The Born Freelancer on Writing for Inanimate Objects

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

the born freelancer

Yes, I hereby freely admit it: I have written for wood, plastic and cloth that can talk….

I refer, of course, to puppets and so-called dummies.

The noble arts of puppetry and ventriloquism both have long and fascinating histories.

Puppets consist of both hand-puppets and the stringed-marionette variety. Dummies (or “ventriloquial figures” in more refined circles) may also be simply puppets but with their usually hidden human performers plainly visible and who have learned to control their lip movement when their puppets speak.

Think puppets and dummies and you may well think of children’s performers and juvenile birthday parties, etc. While many performers do perform for children, it’s still a large market, there are many more than ever today using puppets and dummies who appeal to strictly sophisticated adult audiences. They may appear in person, in the theatre, in night clubs, at parties or public events like store openings or large corporate events like trade shows. They may appear on TV and online and occasionally even in the movies.

If you have the right sort of sense of humour and can adapt your mind to their unique points of view, you may find yourself in constant demand writing for these inanimate objects. I have spent a number of years doing so, on and off, and have never had more fun or creative satisfaction.

Writing for inanimate objects in general

  • Puppeteers as a group are fascinating
  • Talented, full of good humour and usually highly intelligent, many are thwarted performers who—due to profound shyness—lack the necessary impulse to go on stage themselves. As a result they perform “behind the scenes” allowing their cloth and plastic alter egos to accept the applause.

  • Writing for puppets is a cross between writing for animation and writing live action
  • You can employ the imaginative qualities of storytelling usually associated with animation but it still requires live action constraints and realities (although this may not be as much an issue in a filmed project capable of special visual effects).

  • Writing for puppets ideally requires an understanding of the puppet personality as great as if writing for any stage character
  • All successful performers have developed characteristics for their puppets that allow for organic stories to unfold from (usually) the conflicts between puppets or between dummy and ventriloquist. It isn’t enough just to show up with an impressive puppet. To be successful, it needs a strongly definable personality encountering situations which allow its basic character flaws to emerge quickly and comedically.

Getting started writing scripts for puppets

If you’ve never thought about writing for puppets, and you know of none performing nearby, go online to toy stores. Find one that sells hand puppets and note the various generic puppets available. Choosing two or three, write short sketches for your target audiences (children, teen or adult). When the time comes to try to sell to an actual performer, they can be offered as a generic example of what you can supply. Of course, once commissioned you would customize them or (ideally) write something completely different especially for them.

Interesting fact: Puppets can say things regular human actors can’t. Because they are “make believe” their comments can be on occasion more provocative (depending upon context) and they can “get away” with it. Adult audiences will usually accept comments from a piece of talking plastic as greatly amusing (if performed brilliantly) that would most likely receive open hostility if spoken by a live actor. An interesting psychological aspect of the art.

Start by looking locally for freelance jobs

  • You might begin looking locally for performers still doing live gigs
  • Approach them directly and make your pitch. There is an enormous live performance market to fill. You might be asked to write generic scripts (such as for a birthday party for children or adults) or special occasion material (such as for a specific trade convention) or occasionally a more structured theatrical piece with which to tour and perform in local schools, churches or community centres.

  • Deciding on what to charge the local puppeteer or ventriloquist is hard to judge
  • A specialized work that can be used only once? You might try asking for half their fee and negotiating from there. A work they can use over and over again at various smaller parties etc.? If you hope to have an ongoing relationship with them (as their career grows) you might ask 10 to 20 per cent of their fee per performance. Or settle on a cash figure equivalent to such a percentage over say a dozen appearances. Hopefully by the time they’ve performed it a dozen times they’ll want you to write something new.

No lips were moved in the creation of this subheading

Ventriloquists generally only use only one dummy or puppet at a time although some may have more to “bring out” from behind a box or curtain.

Occasionally, they will have one puppet on both hands and have a three way conversation. They love to demonstrate they can speak without moving their lips so many scripts bring attention to it. Ventriloquists may also do what is called “distant ventriloquism,” which is when they appear to throw their voice. Many scripts may require a scene in which such skills are demonstrated.

Television…the final frontier?

If you see a puppet show on television or online it is easy to grasp the puppets’ chief characteristics and to then arrange a meeting and discuss ideas with them. A TV show may be run hands-on by its producer who will vet all scripts or by the performers themselves who will have the ultimate say in what material they perform. You should be ready and able to approach both with plenty of relevant concepts.

Such material will come under specific writers’ guild jurisdiction and your work will be contracted accordingly.

Sometimes life-like replica puppets have been used on current affairs TV shows to comedically illustrate some aspect of the news. This sort of project is always challenging. Your TV producer will most likely want a heavy satirical edge on the news; the puppeteers may want to explore the same subject in a style unique to themselves.

However, such a gig is to be much sought-after. It practically guarantees more work (if the initial appearance is successful) and as the news is constantly changing. So if you have a strong news instinct combined with a sense of satire do not pass up any opportunities to write for puppets in this context.

Writing for ventriloquists: the takeaway

If you have no experience seeing puppets or ventriloquists, I suggest you go online. You will find many clips of various performances both old and contemporary.

Among my absolute favourites:

  • The Muppet Show, which must surely be the most inventive puppet show on television ever designed for both kids and adults
  • Nina Conti—who is a devastatingly ingenious contemporary British ventriloquist whose comedic art becomes deeply surreal and darkly dramatic when you least expect it. Not for kids!

Between the Muppets’ wholesome family shows and Nina Conti’s psychologically complex adult performances lies a wide world of unlimited creative potential. If you can imagine it, some inspired puppeteer or ventriloquist can make it come to life and impact a whole new generation unaccustomed to such entertainment.

There is a good living to be made in writing for puppeteers or ventriloquists by the hard working, talented and slightly mad. Creatively speaking, of course.

Posted on May 7, 2024 at 5:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: ,

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