Novelists play with language, of course, all writers do. Some take another step, making language a part of the story itself rather than just the means to tell it.
Think of Mark Twain choosing to narrate “Huckleberry Finn” in the Missouri dialect of an 12-year-old boy. Think of the great triumvirate of British dystopians — Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Anthony Burgess. In “Brave New World,” “1984” and “A Clockwork Orange,” these novelists invent future worlds in which language is bent and broken by those who would enslave human beings through pleasure, fear or violence.
With that as a prologue, we come to “The King’s Speech,” which just won Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Lead Actor, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. The night before the Oscars I saw the film and came away thinking that it was not only the best movie of the year, by one of the best I’d ever seen, along with “Children of a Lesser God,” in which language was a central concern.
But this is not a movie review. Put away the popcorn and pull out your copy of “Writing Tools.” What follows is a list of the things I learned about writing from watching “The King’s Speech” and from discussing it with about 50 writers participating in a related Poynter.org live chat.
Focus with power: Though a complicated work of art, this film is so focused it can be described in a single sentence, one I’ve borrowed from its official website: “Based on the true story of King George VI, ‘The King’s Speech’ follows the Royal Monarch’s quest to find his voice.”
I love those last three words, ‘find his voice,’ and the richness of their double meaning: the new king must overcome his stammer, but also realize the power of language in his new role as monarch. The same two-ness exists in the film’s seemingly simple title. In the first act, we have a second-string royal trying to overcome a speech impediment. In the final act, he must deliver to millions of listeners one of the most important speeches of all time, preparing his subjects for war against Nazi Germany.
Incite the reader or viewer: I learned the narrative term the “inciting incident” from “Story,” William McKee’s book on screenwriting. In short, it is “the action that changes everything,” as when an 11-year-old English boy sleeping under the stairs gets a letter delivered by an owl inviting him to a school for magic. Thus begins the seven-book adventure of Harry Potter. In our movie, the inciting incident is not a man who tries to overcome his stammer. It is the moment when his older brother abdicates the throne, and the younger brother, Bertie, becomes king. Suddenly his broken speech means much, much more.
Keep raising the ante: Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that to tell a good story you need to take a sympathetic character and spend about 300 pages or so doing horrible things to him. Think Ulysses, Job, Jesus, Cinderella, Frodo Baggins. The hero may emerge triumphant, but not without the scars of battle. To use the language of gambling, the author must “up the ante.” In the case of Bertie, more and more becomes at stake, beginning with his personal dignity, then his ability to reign and, finally, the nation’s standing up to Hitler.
Match language to technology: Abraham Lincoln, it is often said by biographers, lacked a strong speaking voice. Photos suggest he would not have been telegenic. Yet he became our 16th president, it is said, by virtue of the power of his written speeches. Speeches like the Gettysburg Address were republished in newspapers across America and became the vehicle of Lincoln’s political ascendancy.
Our movie demonstrates the political power of radio, referred to as the “wireless” (a reverse echo of the present, I think), a medium which certainly favored the likes of Roosevelt and Churchill. FDR could sound strong on the radio, masking his physical disabilities. George VI was as unfit for radio as Nixon was for television, a complication central to the action. To be a versatile writer in this century requires the ability to match language to both audience and technology.
Know when to drop an f-bomb: Lionel Logue, the king’s speech therapist, uses a surprising strategy to untie his monarch’s tongue. Bertie is encouraged to use repetitive profanity — including the f-word — anytime he feels a stutter coming on. The word is repeated countless times, often in rapid-fire staccato.
Efforts to bowdlerize the film to protect the ears of the innocent or naive should be rebutted (a word that has butt in the middle). The film proves that taboo language can be an instrument of art. How different, then, was the use of the word by Melissa Leo during her incoherent Oscar acceptance speech (Best Supporting Actress for “The Fighter”). Her f-bomb was classless and without purpose, a single use far more offensive than the machine-gun patter of the movie. Context is all.
Hang your words on a noble purpose: It was the late Cole Campbell who taught me that the execution of craft detached from mission and purpose could lead to no good. Our film may provide the ultimate example, reflected in the scene when George VI views a newsreel of Hitler giving one of his dramatic and grandiose speeches. Bertie acknowledges the Fuhrer’s power as an orator, one that he could never hope to match. No matter. The power of the King’s speech was not in a mellifluous delivery, but in a message of hope and determination and solidarity with the English people in their hour of need.
Write what you know: The high point of Oscar night for me was hearing the elegant acceptance speech by screenwriter David Seidler, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. More significant was learning that the writer himself once struggled to overcome a stutter and found a kindred spirit in the story of King George VI. There are no short cuts. Write what you know.