12 Days of Gratitude – Marsha

mowsh

This is my friend Marsha (aka Mowsh), who is not only a beautiful and talented actor, she is also incredibly fun, funny and loving.

You will be hard-pressed to find someone more willing to offer a warm smile, sly wink or caring shoulder.

If you know Marsha, consider yourself lucky. If you don’t know Marsha, you should rectify that soon.

(Part One of my 12 Days of Gratitude…because the rest of the news sucks)

Besotted Voce – A few (hundred) words on character voice

Voices-graphic-2

No matter with whom you speak, to an outside observer, the two of you sound different.

I’m not talking about the pitch or timber of your voices—although those likely are different—but rather those other factors that make your speech distinct: cadence, word choice, sentence structure, etc.

For five years, I worked as an editor and writer on a couple magazines in Washington, DC, and over that time, I found that I could tell which of my workmates wrote which articles without looking at their bylines…even without our names, the pieces had our fingerprints all over them.

How Mark Lesney opened an article was very different from the way Nancy McGuire would.

Mike Felton explained his thesis very differently from David Filmore.

And the two Randys were polar opposites in sentence construction: Mr. Frey being pithy, while Mr. Willis would wax poetically at the drop of a proverbial hat.

Some might argue that these differences reflect variations in style, but I believe the situation is less superficial than style. Instead, it reflects who we are as individuals; our personalities, our experiences, our beliefs, and our feelings both emotional and physical. We speak/write as the people we are at that particular moment. I as me and you as you (this sentence screams for a “Goo-goo goo-jube”).

Ideally, this same variety of voice should occur in the fictional characters we create, whether for screenplays, novels, short stories, sketches or whatever.

With all but the shortest lines of dialogue, a reader or listener should be able to tell which lines correspond to the same speaker even in the absence of any overt identifying marks such as the character’s name.

A simple example: Despite achieving the same goal in response to another person, the following lines say them differently:

“You’re nuts.”

“You are insane.”

“You’re one crazy motherfucker.”

“That, sir, is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.”

* silent stare *

With these five lines, we see differences in:

  • Relative status (e.g., tone)
  • Degrees of personal control (e.g., length, use of contractions)
  • Emotional state (e.g., length, word choice)
  • Possibly educational or social background (e.g., vocabulary, use of jargon)

It can be a challenge for one mind (the writer’s) to create several distinct voices. It is a form of consciously willed multiple personality disorder. Thus, early drafts of a literary work may sound flat because too many of the characters are speaking with the writer’s voice rather than their own.

In theory, this is an easy thing to fix during revisions. Simply take the sentence and knowing what you do about your character—his or her emotional and psychological state, status, social and educational background, life experiences, physical challenges—make the line more accurately reflect how the character would speak.

One complicating factor is that a seemingly simple change in response by one character may elicit a change in the response of the dialogue partner(s). I am likely to respond very differently if presented with any of the five reactions above. And thus, the writer has triggered a change-reaction that reverberates through the scene.

A second complicating factor is that the change in dialogue may also need to be paralleled with a change in physical action. A high-status character is more apt to be purposeful in her actions and responses, whereas a low-status character may be more physically erratic or perhaps flinching in his response. And again, the change-reaction echoes through the scene.

This may sound daunting. It isn’t…but it is a lot of work.

The trick is becoming comfortable with the many voices you need as a writer. We all start with our own voice, the omnipotent godhead that creates the fictional universe; but the trick comes in developing the skills to inhabit other bodies, other souls as you create other characters and then being able to shift back and forth as required without going insane (well, not fully insane, at any rate).

My best advice to any writer who struggles with this is not to take yet another writing class, but rather to take an improv class or several. Despite the terror that this advice may elicit in some (most?) of you, I can think of no better way of understanding—and more importantly, exercising—the differences between different characters.

You’ll quickly find improv is not about funny; rather it is about truth. And once you’re comfortable with experiencing the truth of a character, the rest of this is much less daunting.

 

As seems to be a routine now, today’s post was prompted by the amazing words of Marsha Mason and the Why The Face blog she posted earlier today.

PS The magazines from my Washington days were Modern Drug Discovery and Today’s Chemist At Work (because Today’s Chemist in the Boudoir was already taken).

How I Met Your Series Finale

tv-set-with-a-broken-screen-81240769

Earlier today, my friend Marsha Mason posted her weekly blog on Why The Face. This week, Marsha chose to focus on series finales of television programs, picking up on the How I Met Your Mother phenomenon now that the teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling have died down.

Marsha considered this outpouring from the perspective of the magnanimous response of the show’s creators. An excerpt of her blog post:

And while they did what they felt they needed to do to bring their story to its completion, there was no way they were going to tell their audience that any of their feelings were wrong.

A beautiful way to look at the uproar.

But of course, Marsha’s post also made me think about the challenges of writing a series finale (damn you, Marsha, you made me think again).

I truly feel for showrunners who are faced with this task. It is a daunting task made that much more difficult by a dedicated audience, who for the most part can only be disappointed.

For me, the best series finales were done by shows like The Fugitive and M*A*S*H, where luckily, the writers had a hard end point in their story, i.e., the capture of the real killer and the end of the Korean conflict, respectively. In these cases, the resolutions between characters was more obvious (not to give the sense that the episodes would have been easy to write or weren’t written well). Similarly, The West Wing had the end of Bartlett’s 8-yr term and the inauguration of the new POTUS.

Mash-Goodbye_l

For other shows, the challenge is that the lives of the characters typically continue beyond the finale, if only in their fantasy worlds. From their perspectives, this isn’t the end of their lives; it’s Tuesday.

