Writer’s Voice. We hear lots about it, but hardly ever a) what it is or b) how to make the best of it in our screenplays.
Dealing first with a), here is the Wiki definition, which I think is pretty good. I think of Writer’s Voice as that *thing* that sets YOUR work apart from someone else’s, usually in very specific ways. The Tarantinos*, Codys, Sorkins, RTDs, Whedons, Moffats, Blacks (*insert top screenwriter here) all have very distinctive voices. We know this from:
– the *types* of stories they tell
– the *way* they tell them (Cue Frank Carson: “It’s the way I tell ’em” – YES).
Don’t believe me? Then download some screenplays by such lauded writers. Check out what they have on the page: compare/contrast them.
Now look at yours. Is it a bit … well … vanilla?
That’s the thing – these days, with so much screenwriting advice flying around, spec screenplay writers have become somewhat obsessed with the “look” of their screenplays on the page: sometimes scribes get obsessed with format, or how the scenes would be rendered as image; sometimes both.
But the thing is, that mythical notion of “great writing” is not just about how a screenplay looks on the page, or telling filmmakers how to make the damn thing. We all know this, yet too often think the above is “enough” to advance in our careers or “make it” … Then when we don’t, we get depressed.
So think of your screenplay as a Mr Whippy: yes, it looks good. Yes, it even might taste good. But is it EXCITING? Not really. When it comes down to it, it’s pretty bland stuff, piped out, day after day, by bored teens with dodgy haircuts for smiling parents who give it to snotty-nosed kids to chuck on the floor. Supersadface
Now let’s think about those lauded screenwriters. Love or hate them, we know who they are. We know what they do. They present recognisable tales, packaged in such a way only THEY can, no one else.
So if we prescribe my ice cream analogy to those writers, they’re more likely to be something like … well, one of these:
OMFG. Taste explosion. And every single one is different.
A bit like our lauded screenwriters!
So, Writer’s Voice – that sense of individuality, that *je ne se quois* – is getting neglected in the spec pile.
Yet it’s possible for Spec Screenplay writers to have their cake AND eat it on this issue:
– You CAN make your format lovely and neat and shiny
– You CAN make filmmakers render images YOUR way (whilst making them think it’s theirs)
– And you CAN showcase your Writer’s Voice and make readers, agents and Execs go, “Wow! I can’t wait to work with this writer!”
Honest guv! But how?
7) Structurally sound. It all comes down to this: I’ve never seen a lauded screenwriter who is not a king or queen of structure. That’s not to say they resort to tick the box screenwriting or handy formulas. Far from it. They make structure work for their story – whatever that means. Yet the average spec screenplay’s structure is flabby in comparison. Yet structure is the foundation of a great story, well told. So get investing in structure and you’ll be able to showcase your Writer’s Voice, too.
6) Dialogue-a-go-go. Highly stylised dialogue is often key in the stories told by writers with strong voices. Rapid-fire dialogue like Sorkin or “cool” quips like Whedon come top of the pile in terms of the most imitated types I see by spec scribes. But if you want to grab a reader’s eye with your dialogue, you need to stop imitating what you’ve seen – and develop your OWN style of dialogue … and it needs to suit the “type” of story you’re telling.
5) Story Worlds. Put it this way: Joss Whedon’s characters do not inhabit story worlds in which they live in tower blocks or need to go to the launderette. Instead, his characters live on spaceships and off-world colonies; on Hell mouths; in cavernous Secret Service style underground complexes. Diablo Cody’s story worlds are reality “one step removed”: hers are whimsical looks at supposed “real life”, falling into issues others would call “gritty”, yet in Codysville become matter-of-fact and larger than life. Knowing what story worlds YOU are interested in help you showcase your voice as a writer.
4) Larger than life characters. And from the story world, comes your characters: who are you focusing on? Are we talking female protagonists, versus inherently “male” threats? Or man against machine? Or character study ensembles? Perhaps your characters are always outsiders, their loyalties tested by those closest to them? Or perhaps you have characters symbolic of deep and meaningful social themes, or ideological mores and values? And WHY have you chosen these characters? What do they mean to YOU – and to a potential audience? What do you mean, you don’t know? How can an audience, if you don’t?
3) Scene description # 1. A little personality goes a long way … Character introductions can be a key element of scene description that is frequently undersold in the spec screenplay … Too often scribes focus on what Julie Gray calls a “laundry list” or on characters’ appearances. What’s more, think on those characters’ actions in scene description: how does what they DO (or don’t do) inform what happens in the story? Even more importantly, how does WHO THEY ARE inform what happens in the story? The more you can harness these two things, the more likely characters’ personalities will come through … and so will your Writer’s Voice.
2) Scene description # 2 … But so does irreverency. We write more scene description than anything else in our screenplays. We know this. And there are many ways of prettifying it and making it read well. But ultimately, you can write whatever you want however you want when it comes to scene description IF you can do it in such a way that INVOLVES the reader. One great way of showcasing your voice in this way is by what I call “irreverent” scene description – that is, using words we may not consider “usual” in scene description (thus breaking up the vanilla-like tendency of most description), ie.
MARIA: You did remember?
James' smile freezes on his face: fuck it!
JAMES: Yes of course. Let me just get changed and I'll be right over.
James closes the door, still smiling ...
... Alone now: WTF!!! WHAT DOES HE DO?!?!?!
You don’t have to include sweary phrases or acronyms or masses of capitals to be “irreverent” – I’ve seen it done lots of ways. Some good; some not so good. But I always give writers points for trying, because 9/10 the scene description I see is UTILITARIAN. The writers that realise scene description is another tool of involving the reader is always going to be head and shoulders above the rest in the spec pile as far as I’m concerned.
1) Ownership. To really put the imprint of YOU on your screenplay and showcase your Writer’s Voice, you have to take ownership of what you do. To do this, figure out who you are as a writer and what you want to achieve beyond woolly notions of “making it”. What’s your USP? Don’t let feedback-givers tell you what you are, either: TELL THEM, via your great stories. And don’t apologise for it.
End of the day, we don’t need more vanilla screenplays.
You and ONLY YOU should be able to tell the story on your pages.
So go get ’em!
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