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Home » Archives » July 2007 » Stumbling Toward Greatness
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07/18/2007: Stumbling Toward Greatness

Gentle Reader Dan in Philadelphia writes in with an excellent question (two of them, actually, but we'll just tackle one of them today). Dan asks:

"How do you write dialogue for a stuttering mumbling character, such as Matt Saracen from Friday Night Lights? Do you write all the pauses and repeats or do you indicate it in parenthesis?

(stumbling over his words)
I don't want you to go.

Does it change if you are writing for a character who always stumbles as opposed to a character who's just doing it once?"

Ooh. I love this kind of nuts-and-bolts question. Thank you, Dan!

This is, in fact, a rare instance in which I would suggest that a spec script should look somewhat different than a script that's been written by the show's actual writing staff. I bet you anything that Matt's lines in produced scripts are written without any repeats or stumbles. But your task isn't to supply words to an actor. Your task, as the writer of a spec, is to demonstrate that you can capture a character's voice. That voice, in this case, involves false starts and backtracks.

So I'd put 'em in, but lightly. If you put in as many of these as the actor does, I think it would get cumbersome and tiring to read. (And I probably wouldn't write in literal stutters of this t-t-t-type.) But lay some verbal effects in lightly, here and there, especially when the character is stressed. If you want to call attention to it in a specific spot in the story, I wouldn't do it with a parenthetical, but with a stage direction that calls attention to what you're already doing with the dialogue. For example:

Matt's nerves make his normal stumbling speech even more obvious, as he finally raises his eyes and looks at Julie:

I... I don't-- I don't want you to go.

And as to whether it makes a difference whether a stutter is habitual with a character or a one-time thing, absolutely! If a character is normally a smooth-talker, and you've got them stumbling, you've got even more free reign to write in the curlicues when they happen:

But-- I mean-- Wasn't-- Isn't the patient... with... you?

Using false starts and hesitations like this is a great way to convey emotion. Nervousness, agitation, gradually dawning awareness... you can get them across very elegantly this way. You're really letting the reader use their imaginary ears to "hear" your script, which is the point of the exercise. If you relegate the hesitations to a parenthetical, you don't get this effect at all.

Writing realistic speech of this kind is one of my favorite things. Give it a try and notice how your script starts to have a sound.

Lunch: veggie sandwich. How can avocados be vegetables? They're so good.


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