking guys in the airport follow him, and we get every spy movie cliche... done to the comedy extreme. The French espionage agency’s cover in Egypt is a poultry company - with a warehouse full of chickens that crow when the lights are turned on, because they think it’s morning. This isn’t just a running gag - our hero can spend hours turning on and off the lights. Unlike other spy movies where the cover job is just a cover - there are shoot outs (and fights using chickens as weapons) with other countries spy organizations over the poultry business. It’s not enough that millions of dollars in Soviet arms were stolen... the German poultry business is losing money to the French poultry business in Egypt!

My favorite gag in the film has our hero wake up with one of the hot women from the story, with a terrible case of “bed head” - hair sticking up everywhere - but when he runs his fingers through his hair it ends up *perfectly* in place. Another gag has one of the fellows following him giving him the wrong code phrase again and again - each time our hero beating the crap out of him. Eventually, the guy gets it right - he’s not some bad guy spy, but his contact from the British Secret Service. He also shows the girl how his gun cocks... um, again and again. He causes an international incident when he stops a priest from calling people to prayer (and a dozen other times he is so insensitive to the locals that you wonder why they don't kill him). The double-triple-multiple crosses. An underwater scene where our hero holds his breath for about ten minutes. Enjoying a massage wayyyyy too much. And there’s a musical number that really gets out of hand. This movie has so many silly things going on in it, I was always laughing at something. Sometimes, just the way the movie gets some 1960s cheesy spy thing dead on is funny. The film play until Friday at the NuArt, but will probably pop up on DVD... and has already spawned a sequel in France.

Pages: Plugging away on the rewrite.

Bicycle: Riding every other day - so I rode my bike cross town to a city bus ($1.25 - what's that? A third of a gallon of gas?) that got me to Westwood, then cycled from there to the movies - and did it all in reverse. Westwood Blvd has bike lanes! Cool! -->


ObiDonWan said...

What's the name of that movie you quote all the wisecracks from? Obviously I've never seen it.

Oasis said...

That is cool! I never learned to ride a bike. Got a long scar on my leg for my go at trying to learn though.
Did you have to take a course through your Metro Bus system there in order to learn how to hook your bike to the bus? Cool!
Wonderful that you can do that…and keep an eye on your bike at all times.

I don’t know if we tell you enough Bill, but the tips, your blog, my goodness even your message boards…are simply gold. And that’s the truth.

wcmartell said...

It's one of those films on the national treasures list, or whatever it is... Based on a series of short stories by a guy who started to write screenplays, and was eventually nominated for the Oscar *6* times!

The Metro course on how to attach your bike: the bus pulls up, the grumpy bus driver wants you to hurry up, you look at the device and wonder how it works, see a handle and try twisting, that doesn't work, so you pull - hey, that works! Now you have lowered the bike rack, and have to figure out how to get your bike on it, while the driver gives you that look and everyone else on the bus wonders why they aren't moving. That's the class.

- Bill

Oasis said...

"The Metro course on how to attach your bike: the bus pulls up, the grumpy bus driver wants you to hurry up, you look at the device and wonder how it works, see a handle and try twisting, that doesn't work, so you pull - hey, that works! Now you have lowered the bike rack, and have to figure out how to get your bike on it, while the driver gives you that look and everyone else on the bus wonders why they aren't moving. That's the class."

That’s quite funny to visualize.
In my city, it is a BIG to do. You have to go downtown to the
Transit Authority and take a course.
Which you must pass 100%. If not, you must retake the test (which is FREE) until you can pass it 100%. Once you have passed you receive an 8x10 certificate that they will reduce to wallet-size, laminate, and clip to a chain, which you must wear around your neck whenever you ride the bus, or at all times if you choose to do so.

aggiebrett said...


Dammit dammit dammit.

CAIRO-- NEST OF SPIES sounds like exactly the sort of thing I'd give (comeone ele's) left gonadical to write.


Nicolas Van Peteghem said...

i'm french speaking and i don't know how good it was translated in english, but OSS117 had a language joke every 3 lines of dialog.

it reminds me "The Simpsons", i've been watching the french version for 20 years and sometimes i laugh at imagining how to gag would work better in english.

Good Dog said...

I love it when the cop says:

"Come back here Sidney, I wanna chastise you."


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