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Friday, October 3, 2008

Now, Doggone it, Get in Character!

How many Rouge Wavers watched the Palin/Biden debate yesterday evening? I know I was glued to it, admittedly waiting (and hoping) for a Palin gaffe that never happened. But my oh my did Governor Palin crank up her down home, regional accent for effect. She peppered her language not only with soft enunciations like "ya" instead of "you" and all the usual "goin's" and "shoulda's", but also a couple of well placed "doggone it's". The effect was quite calculated - this is a down home, all American, kitchen-table mom that you can relate to. Now, for someone like me, this was an annoying affectation - but for the voters Palin was trying to connect with, it was canny slam dunk. She understands ya. And maybe she won't answer questions the way ya'd like her ta, but Americans are just wantin' straight talk. Dontcha know.

From the linked article above:

Reaction to Palin's speech has been highly varied. Some people dislike it, finding it harsh or grating; others regard it as charming or authentic. These are common responses to a distinctive accent. Depending on the context, such an accent can make a person seem stupid or uneducated or, conversely, honest and folksily trustworthy—often at the same time. Some people exploit this for effect, emphasizing and de-emphasizing dialect features to prompt a particular reaction. Linguists call this code-switching. In this Palin interview with Katie Couric, you can hear her enunciating her -ings and her yous more clearly in responses where she appeared to have a ready answer, and returning to her more natural -in' and ya when she seemed stumped, which suggests that Palin may have been deliberately attempting to minimize her dialect features for that audience.

Yes, this code-switching...Palin does what I call a "Zelig". You know, that great Woody Allen movie about a guy who instantly becomes just like everyone around him at a given moment in order to fit in?

Full disclosure: I am a born and bred Democrat from an educated, East Coast family that doggone moved west but retained a regional loyalty toward everything Boston and a love of literature and discussion. My grandmother attended the Leland Powers School of Elocution in fact, though she could never quite rid herself of her Brahmin Boston accent, i.e., driving the cah to the pahk. For me, while Palin's diction, colloquialisms and overall diction is clearly a result of where she is from, there is an affectation that I find patronizing and which frankly galls me. Do ya know what I'm sayin'?

But moving on my from personal predilections and prejudices re Palin, I thought it an interesting lesson for screenwriters when it comes to dialogue. Palin employed a particular speech pattern for powerful effect: she was in character. Did she come across as warm, folksy and honest? That was the intent.

But to be both fair and realistic, we all have a bit of Zelig in us. How we want to be perceived varies from situation to situation. The way we speak tells others volumes about us. About where we're from, our socio-economic status, our education and our world view. We are all in character.

I know that while I might seem fairly polite on the Rouge Wave, in real life, I use the eff word and a thousand variations of it very liberally when hanging around with my friends. Wouldn't do that around my parents or around someone that I didn't know very well. When I'm around people who are quite educated and who show that in their speech - I'm right there with 'em too. My speech patterns and diction vary by situation. And your does too.

Take a look at your script pages and ask two questions of the dialogue: what affect is your character trying to have in the situation and what dialogue and diction choices have you made for your character in order to establish and reinforce personality?

How do you want your character to come across? What kind of vocabulary and diction do your characters use and to what affect? Oh dear, now I'm getting that paranoid feeling that I'm mixing my affects and my effects up. I probably am. And for every smarty pants Rouge Waver who writes in with the definitions of each and both, here's a preemptive cupcake for you.

The bottom line is that however you felt about the Palin/Biden debate, Palin had a little lesson packed into her speech for us screenwriters. Dialogue defines character.

For more on the debate click HERE.

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Christian M. Howell said...

I don't know. She leaves me flat no matter the accent. I watched an interview with both she and McCain and McCain was very nearly holding her hand.
Couric was asking about a question a voter asked at a stop; McCain was like he was protecting her from the big bad wolf.
I mean, she's supposed to be the bg bad wolf as VP.

The debate was like "believe me I'm not like the current Republicans." If there didn't seem to be a "wink-wink" it would be okay.
I just feel that Obama\Biden is the better team. I do feel more comfortable with the guy who wasn't born into privilege. Hard work makes you more cautious.

As far as character intonation etc. I try to write dialog that describes the mood. Most people speech patterns relax under duress or in informal circumstances.

Angela said...

Ha! You know your readership quite well-- I was already planning on emailing you about "affect"* before I read the penultimate paragraph.

Didn't want to be a smartypants and correct you in the comments, but since you bring attention to it, but I wasn't sure if you meant to use "effect" where you write: "what affect is your character trying to have in the situation..."? Though in the context of this topic, you could be using the definition of "affect" that means "to assume artificially, pretentiously, or for effect."

Or is that too much fussing over grammar for a Friday??

Diane Stredicke said...

Great article Julie.

Is it only me, or does Sarah Palin remind you of Suzanne Stone in "To Die For"?

And her voice...

