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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How to Write a Play or How to Enjoy Repeatedly Banging Your Head Against the Wall, Lesson 6: VOICE


Hello everyone.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I would like to welcome you fondly to Theater is a Sport.  It is Tuesday, March 19th, and it is snowing hard in the state of Maine, including the small town of Dover-Foxcroft, where I send these letters and words out to you, dear readers.  I apologize to any regular readers for an unintended hiatus.  I am back now, and will try to write on a daily basis, sharing my thoughts about theater with all of you.  I hope you enjoy it.

Since it is Tuesday, that means it is time for another playwriting lesson.  I know you are all probably very excited about that.  After all, I studied this stuff pretty hard in college, and here I am, sharing some tricks I've picked up along the way for free.  How 'bout that?

On this snowy (for me) evening, I would like to dedicate this lesson to the idea of voice.  Not your speaking voices, of course, but the voice of your characters. 

It is crucial to be conscious of your character's voice, and just as crucial to keep it consistent.  This kind of talk is a bit of a precursor to the greater discussion of what we call dialogue.

As we begin to think about the voices for each of our characters, let us first think about people's voices in real life.  What makes up a person's voice and speech?

There are a number of things, naturally:  cadence, volume, syntax, accent; pronounciation, breath control, repeated phrases, vocabulary.... a whole bunch of stuff.

That's a lot of stuff, isn't it?  And that's not even everything when it comes to voice! There's also depth, timbre, and so much more. 

Before you begin to worry that it is impossible to keep all of that stuff consistent, I'm going to share a little secret with you about how to keep all of this stuff on an even keel without too much effort. 

Here goes:


Okay, so maybe that's not as simple as it sounds, or, at least, not all of the time.  However, if you really know your characters, you know your characters voice.  All of the things I have listed almost become automatic during composition (or at least consistent enough until cleaning up details in revision). 

Okay, let's look at an example:

Let's say you are writing a character of a punk rocker named DOUBLE EDGE.  He's in full punk gear, safety pin through a nostril, mowhawk haircut died green, punk clothes, combat boots, the whole works.  You see him clearly in your mind, and he looks pretty scary.   Let's take a look at some dialogue for DOUBLE EDGE:

DOUBLE EDGE:  I mean, gosh, all I was trying to do was sell some baked goods to raise money for the church, and those darn police officers came and told me I needed a permit!  Since when do you need a permit to do a good deed?  What the heck!?

What I have to say may surprise you, so I'll go with the first:  you don't expect the guy to be saying these things, and, unless explained why he might talk like that, audiences will be confused and may call shenanigans.

That is, of course, unless, like the clever playwright you are, you have decided to invert the cliche and have a punk rocker who was just born again and now leads a successful Christian punk band.  If we learn this information about Double Edge, then, of course, it makes complete sense and rings true why he would talk this way.  If this is not the case.... well, that dialogue feels very false to an audience, right?

As yourself this question when you are writing:  are you hearing your characters' voices, or are you hearing your voice imitating your characters?  Don't beat yourself up if you find that it is the latter for some of your characters.  That's okay.  It takes practice.  In college, most of the plays I wrote, I acted out in my head all the time, hearing my voice doing impressions of my creations.  This happens when you're growing as a writer (in fact, it still happens to me from time to time).

However, the best feeling of all is when you can honestly say that your characters are talking to you, and they are giving you a voice and not the other way around.  Don't worry--- that will come.

Thank you for reading Theater is a Sport today.  If you would like to become a fan on facebook, please feel free to follow this link:!/TheaterIsASport

If you would like to learn more about me, feel free to follow this link:

In any case, I hope wherever you are, you are warm and safe.  My internet is spotty right now due to the snow, so I have to cut this a little short, so, please understand that this is an abbreviated lesson about voice.  Later tonight, if conditions improve, I will be writing another post to make up for my lack these last few days.  In the meantime, please remember that knowing your characters will help keep your voices consistent for you and the audience, and, of course--- remember that theater is not only a craft and an artform, but also a sport. 

See you later.

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