Tuesday, August 4, 2009


When the dramatist, Arthur Miller, remarked that he couldn’t write a character until he could hear a character he articulated what is probably the single most important insight concerning the nature of mediumistic storytelling: the process of discovering character - of entering a character’s inner life, and allowing your life to be entered by it - is and always has been, in essence, an aural experience.

Every character worthy of the name has a voice. The voice, like breath itself, comes from deep within - a kind of aural fingerprint with its own, unique timbre, pitch, pace and rhythm.

In saying this I do not mean to imply any devaluation of image. Cinematic images are not voiceless - a tree creaks; a city hums; the bush screams; one listens to the silence because one can always hear it.

But in the development of character-driven drama, a screenwriter’s most pressing challenge is to enter the life of the characters, and for this to occur s/he must enter into an intimacy that is nowhere more potent or profound than in the interplay between speaking and hearing.

Tribal people have always recognised the pre-eminent power of the voice. When we - the so-called educated masses - understand something we say: “I see”; whereas in tribal cultures understandings are conveyed by the expression: “I hear you”. In Australia, among the Western-Desert group of languages, for example, the Pintupi/Luritja word for “to understand” (kurlinu) is the same word as “to hear”. One of the worst insults is simply to tell someone: “nyuntu pina wiya!” (you have no ears!).

As a poet – indeed, as a performance poet – I have long been aware of the importance of the voice and the ears in the composition and presentation of verse. When one writes a poem on paper one fills a space; inches, indents, punctuation are all seemingly significant. However, the real poem is also being written in time – not only on the page, but also in the invisible management of energies with their metres, pauses, and tonalities. It should ring in one's head, and beat with a heart that is peculiarly its own.

Like music, poetry and dramatic screenwriting move within a time continuum; they are time arts, and if one is not sensitive to the way that a poem or a script moves in time, the way in which their movement contains and conveys the emotional meaning of the language in which they are dressed, one may very well sabotage or dilute their potential and the emotional impact that is their reason for being.

Compelling, character-based storytelling is – like poetry - is also grounded in orality. Though I had had an intellectual understanding of this, I never fully grasped or appreciated the catalytic power of “hearing voices” until one evening during the 1987 National Screenwriters’ Conference, in Queenscliff (Victoria, Australia). During one of the late-night sessions, I developed a growing revulsion for the fawning admiration my fellow Aussie screenwriters were showering upon the British TV dramatist, Troy Kennedy Martin, and the mesmerised eagerness with which they were prepared to embrace his naïve enthusiasm for the tele-visual possibilities of micro-drama, Having had my fill of this latest version of Australia's infamous "cultural cringe", I got up and left. It was already quite late when set out for my room at the Ozone Hotel, so I was surprised when suddenly I heard a strange, distinctive voice cry out: “A brackish tribulation!”

The words came out of the darkness and swirled round me like some lucid dream - close enough for me to imagine that the speaker was right behind me.

I stopped and turned, expecting to see someone – a friend maybe, emerging from the shadows – but nobody was there… so I resumed walking, and the words came again – “A brackish tribulation!”

I repeated the phrase under my breath as if to verify I hadn’t said it myself, and set off in greater haste for the hotel. As I walked, I heard it again… and again. Alone with a voice, a lone voice. I was more curious than frightened, but also more anxious for the sanctuary of the hotel, so I picked up my pace and bounded up the stairs to my room, two steps at a time.

Shutting the door behind me, I realised it had followed me into the room. Looking in the desk, I found a single sheet of hotel letterhead. Even though you tell yourself you’ll remember in the morning, you never do. So I wrote it down. "A brackish tribulation!" - and as soon as I did, the voice came again, only this time it said: “inconsequential no doubt, but beyond compare”, trilling the “r” with a bardic, Yeatsian kind of tone.

I sat at the desk, writing down everything I heard. As I wrote down one sentence I’d hear another, and as soon as I'd written that down, another. It went on like this for maybe an hour, until my roommate arrived back from the conference, full of false enthusiasm for the possibilities of micro-drama.

“What have you been doing?” he asked.

“Writing,” I said; somewhat absently. Then I read it to him – a long dramatic monologue that ends:

Never the proposals that get in the way,
only the stupid questions and
inattention to answers;
the blind assent to speed:
the headlong rush into untried truth
because he said this and she said that,
so long as everything is quick,
so long as everything is sweet.
As if life could be conceived and born
in a night’s sleep;
toddling by breakfast;
high school on the way to work;
college and a perfect marriage by noon;
old age for lunch; and a palsied decline
in time for tea.
Setting for an early hour
the alarm clock by Death;
and Heaven: another sleep.