She's channeling Marge Gunderson from the icy depths of "Fargo."

Diane Stredicke said...

But hey, one more comment... or rather question.

Just for fun.

Friday afternoon here-on-the-east-coast-fun.

Who would you cast to play a spunky, down-home, soccer mom who works her way to Washington to play with the big boys, takes on the oil wild cats, is out of place with intellectual elite? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington meets Erin Brochovich.

Seth Fortin said...

And, to add to what Angela said (and to the confusion), there's the noun "affect," pronounced with a long flat "aa" at the beginning, which means:

Feeling or emotion, especially as manifested by facial expression or body language: "The soldiers seen on television had been carefully chosen for blandness of affect" (Norman Mailer).

Which is particularly appropriate when talking about Gov. Palin's peculiar way of expressing herself, though I suspect you meant "effect" in the sentence Angela quoted.

(The way I keep "affect" and "effect" straight, not including the peculiar psychological usage above, is to remember that "affect" contains the word "act," so it's a verb. And now I will go beat myself about the head and face with a copy of Fowler's Modern English Usage for being such a nerd.)

meg said...

I recently read a suggestion by a screenwriter to read the dialog for each character by itself all the way through the script. It should all sound the same. Then the next one and so on. He suggested doing this for each character to make sure each one was distinct from the other and faithful to the character.

I plan to do that when I finish my next script.

Julie Gray said...

@Diane - fun game! I'd cast...geez...Holly Hunter ten years ago. Palin DOES remind me of Nicole Kidman in To Die For! Great call!

Anthony Peterson said...

Bingo! Her answer to the "Achilles Heel" question revealed the most about her character.

She has no idea what expression means!

She's an actor on the stage of a Greek tradgedy and she doesnt even realise it.

And as a conservative, It embarasses me to admit that.

I didn't intend to digress into more weightier issues.

Thats my "Achilles Heel".

Chris said...

Tracy Flick from "Election"

It's kinda scary.

Pick Flick!

Anonymous said...

Dear Julie,
I was wondering. I have writen three scripts about the work i do; it is full of insanity- violence, AND the drama of the people who deal with it. I AM NOT a writer. I can hardly spell. So, I was wondering how getting someone who knows how to write and get it produced would work if showtime decides they like it. If it seems like it could be the hour show on cable i wrote it for.

Julie Gray said...

Dear Anonymous with the workplace script: Ahhhh if I had a penny for every time I have heard this story "I'm not a writer myself BUT..."

Two things:

One, get some feedback from a professional about whether this script (or idea as it were) is really unique and salable. You may be laboring over something that is to YOU very unique and amazing but that the marketplace is already flooded with. Maybe not.

Two, if the material really is that good, then you need to hire yourself a writer. HIRE a writer, I say. Don't expect this done for free. The use of a non-guild writer to pen your script can cost you anywhere from $2,500 to $25K depending on the experience and credibility of the writer. If you are willing to pay for this work, I can be a resource for making a match to a writer best suited to help you. But don't expect work for free; you get what you pay for. And I would NEVER advocate for one of my writers to work for free.

E.C. Henry said...

Julie, I LOVE Sarah Palin, but after listening to the debate, I'm starting to think she's in way-way over her head. Joe Biden TOTALLY schooled her Thursday night. He was consistenly answering the questions asked very fluidly AND (for the most part) effectively. Sarah Palin dodged a lot of questions and seemed VERY ill prepared. That made me and my dad think that maybe Biden was given the questions in advance, while Palin wasn't. But even then to have THAT poor of a performance when you're on the hook trying to show America you're ready to be vice president -- that doesn't sit well with me. Sarah reminded me of my days back in high school when awkwards kids had to give speaches in front of the class.

With Biden so good at the debate, and Obama so bad. I'm wondering if the democrats have the right ticket in order? LOVE McCain, but I'm afraid he needs someone READY to lead in the event something catastophic should happen to him --should he win the election.

Diaglog wise, I think Sarah Palin is a breath of fresh air amongst all politicians, and I do love hearing her speak, but I think that may best served with her remaining in Alaska.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

E.C.'s Dad said...

E.C. -- I think it's time you got yourself a gurlfriend and you're own place. Not neccessarily in that order. :-)

Luzid said...

All you need to know to understand how dim is the bulb that illuminates Palin's character are seven words:

She believes man walked with dinosaurs.

And she's about as authentic as Aspartame.

E.C. Henry said...

Funniest blog post respnonce I've ever had the priviledge to read.

Thanks dad, I needed that.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA to his estranged (or is it just stranged?) father wherever he may be. I love you dad!

Anonymous said...

Julie Gray,
Thank you for answering my question about my show for cable. An agent at CAA said no one would watch it and then two shows about my business were on cable. Niether of which were nearly as great, interesting, and cool as mine. For not being a writer, I am old enough to know it is wonderful. I will hold tight and not listen to any nay sayers.