Thus, writers are forced to pencil in a flurry of seemingly arbitrary events to explain why the characters are parting ways or moving on, and typically, this means leaving a lot of unresolved questions for the audience. Closure is impossible when nothing is truly closing.

Take, for example, the end of The Sopranos…the family sits down to dinner in a restaurant…fade to black. After years of a series filled with violence that would make Titus Andronicus blush, the pure normality of this ending was almost a let down, and yet, rang as a true moment in human lives.

sopranos_final_scene_1

The alternative is to go big, such as the ludicrous ending of my beloved series House. The final 20 minutes or so looks like it was written by a group of pubescent boys hopped up on 24 consecutive hours of Grand Theft Auto. For god’s sake, it’s Gregory House…you couldn’t have him die of something he and his team couldn’t diagnose in time, only to have a letter arrive a week later from House showing he knew the diagnosis months ago?

houseandkutnerburning

Of course, the biggest complication is likely that most series have run out of steam well before they are given the opportunity for a series finale. All of the really great opportunities to end the series have long passed, the characters have little left to say to each other and it is only the blood-from-a-stone networks and die-hard fans who keep applying the paddles to the moribund concept. I give you the finale of Seinfeld. For this reason, I really do not look forward to the series finale of The Big Bang Theory.

TelevisionSeinfeldFinale

(I feel an admonition from Lee Aronsohn coming on.)

In these cases, better the mercy killing of cancellation than the sad wheeze of life-support equipment.

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission…finale!)

Award season 2013

As the alcohol sets in and the year ends, I thought I’d take a moment to consider the 2013 Randys, the seminal moments and/or people of the past year.

Every year is special but this was truly a year for the books (or Kindles/Kobos if you’re one of those people).

Most engaging conversation: Weekly meetings with friend, Agah Bahari

Friend, child of the universe and novel buddy (as in we're writing a novel) Agah

Friend, child of the universe and novel buddy (as in we’re writing a novel) Agah

Silliest playtime: Conversations with Kevin Scott, Marsha Mason, Nic Lemon

Just set the camera to reward and place a diaper on the furniture...there will be pee

Just set the camera to record and place a diaper on the furniture…there will be pee

Most raucous laughter: Monthly bonfires organized by Janine Short

Conversation runs the gamut from politics to coitus interruptus and everything in between

Conversation runs the gamut from politics to coitus interruptus and everything in between

Most head-spinning period: Austin Film Festival, both the sessions and attendees

Terry Rossio on AFF panel

Oddest friendship (tie): Virtual connection to blogger Ned Hickson; Duke #75, mascot of the Toronto Marlies

One is a pro hockey mascot and the other is a humorist (US spelling here)

One is a pro hockey mascot and the other is a humorist (US spelling here)

Most humbing moment: Little Joe’s Heart campaign and response

We lost a little fighter this year...he will not be forgotten

We lost a little fighter this year…he will not be forgotten

Friend of the year (tie): Leela Holliman, Nic Lemon, Marsha Mason

This is Leela...you met Nick and Marsha above

This is Leela…you met Nick and Marsha above

Dream come true: Travelling Costa Rica (bonus: with my brother, Shawn “Chongo” Solnik)

One of the few photos of my brother NOT flipping the bird...here he flips fish

One of the few photos of my brother NOT flipping the bird…here he flips fish

Greatest moment of the year: Photo with cast of PuppetUp!

I don't care if you're sick of hearing about these guys

I don’t care if you’re sick of hearing about these guys

White space

blank-paper

Earlier today, I read a blog post by my dear friend Marsha Mason, the latest in a series for Why The Face. In today’s post, she touched on the subject of use of white space in writing, whether a screenplay, query letter, whatever.

“The goal of white space,” she explains, “is to never be at the detriment of your story…but to force you to condense, to economize, to pack as much punch as you can into less.”

I agree with her conclusion, but question if the goal of white space isn’t so much bigger.

For the uninitiated, white space is literally the empty space between lines of text and/or images, the complete absence of content which appears white on the printed page or computer screen.

As I suggested in my response to Marsha’s post, I have worked for several years in careers such as magazine publishing, web design, advertising and now screenwriting, and in all that time, I have found that white space is easily the least understood and most underutilized aspect of creativity.

For whatever reason, people seem to believe that an absence of something is an absence of work. Marsha’s comment about the need to be concise and economical in your word choice partly puts the lie to this conjecture, but it doesn’t go far enough.

We live our lives like we fill our pages, with mostly useless things designed to ground us but which, in fact, anchor us and restrict our movement. It is a restriction that we accept voluntarily and without which many of us could not function, or at least fear we couldn’t.

At this moment, I have five browser windows open and yet am ignoring all but one, and only because that one is playing music. And at the same time that I write this post, my mind is on several other posts and some projects I am neglecting.

Nature abhors a vacuum. True. But think of the greater image.

More than 99.99999% of the known universe is actually NOTHING! Only the absence of ubiquitous light keeps it from being literally white space.

In screenwriting, white space is there to let your reader run free with his or her own interpretation of your work. Restrict their thoughts with clutter, and they resist. Prevent their thoughts with too much specificity, and they disengage.

Let your story breathe, as you yourself should. Your readers will be happier for it. And so will you be.

(Image is property of owner; I stole it.)

A great writers’ blog (by a great writer)

For those interested in reading some interesting perspectives on the creative process, I highly recommend a blog by one of my friends, actor and writer Marsha Mason (not the one from The Goodbye Girl).

Briefly known as WTF (which does not stand for what it may ask frequently), the Why The Face blog tackles a lot of the insecurities that most writers face; in Marsha’s case, from the perspective of screenwriting, but writing’s writing. But she also provides insights and answers gleaned both from her own experiences and those of others whom she has met.

Check it out.