So how is it that Men and Women
make it through another day
with such velocity,
with so little deliberation?
Freedom is a wishbone
caught up in the hand of a child who
believes in magic and cannot speak,
for speaking does not make wishes happen.
What is closest to us must always remain a secret,
and there is tragedy in this.
Syntax cannot change this room.
Something more is required…
or something less.
Courage: the rudimentary ingredient.
Better to reflect the world without a word
than talk ourselves to death.
But make no mistake –
this is no theatre of ideas, only lucid dream.
In here, the passing show
lacks the usual requisite action,
but should do in any case.
The anticipation of a long journey
is still possible,
even when there is no horizon.

Miniature Theatre production, Berkshires, MA (USA)
(Read the complete play at http://stoneking.tripod.com/cgi-bin/16 )

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’d been channelling the voice of the American poet, Ezra Pound; and though I couldn’t have told you why, or even what it all meant, I later discovered in what I’d scrawled over both sides of the Ozone Hotel stationary what was to become the opening monologue of Act II of my play, Sixteen Words for Water, which would take me three years to complete and would open simultaneously to rave reviews and full houses in both Sydney and London. Characters work in mysterious ways.

Fortunately I’m not alone in this experience, otherwise I could’ve easily ended up in the nuthouse, which is where my partner feared they’d put me if I kept telling journalists my writing was coming from disembodied voices.

But as I said, I’m not alone. Lots of writers hear voices – indeed, it’s one of the major ways in which enduring characters enter the world.

So let me say it once and for all - the channelling of voice is key to the realisation of successful, dramatic, character-based screenwriting.

Warning: this is only for the obsessed!

If you happen to be one of them - the obsessed, that is - a screen storyteller with a passion for vivid characters and a desire to make them fully present to your audience, then your chief task is simply to LISTEN. Which reminds me of something Charles Simic, employing a baseball metaphor, once said: “Poets are catchers, not pitchers.”

In my experience, when a screenwriter is working best s/he is working very much like a poet, and a poet understands that you cannot hope to make anything present to an audience unless you first of all make it present to yourself.

Unfortunately, you can’t really MAKE characters do anything, though there are plenty of chauvinistic screenwriting control freaks out there who I am sure would disagree with me. All you can really do is work on developing your listening skills. Pay attention, goddammit, pay attention!

The art of developing character starts with oneself, and the experience of PRESENCE – of making your characters, including yourself, present to one another. It is primarily an aural experience. Entering the Drama and freeing your characters so that they can do the work they were meant to do is less about “I see” and more about “I hear”.

Certainly the most powerful and transformative stories are nearly always possessed of voices. This is particularly the case in what is arguably America’s greatest novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. From the start, its author, Mark Twain, employs the voice of the novelist, challenging and warning his audience:


“PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.”

He then goes on to explain that the novel employs “a number of dialects… to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.”

Personal familiarity? Sounds like a tribal connection… the exactness of intimacy, of shared sources and origins. The fact that Twain was able to channel all these voices in his novel, with all their particularity, requires both an openness and an intimacy grown from first-hand, living relationships, and being with those whose voices inhabit the pages of his novel. You could say that Huck Finn was an aspect of Twain, but it would be just as accurate to say that Twain was an aspect of Huck.

“You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary…”

The tribal connection to character is confirmed and validated by the hearing of voices. One realises one is finding the story when one stops looking for it, and begins listening to what the characters are telling you about what they want and why they want it, in their own inimical way that flows from a source that is common to both them and the writer. This is the manner in which all great works come to fruition. And there are endless examples of it.

In Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, we have an example of the symphonic energy of characters realised in a mediumistic way – the rhythms and word choices, the counter-dialogue and sub-textual sadness provoke our interest and evoke emotions by virtue of the smallest and most intimate details – details with which Miller shared a mighty empathy by virtue of his tribal connections to the characters.

The voice of Willy Loman remains, nearly 60 years after its finding, a dramatic tour de force:

WILLY: [With wonder.] I was driving along, you understand? And I was fine. I was even observing the scenery. You can imagine, me looking at scenery, on the road every week of my life. But it’s so beautiful up there, Linda, the trees are so thick, and the sun is warm. I opened the windshield and just let the warm air bathe over me. And then all of a sudden I’m going’ off the road! I’m tellin’ ya, I absolutely forgot I was driving. If I’d’ve gone the other way over the white line I might’ve killed somebody. So I went on again—and five minutes later I’m dreamin’ again, and I nearly—[He presses two fingers against his eyes.] I have such thoughts, I have such strange thoughts.

