By Trent Rentsch
If you write copy for any length of time, you realize that punctuation isn’t the roadmap to interpretation you might want it to be. Usually in my case, this means that the voice talent brings my words to life in ways I didn’t intend, giving them the illusion of being better than they are. But I often wonder if really good writers are insulted by the direction actors take their scripts. What would Shakespeare do, thrust into our world, looking back on centuries of interpretation of his works? As an example, let’s take just one line from Hamlet:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:”
Pretty straightforward, right? 2 words, a pause, 4 words, a dramatic pause, 4 words, and yet another dramatic pause into the next sentence. It’s all laid out for the actor taking on the Melancholy Dane. So why does each actor give it a different spin? Sir Laurence Olivier made both pauses exceptionally dramatic and even added one (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-R9neKwczo), Richard Burton stayed true to the punctuation in a somewhat frantic form (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsrOXAY1arg), Kenneth Branagh took a quieter, more intense, though still true to the punctuation approach (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JD6gOrARk4), and Mel Gibson… oh, Mel Gibson. Barreling through the sentence, leaving bits of the tattered comma and colons he rolls through in his wake (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwFzvg3L2Qg). And, of course, these are but the tip of a four-century old iceberg of actors who have taken on the role. In all that time, did anybody manage to speak the words exactly as Shakespeare heard them in his mind? My guess is, given the chance to jump from the past and give his review to them all, William would probably find a few near performances, but none exactly right. But I also guess that he might concede that (other than Mel Gibson) many of them discovered dramatic potential he never dreamed of.
It all begins with the words; I doubt any of us would argue with that. But what is done to them by the voice actor can make or break a piece… whether it’s a classic drama or an ad for Mr. Rooter. And as we saw in Hamlet, each actor is going to approach the words, even with all the commas and colons and periods in place, in a completely different way. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that… as long as the intent of the words is communicated to the listener.
I’ve been giving the issue of space a lot of thought lately. In my early efforts as a copywriter, I would fill my scripts with commas, expecting “dramatic pauses” from the voice talent at all of the “important places.” What I didn’t take into account was the need to write shorter scripts to give them time for those pauses… how the hell I thought anyone could get all 97 words in a :30 second spot and still have time to breathe, much less “pause for emphasis” is beyond me, but going through my earliest files, I certainly expected it. I know I thought I had all these “clever ideas” that would make the listener brake in traffic to turn up the spot every time it played… and, of course, the clients had all these “useless copy points” he just “had” to have in the spot… it wasn’t my fault if the copy was long!!
You get your nose bloodied enough times in battles like that over the years and you begin to realize that something is wrong… and it’s probably you. If you have to cut the fat, you’re going to have to kill your darlings, because, barring pornography, what the client “really wants” in the ad, is going to stay. You need to learn to edit your brilliant ideas down to manageable word counts, not just to get that phone number in 3 times, but also to give the voice talent time to give each word… and each pause… the weight they deserve.
So what do you do when the client has :40 seconds of “must appear” copy points and you simply need to deliver the goods in :30? First of all, obviously, something needs to go, and you can either make suggestions or even offer a couple of alternative script ideas, but once you’ve gotten over that hurdle, there still needs to be room for the magic of communication. I’ve found that even if I have room for only one dramatic pause in a script, it needs to happen between the problem the spot introduces and the “answer,” which is always the client. For instance:
“Toilet’s clogged: Mr. Rooter to the rescue.”
It might not be Shakespeare, but then again, Shakespeare didn’t have indoor plumbing.