What Is ‘Writer’s Voice’?
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.
I think of Writer’s Voice as that *thing* that sets YOUR work apart from someone else’s, usually in very specific ways. Regardless of whether you personally like them, the Tarantinos*, Codys, Sorkins, RTDs, Whedons, Moffats, Blacks (*insert top screenwriter here) all have very distinctive voices. (The same goes for authors too, by the way). 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?
We Don’t Want Vanilla Screenplays
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 on the right pic … OMFG. Taste explosion. And every single one is different. A bit like our lauded screenwriters! Do you see the difference?
Writer’s Voice = Individuality
So, Writer’s Voice – that sense of individuality, that *je ne se quois* – is getting neglected in the spec pile. A lot of writers worry about format, or things they ‘should’ do, but there are NO RULES. Besides:
- 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? Well here’s 7 Ways To Showcase That Unique Voice:
1) Nail Your Structure
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. Structure is NOT formula, it 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.
2) Find Your Own Dialogue Style
Highly stylised dialogue is often key in the stories told by writers with strong voices. But most spec scribes imitate, rather innovate on dialogue. 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. Develop your OWN style of dialogue … Plus don’t forget, it needs to suit the “type” of story you’re telling.
3) Find Your Preferred Story World / Type
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) Write Nuanced Characters
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? 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?
5) Invest in Character Motivation And Role Function
Character introductions can be a key element of both motivation and role function, yet they are frequently undersold in the spec screenplay. Think on those characters’ actions, too: how does what they DO (or don’t do) inform what happens in the story? Even more importantly, how do we know WHO THEY ARE and WHAT THEY DO 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.
6) Invest In Your Scene Description
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”, by the way. 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 (aka ‘vanilla’). 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.
7) Own It!
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”. 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! MORE: How To Identify And Own Your Writer’s Voice