LINDA: Willy, dear. Talk to them again. There’s no reason why you can’t work in New York.

WILLY: They don’t need me in New York. I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England.

LINDA: But you’re sixty years old. They can’t expect you to keep travelling every week.

WILLY: I’ll have to send a wire to Portland. I’m supposed to see Brown and Morrison tomorrow morning at ten o’clock to show the line. Goddammit, I could sell them! [He starts putting on his jacket.]

LINDA: [Taking the jacket from him.] Why don’t you go down to the place tomorrow and tell Howard you’ve simply got to work in New York? You’re too accommodating, dear.

WILLY: If old man Wagner was alive I’d a been in charge of New York now! That man was a prince, he was a masterful man. But that boy of his, that Howard, he does’t appreciate. When I went north the first time, the Wagner Company didn’t know where New England was!

LINDA: Why don’t you tell those things to Howard, dear?

WILLY: [Encouraged.] I will, I definitely will. Is there any cheese?

LINDA: I’ll make you a sandwich.

WILLY: No, go to sleep. I’ll take some milk. I’ll be up right away. The boys in?

LINDA: They’re sleeping. Happy took Biff on a date tonight.

WILLY: [Interested.]That so?

LINDA: It was so nice to see them shaving together, one behind the other, in the bathroom. And going out together. You notice? The whole house smells of shaving lotion.

WILLY: Figure it out. Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it.

LINDA: Well, dear, life is a casting off. It’s always that way.

WILLY: No, no, some people—some people accomplish something. Did Biff say anything after I went this morning?

LINDA: You shouldn’t have criticized him, Willy, especially after he just got off the train. You mustn’t lose your temper with him.

WILLY: When the hell did I lose my temper? I simply asked him if he was making any money. Is that a criticism?

LINDA: But, dear, how could he make any money?

WILLY: [Worried and angered.] There’s such an undercurrent in him. He became a moody man. Did he apologize when I left this morning?

LINDA: He was crestfallen, Willy. You know how he admires you. I think if he finds himself, then you’ll both be happier and not fight any more.

WILLY: How can he find himself on a farm? Is that a life? A farmhand? In the beginning, when he was young, I thought, well, a young man, it’s good for him to tramp around, take a lot of different jobs. But it’s more than ten years now and he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week?

LINDA: He’s finding himself, Willy.

WILLY: Not finding yourself at the age of thirty-four is a disgrace!


WILLY: The trouble is he’s lazy, goddammit!

LINDA: Willy, please!

WILLY: Biff is a lazy bum!

LINDA: They’re sleeping. Get something to eat. Go on down.

WILLY: Why did he come home? I would like to know what brought him home.

LINDA: I don’t know. I think he’s still lost, Willy. I think he’s very lost.

WILLY: Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such—personal
attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker. There’s one thing about Biff—he’s not lazy.

LINDA: Never.

WILLY: [With pity and resolve.] I’ll see him in the morning; I’ll have a nice talk with him. I’ll get him a job selling. He could be big in no time. My God! Remember how they used to follow him around in high school? When he smiled at one of them their faces lit up. When he walked down the street …[He loses himself in reminiscences.]

LINDA: [Trying to bring him out of it.] Willy, dear, I got a new kind of American type cheese today. It’s whipped.

WILLY: Why do you get American when I like Swiss?

LINDA: I just thought you’d like a change—

WILLY: I don’t want a change! I want Swiss cheese. Why am I always being contradicted?

LINDA: [With a covering laugh] I thought it would be a surprise.

WILLY: Why don’t you open a window in here, for God’s sake?

LINDA: [With infinite patience.]They’re all open, dear.

WILLY: The way they boxed us in here. Bricks and windows, windows and bricks.

LINDA: We should’ve bought the land next door.

WILLY: The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. The grass don’t grow any more, you can’t raise a carrot in the back yard. They should’ve had law against apartment houses. Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them?

LINDA: Yeah, like being a million miles from the city.

WILLY: They should’ve arrested the builder for cutting those down. They massacred the neighbourhood. [Lost.] More and more I think of those days, Linda. This time of year it was lilac and wisteria. And then the peonies would come out, and the daffodils. What fragrance in this room!

