Speeches in Fiction

I could carry on and on towards this subject without break or pause and it would sound like a lot of the reports you’d hear throughout school. Hopefully only the reports you heard and not the ones you gave (I wish everyone started with a firm basis in speechcraft). Yet it’s only too easy an assumption that if your passion or joy comes in the form of writing then outspokenness and the extrovert tendency to give speeches isn’t your natural inclination. Certainly wasn’t mine at the start but I like to think I’ve improved at least modestly since first grade.

Writing is difficult. If you aren’t a talker, writing dialog is even more so. If you’re shy, writing speeches can be a most cringing exercise. But it doesn’t have to be. For one, and not to demean the practice, you’re just writing. It’s not school and there’s no requirement that you stand up before a crowd of friends and strangers and deliver it from a lonesome little island. Relax and remember that if something’s bad you can always delete it, then once you forget those lines it’ll be as if they never existed. Half the battle is against a mentality that won’t let you start or continue. Keep at it and you’ll be fine.

Then you can focus on the speech which carries many background factors. Perhaps the most important are who’s delivering the speech and who’s listening? If speeches are a subsect of dialog then we must consider the characters at play. Who are they? What are their temperaments? Educational background? Comfort level with public speaking? What do they want to be accomplished? What do they fear?

A lot of fiction would have you think speeches are where the English gets bumped up several notches with some Latin mixed in order to sound magnanimous (I know I fell into this trapping) but if the character is young, moderately educated (or less), making it up on the spot, uncomfortable, etc., then complete eloquence and purply syrup won’t match the character we’ve come to know. If the character has a matter-of-fact personality then their speech might come off as a succinct bullet point list of what’s at issue and how it can be resolved. If it fits the character it can work; especially if you have them remark their own speech went on too long and get a friendly character to tease them with false praise. Shape the speech to the character.

Secondly, they aren’t speaking into a void (although that’d be an interesting speech). There’s an audience and they have as much a part to play. Before the speech is delivered, the speaker will consider their audience same as the author (unless they’re blindingly overconfident, humor always has a place). If the speaker wants to rally a citizenry against a group of bandits then they have to sympathize with them. Do they fear for their lives? Show them how they can save their lives. Did the bandits promise their safety upon certain conditions? Tell them how such conditions will immediately be broken by an uncharitable interpretation. If they think they can trust the bandits tell them of the bandits’ poor track record and how much they have to gain by double crossing the citizenry. They feel fear, give them courage. They feel doom, give them hope. As much as you might love your protagonist you shouldn’t neglect the other side of the conversation as if they were unpainted slats of cardboard responding exactly as the speaker – and author – intends for the maximum cool factor.

Prepared speeches are a rarity in fiction. This is because most central conflicts are resolved through action to reach a pinnacle of excitement. Rarely does the chosen hero talk the evil lord to death and the story can’t end with the rallying speech that brings all the disparate forces of good together against the big villain since you still have a villain to fight. Due to the pacing of most stories by the time a grand speech is called for there’s already a ticking clock element working against the heroes. Thus it’d be rather absurd for the protagonist to ask for a few hours to draft up a speech and workshop it with a couple people before the delivery. Immediacy breeds tension. You don’t get a few practice rounds immediately before you fight the villain so why should a speech be any different? “I’ve got it down smooth. Now to deliver my speech without incident and with the maximal chance of success.” Where’s the pull? Something might go wrong, the crowd may turn on the speaker forcing them to improvise, but going into the speech it reads like it should have a skip button. Thereby, most speeches come from a place of emotion. Whatever the character has at the front of their mind is filtered by what’s in their heart and sent out. Don’t let the impromptu speech read like it had twenty passes of a fine-tooth comb with perfect structure, diction, and wit.

With prepared speeches the issues mount upon the author more so than the character. In addition to pacing and placement near the climax, there’s a strained distance between the actions taking place and what the audience is expected to feel. If the conflict is whether or not the character can deliver the speech i.e. The King’s Speech, then the substance of the speech becomes irrelevant and the reader’s eye can gloss over till the ellipses or end quotation mark before the narration shows them to be struggling. If all I was expected to do here is write a grammatically correct sentence then I could just put my grocery list and so long as it passes a spell check it’s good to go. How much of that would you care to read and what temptation would you have to skip it? I could write the most beautiful piece but if your focus is on the grammar or punctuation then you won’t retain the information or emotions I’m trying to convey.

Otherwise if the entire plot hangs on the audience’s reaction to the speech then the entire text glazes over till the end. In a swordfight the end could come at any time with one wrong move, advantages and disadvantages are traded off, one side is ahead before falling behind. Speeches are much more one sided and final. It either goes well or poorly. Now here’s ten pages of doesn’t matter, the outcome was predetermined by the author. Unless we care about the speaker to the extremes or their speech is intellectually fascinating it’s an upward climb to make the reader care. Speeches can’t rely solely on the plot to save them.

My solution to this is one I’ve said before for other story problems — lower the stakes. If the speech isn’t at or near the climax then there’s the real tension of failure. Either the speaker fails in their delivery or they fail to achieve the desired response from the audience. Perhaps it just makes the path ahead that much more difficult and gives them a chance at redemption later on. All the speaker’s effort and discomfort become that much more real if we can see ourselves having to give the same speech. If it’s a school report make the stakes a grade and the possibility of being exposed in front of one’s classmates and mocked for the failure. The latter might hinge on a single slip of the tongue being turned into a running gag and suddenly every word matters. The former could make the audience draw up a mental tally of mistakes and lengthy pauses and have them guess what grade will come about at the end. Then the rest of the story is the remainder of the schoolyear and the fallout from the speech. Tension is back in play.

None of this advice has been technical towards the bountiful craft of speechwriting but these are the foundations as applied to fiction. Rather than what flow and rhythm to use it’s far better to know where to place a speech in your story’s timeline. Supreme verbiage and apt allusions can be countered by the deflating stakes of the entire world hangs in the balance. So long as you have the self-confidence to take the first step and then walk before you run there should be an easily traceable path of what the speech needs to get across, why, how, to whom exactly, etc. Within the outlines of that path are the opportunities to make the speech your own and flex your skills. There I encourage you to study real world speeches and have fun.

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