By: Jonathan Williams
“We’re looking for someone with a fresh voice,” is something I’ve heard spouted by many an agent, manager and producer. Here’s the thing though: there’s nothing more frustratingly vague than the concept of a writers voice. And yet the concept itself is undeniably essential to a writers’ success. Ask someone to explain what they mean and their response is likely to be equally vague. Often they’ll cite filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin to try and get the idea across but, if superlatives like that are unlikely to prove overly helpful in a practical sense. So what the hell is this vague elusive “voice” we all so desperately seek? How do we find it, and how do we make it unique?
So, after painstaking research and investigtion, I’m here to try and offer the clearest explanation I possibly can. First thing’s first: fear not. You do not have to attempt to replicate Tarantino’s unique penchant for rambling dialogue punctuated by twisted violence, nor any other filmmaker’s particular schtick. Your voice – when it comes – will originate from your unique point of view and organically weave itself through your screenplay and your characters. How they speak, what they do and how the story itself is told. Take too much inspiration from any one source, and it’s likely your writing will come across as mimicry; that is, a pale imitation of someone else’s work. Not quite plagiarism, but a stylistic homage taken to its most unoriginal extreme.
I learned this the hard way – often I would hear notes given to fellow writers about the effectiveness of their particular voice, which would prompt me to go out of my way to try to parrot their style into my own writing — none of which ever resonated or rang true. It wasn’t until I wholeheartedly accepted my own unique way of telling stories that my own voice began to emerge.
Before I go further, let me clarify that this isn’t the same thing as putting yourself into a box. Voice transcends genre and allows for much limitless flexibility. Still, whether you’re writing a comedy, a drama, or a blockbuster, the reader should ideally be able to identify certain unifying characteristics that make up and define your particular style. Whether it’s the unique way you describe action (think Shane Black), or the witty cadence of your dialogue (think Tarantino). Some experienced writers are master chameleons. Yet even this – in its own way – is a form of the writers’ voice.
Of course, this begs the question of whether or not you have to be aware of your own voice as a writer. The answer is no, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to know thyself. Keep in mind that most Tarantino scripts read like a Tarantino scripts, even from just the first few pages alone. Keep writing, and eventually, the same will be true for you.
Are you starting to feel paranoid yet? “But what is MY voice, and how do I FIND it?” Here’s why it’s why it’s so tricky to define the concept of a writers voice in the first place: only you can answer this question. Only you understand your own point of view, your own process, and your unique collection of inspirations. The best advice is to just keep writing and allow your voice to emerge naturally as your craft improves. But if you’re really struggling, I’ve concoted the following exercise to help you in your way.
Keep in mind this exercise may take a couple of tries, so be patient and don’t be too hard on yourself.
First, pick three of your favorite movies — I say three so you can add some variety and enough to give you a wide enough spectrum for your voice to thrive. You can always do it more times if you’d like.
Now, once your movies are picked pick one of your favorite scenes from said movies. I highly recommend diversifying the scenes. Don’t necessarily pick all dialogue or action scenes because, as you know, you are rarely writing all action or all dialogue.
OK, are you all setup? The next step is to watch that scene over and over and over again until you have it realized and set to your visual memory. Make sure you understand both the goal and purpose to this scene because it will come in handy for the final step.
Finally, take your remote, turn off the TV, grab a pen and some paper (or your computer if you really prefer) and rewrite the scene from memory. Don’t cheat otherwise you will ruin it for yourself. This isn’t about accuracy – if you understand the goal and purpose of the scene you should be able to rewrite it effortlessly. Make sure you to write it as if it were your own script and your own brilliant work.
Once you are finished, reread your work. Repeat if necessary. If you’re lucky, you might just start to notice the first hints of your voice starting to shine through. I highly recommend tracking down a copy of the original script and comparing the original version to your own. See what the differences are between your descriptions of the scene; see which one you prefer, and try to figure out why. And If you don’t have access to the shooting script, simply turn that TV back on and rewatch the scene while following along in your own words.
What differences do you see in dialogue or the POV in which you viewed the scene? If you’ve done this exercise for a few different scenes, compare them and try to identify any particular trends. Do your descriptions pop in a certain way? Are your action scenes paced at breakneck pace, or are they slower and more suspenseful?
Hopefully, this will exercise will help clarify this somewhat elusive element of writing. In the end, only you can find your voice. Just remember: practice makes perfect.