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A&E Film Fest Student Life

Kathryn Stockett: Defining character with voice


Photo by Emma Guiton

Kathryn Stockett, author of the New York Times Best-seller “The Help,” sat down with students at the Marshall House for a discussion panel led by Professor Jonathan Rabb of the writing department. She began by kicking her shoes off and perching on the arm of her chair, then asked listeners to take her advice with a grain of salt because she doesn’t have an MFA and, where she comes from, “Ph.D. stands for ‘Pretty Heavy Drinker.'”

Between sharing experiences from writing “The Help” and working with screenwriter Tate Taylor, Stockett emphasized the power of a writer’s voice.

“Voice has always been the most important part of the story,” she said. “It’s what draws me in… Plot has never really entertained me as much as the tenor and the vocabulary of a certain character.”

She said she learned when she was asked to write a piece about what made her Southern – beyond being born in Jackson, Mississippi. Her piece focused on how southerners are “genetically predisposed to talk about each other.” She found New York City boring because “nobody has the time or the will to talk about who’s acting trashy or looking tacky; they’ve always got a train to catch.” By comparing the Northern and Southern attitudes toward gossip, she showed how her voice defined her Southern character.

“As Southerners, we are simply perpetuating our genetic disposition as communicators by falling down drunk now and then in the neighbor’s azalea bushes,” she read.

Though the story she wrote had no discernible plot, she used it as an example of how the strongly defined voice of a character can carry a reader through the narrative.

“If you read that in a book, you would learn a lot about a character, even though, technically, nothing happened,” Stockett said.

She pointed to students around the room, asking what type of writing they did, and asked how they could use voice to make their own writing better.

“One piece of advice, I will say, is if you have a voice that you feel like is unique and very, very strong, the best way you can highlight that is to juxtapose it with a completely different voice,” she said. “You put that southerner in a room with somebody from New Jersey, and it’s almost comical how you start reading those sentences and you get to create the rhythm there. Out of there, I believe, comes plot.”

When she talked about arguing and negotiating with her editor, Stockett stressed finding the right person to help shape her story.

“If you can get it in the hands of someone who not only understands the story, but likes it and wants to protect that story, then you are in a much safer place with your story getting to the screen,” she said.

For writers afraid to “cut the cord” and allow their work to be adapted for film, Stockett said it was important to find the right hands to put their work in. She also recommended outlining the key themes of the story to protect its integrity.

“Changing the core, the thread that you believe in, or taking it out just for the sake of brevity because it costs money to print ink on paper and ship it – uh, no,” she said. “Don’t. Just don’t. Don’t give in, don’t compromise your work that way.”

She also told writers to never stop editing because their work will never be perfect.

“You can’t learn anything more about writing than what you learn yourself by putting the pen on page or fingers to keys,” she said.


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