I’m having a little trouble with this current script that I am writing. A character in my story is deaf and uses sign language to communicate. I have no idea what the proper writing format is for that and I was wondering if you can help me. That character also reads lips and I do not know how to incorporate that into my script as well. Please tell me the answer oh great one.
Just this week, I encountered a similar challenge, with a mute child who uses sign language to communicate with her parents. In these situations, you really have two problems: how to show it on the page, and how to make sure the audience understands what the deaf/mute/whatever character can and cannot do.
Let’s take the second problem first. You need to set up a situation that makes it clear to the audience what’s up with this character. In John Logan’s The Aviator, Howard Hughes’s partial deafness is first set up at a movie premiere, when the character obviously can’t make out what the presenter is saying. The extent of his hearing impairment is left a little ambiguous, but we get the sense (backed up with a later scene), that the problem only really manifests when many voices are speaking at once.
Since your character reads lips, you should try to make this clear as soon as possible. Here’s one possibility:
CARL SCHWARTZKOPF is looking through the neatly-folded sweaters on the table. A SALESWOMAN comes up behind him.
Can I help you find a size?
Carl doesn’t answer her. In fact, he doesn’t acknowledge her at all. Not certain he heard her, she repeats herself, louder:
Sir, can I help you find a size?
She’s about to tap his shoulder when he turns around. He jumps, startled to see her.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to…
CLOSE ON her lips. We’re in Carl’s POV as she continues to speak, but there’s no sound. He’s reading her lips.
BACK TO SCENE
Carl waves a hand, somewhat dismissively: no, he doesn’t need help. He heads over to the wall of khakis.
In terms of writing out the dialogue that is meant to be sign-language, you have many options. If two deaf characters are carrying on a conversation in sign language, you’re probably going to want to subtitle it. Before the conversation starts, just write, “In sign language, SUBTITLED…” Then write dialogue as usual. The reader will understand.
If one character is speaking aloud (such as William Hurt’s character in Children of a Lesser God), you may want to format the deaf character’s sign language dialogue differently to keep the distinction. In these situations, I often use italics:
Who told you?
Margaret wasn’t there! She couldn’t have known.
Notice that in these scenes, the speaking character’s dialogue needs to help us understand the lines we’re not hearing.