LINDA: Well, after all, people had to move somewhere.

WILLY: No, there’s more people now.

LINDA: I don’t think there’s more people. I think—

WILLY: There’s more people! That’s what ruining this country! Population is getting out of control. The competition is maddening! Smell the stink from that apartment house! And another one on the other side ...How can they whip cheese?

Likewise, in J.D. Salinger’s legendary novel, Catcher in the Rye, it is the voice of Holden Caulfield that immediately conducts us into the emotional core of the central character.

But make no mistake. This is not an argument for writing more dialogue. All I am saying is that the hearing of a character’s voice is an essential key to the finding of that character. One must be able to HEAR one’s characters before one can know them, and when one knows them one is under no obligation to have them say anything at all… unless they want to, that is.

The protagonist of Salinger’s book, a high-school student at a loose end, is startlingly present to us from the first sentence he utters:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two haemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all - I'm not saying that - but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy…”

In striving to be loved or good or well-received, screenwriters very often write the script they’ve heard someone else write, without any regard for the characters with which they have thrown in their lot. This is a species of formulistic writing, and renders the screenwriter deaf to the possibilities of his/her own characters and their origins. Alas, the world of filmmaking is strewn with bad imitators of Tarantino, Woo, and others. Not that there's anything wrong with imitating the artists you love. Making experiments using the voices of others is a great way of learning how the language works (and plays), and can be of great benefit so long as you don't get stuck there.

Finally, it helps a lot if you actually have something that you passionately want to say. The search for voice is not successfully conducted when armed with thinly motivated enthusiasm. The quest is for much more than micro-drama. You need to be in love with something and then find characters whose problems, goals and plans dramatise that passion. When they care and you care, your audience has a chance of caring.

As for finding these characters to begin with - you don't find them to begin with. They have to be seduced into aurality... but here's a handy hint to get you started - for those who have ears, let them hear.

There is a terrific lot that can be learned about your characters by reading what you write ALOUD, particularly in the company of strangers.

Try this: Buy an all-day bus pass and ride the bus with your script.

Introduce yourself to likely looking passengers - ones that aren't likely to get off at the next stop.

Tell them you’re writing a movie; they’ll be interested.

Ask them if you can read a few pages to them. They needn’t comment.

What you hear coming out of your mouth will speak volumes.

What's needed is an audience, especially when the writer isn't discerning or critical enough, which most writers aren’t. If a crowd in a cafe or an auditorium isn't readily available, grab the first person that comes along. The bus is good cos you've got a "captive" audience. Anyone will do, but preferably someone who isn't a close friend, who will keep his/er mouth shut and not shower you with praise. Forget the praise. It's often little more than a hackneyed way of staving off the embarrassment of silence.

It hardly matters what this "audience" reaction is because if you've been listening to the script yourself as you've been saying it (aloud); you'll know instinctively which parts work and which parts don’t. You can HEAR it!

It's all there, right before your ears.

If this interested you, you might be interested in discovering more about MEDIUMISTIC storytelling at Stoneking's SCRIPT TOOLS & TUTORIALS website at http://scripttools.webs.com/


Anonymous said...

Hi Billy,

I have some misgivings about what you believe are the role and objectives of the main character/s in a good script.

Why do characters have to have goals? Why do they have to want anything? Why do predominantly 'bourgeois' audiences need to empathize with them? Why does there have to be some kind of moral delemma/issue that need to be resolved or not resolved? Why the three act suructure?

It seems that many of the best scripts/movies don't go by way of these devises. The Godfather trilogy, for example, avoided the three act suructure. Chopper and No Country For Old Men, are but two very successful movies where many of these devises were missing...


Billy Marshall Stoneking said...

First of all, I have never advocated for the three-act structure. Don't know where you got that idea.

Secondly, you can tell a story about anything you want to tell a story about, and in any way you feel like telling it, BUT if you want to tell a dramatic story you cannot do so without MYSTERY, SUSPENSE and CONFLICT - and these all revolve around a CHARACTER that necessarily has a PROBLEM that threatens his/her well-being or the well-being of those he/she loves. That's the fundamental grammar of the language that IS drama - always has been - always will be - even back into olden times - in the Aboriginal tjukurrpa, through Greek tragedy, and Shakespeare and even now in Tarantino and yes, even the Cohen Bros - Even films that have non-linear narratives - e.g.: 21 GRAMS - contain these elements.

