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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Language and Script Writing

My morning paper came yesterday with an article on the now expired show "West Wing," commenting specifically on the writing as a key to its success. One sentence interested me particularly, "The rapid fire of syllables proved more exciting than that of missiles." I'm pretty sure that this sentence is false, construed literally, but the fact is that the dialogue was rapid fire. This heightened the immediacy of what was going on, especially when what was going on was itself dramatic -- some world crisis, Bartlett's illness, the kidnapping of Bartlett's daughter, etc. It also was one of the factors that led me to get hearing aids. I couldn't keep up.

I wrote two short plays that were produced by the Contemporary American Theater Company ("CATCO," as its called) in Columbus, Ohio. A key thing I learned in the class on playwriting from which the first play emerged and from the directors of the two plays is that the essential principle of play writing and script writing is that actions speak louder than words, trite and true. One can communicate more subtly through how people act, including the smallest gestures, than through what they say, which is not to say that language is unimportant. The last line of my first play caused many people to gasp and was something that could be communicated only through language.

One of the things I learned for myself in these two efforts is that the language of a script must seem natural without being natural. Real talk is full of fits and starts, hemming and hawing, departing from and returning to topics. The talk in a script, talking now of realistic theater or movies (say, "Brokeback Mountain" or "Crash"), needs to do three things.
1. Each line must sound like something someone would say.
2. Each line must be stripped of all the false starts, pause fillers, etc. that do not contribute to the story but stay sounding natural anyway. Some of these things will contribute to the effect of the line. The term "pregnant pause" wasn't invented for nothing. However, this is sometimes better left to the actors and director to work out.
3. Each line needs to contribute to the story, character development, etc. of the script or play. If it doesn't, it should be jettisoned. I also learned that there is or -- in my opinion -- should be a kind of "logic" to the script. I don't mean to suggest that there should be a proof of some theorem that is the "point" of the script but that something rational like that should underlie the script. Everything said and done must contribute to what the writer is trying to achieve, which would normally be several things, not just one thing.
I am anything but an expert in play writing or analyzing plays though I have read plays since I was a kid -- my mom had the complete works of Shakespeare and also a book of plays produced in New York, possibly while she was studying at Columbia. And I have gone to plays since I was a kid.

There are some script writers, perhaps most notoriously David Mamet, who have a very stylized way of writing dialogue (check out the movie "House of Games"). When I heard he was involved creatively in the creation of the TV show "The Unit," I was intrigued. Would he use that, by now (at least to me) very tiresome way of having people talk? He didn't. Another producer, Shawn Ryan, executive producer of "The Shield" said in an interview with both men presented on TV.com "We just tried to be authentic with military speak. It is so interesting, the real way they speak, that we didn't really need to change it." Yes real but cleaned up a bit -- soldiers in my experience tend to be somewhat profane. The creative "trick" in script writing, is to make dialogue sound natural without being natural.


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