Creative Scriptwriting and Copywriting

The hardest word

In copywriting, scriptwriting, writing on June 21, 2010 at 11:03 am

During my career as a creative writer, I have been asked to put the words into the mouths of, amongst others, the Fantastic Four, Michael Owen, Gaby Logan, Mobi –  the talking mobile phone from Carphone Warehouse, Kid Chameleon off of the Sega Megadrive, Cinderella, Pauline Fowler and Dot Cotton, and the Alien from the movie Alien.

Writing for existing characters – real and imaginary – demands a slightly different skill to inventing your own. All characters have to sound like themselves and no-one else. They should be individual and distinct. They should also have a consistency about how they speak, even when speaking in very different circumstances. But existing characters have an established tone of voice that you need to recreate if the audience is going to believe in the dialogue you’ve written.

For the Aliens from the movie Aliens it’s quite straightforward (It’s mostly “Hssss!”). For more sophisticated characters, writing can become close to acting. You have to inhabit a character – really think how they think – as well as use the kind of vocabulary, sentence structure, range of expression and idiom that the character employs. I’m not sure it’s something that can be taught.

It’s the same when writing for brands. Some corporate writers and advertising people  seek to mystify the creation of “tone of voice”, as if it was some exotic shamanism  only they have access to. But at heart, it just means making sure that the way a company talks to an audience has a distinct personality, and remains consistent. Writing or creating a brand’s tone of voice is exactly like writing or creating good character dialogue. If you’re used to writing good characters, I think “tone of voice“ comes easy.

But maybe it’s just that creative writers have a head-start in this kind of thing.

As an example, here is what Wayne Rooney said on camera last Friday night as he trudged off the field after a dismal performance against Algeria at the World Cup:

“Nice to see your own fans booing you. If that’s what loyal support is… for fuck’s sake.”

And here’s what he was reported to have said as an apology on Saturday:

“I am as passionate about the England team as anyone. Last night, on reflection, I said things in the heat of the moment that came out of frustration of both our performance and the result. For my part I apologise for any offence caused by my actions at the end of the game.

“The most important thing now is to regroup, be positive and work towards winning the game on Wednesday.

“To do this the players will need the support of the fans more than ever.”

Can you imagine the circumstances in which Wayne Rooney really came up with that?  Did an FA Press Officer chase after him with a tape recorder to capture these words of wisdom? Was it an impromptu outburst over breakfast or perhaps, troubled by his “foul-mouthed rant” (© Daily Mail), did Rooney hide himself away in his South African hotel room during some of the endless downtime in the Capello camp, and jot it down on the complimentary stationery?

My guess – and instinctively everyone’s guess – is: none of the above. We know Wayne Rooney. We’ve heard him speak. That’s not Wayne Rooney. My guess is, if Wayne Rooney said anything, it was more like:

“I shouldn’t of said them things, but I was pissed off with the game and that, so yeah, OK, I’m dead sorry I swore when kiddies were watching. Can’t we just fuckin’ forget it?”

But the trouble with getting tone of voice so wrong is that we automatically question everything else about the statement. We know Rooney didn’t say that. So does he think that? Is he sorry? Is he bothered? The words say he is. The performance on the pitch suggests he might not be.

So rather than helping the situation, the FA statement only confirms two things: whoever wrote that apology wasn’t Rooney, and neither were they a creative writer.


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