If you look again you will see that the films you quote are NOT devoid of these - The Godfather starts with a problem that is dramatised by the assassination of Luca (the fat guy) and builds from there - logically - through the attack on Don Corelone, the death of Sonny, Michael's revenge in the restaurant and the threat to Michael - his exile and the death of his wife - and ultimately the final revenge killings of members of the opposing families, etc that occurs at the end - and of course the journey completely transforms Michael - he is changed by everything that occurs - and the journey is EMOTIONAL.

No Country for Old Men is also about a character on a quest - the problem - a maniac is loose with a bolt gun. However, I found that film personally unsatisfying mainly because the end was so equivocating - as if the filmmakers ran out of steam and didnt know what to do next, so they just ended it.

As a writer your main challenge is to let your characters to speak and act in ways that make the audience CARE. Why do I care? is the biggest question - and you cannot make me or anyone else care unless the actions work EMOTIONALLY. A dramatic character is a character we care about because he/she is fighting for something with which we can identify - it may be love or justice or one's good name, or honour - a Dramatic Character is - by definition - a character that is fighting for something and whose quest to attain it we CARE ABOUT.

Rather than merely having misgivings about what you presume I believe, why don't you spend some time reading and REFLECTING upon what I have actually written; then perhaps we can have a conversation...

You can peruse quite a lot of my ideas at http://www.scripttools.webs.com

Anonymous said...

Three Act Structure: You actually spoke about it to me seveal months ago. I'm not saying its good, bad, essential or whatever. If it fits, use it. Mystery, suspense and conflict are what creates good (or bad) drama. That's obvious.

What concerns me is character development. In many of the best movies there is no character real development. In No Country for Men, Chopper, Godfather 1, Goodfellas, there was no character development, nevertheless, they were all very 'INTERESTING'. And why the fuck do we have to care about the main characters? Fuck 'em! How can you 'empathise' with Chopper, Michael, the nutter in NCFOL or Henry in Goodfellas? You can't! As for their 'journey': Michael's journey finished when he became a mafia boss ( 20 minutes into the movie) his character never evolved or developed thereafter. In fact, all we witnessed were the crimes he perpetrated as a mafia boss and how they impacted upon his family. But Michael himself was a ROCK. The nutter in NCFOL developed nowhere, nor did Chopper, nor did Henry Hill. All Henry wanted to be in the begenning and the end, was a gangster. In the end he didn't change, nor did he repent or regret anything, except the fact that because he'd given up his mates, he couldn't be a gangster anymore!


Anonymous said...

When I ask the question, "why do I care?" what I mean is why should I be interested? What character traits allow me to emotionally identify with the character?

Emotional identification is hugely important to the success of any dramatic story.

I'm not going to go through all of the examples you've thrown up except to say that your observations are made in a rather aggressive and reductionist manner that most likely contributes to your inability or unwillingness to see what is going on dramatically in the films you mention.

Let's take Goodfellows as an example.

The journey we take with Henry Hill - the Ray Liotta character - is a great example of character change. Apart from "the false point of attack" at the beginning - we see a chronological narrative of Henry's life - and his transition from a kid into a gangster. We understand where he is coming from - the reasons why he wanted the kind of power and prestige that that life seemed to offer - it is PERSONAL to him.

BUT we also see and hear, especially after his meeting with Karen, another, even more personal and human side of his being. We realise he has it in him - unlike Jimmy and Tommy for example - to love and to be loved.

When Tommy blows Spider's foot off, all the others are laughing. Henry doesn't. There is something that sets him apart - that leads him into drugs, and eventually into turning state's evidence by informing on his crew. He has a complexity that makes us wonder:


It is not clear throughout the story where his life will ultimately go. The Dramatic Question must be answered with all of his actions and these include a Jewish wife who, incidentally, narrates a good deal of the story.

Henry's saga has this personal dimension that counterpoints and affects what he is able to feel and not feel, do and not do, in the world of gangsterdom.

BTW - you make a serious - and all too common critical mistake - whenever you say something like "All Henry wanted to be in the begenning and the end, was a gangster."

See "Reading A Script" at http://www.scripttools.webs.com for an analysis of this faulty form of reasoning -

if you employ fallacious reasoning like this when examining scripts you will stop yourself from seeing INTO the heart of the stories of others, as well as into the heart of your own.

What Elia Kazan said about reading scripts should be typed out LARGE and hung over the work station of every screenwriter... go to that site to find out what he said.


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