So the other day I FINALLY decided to watch “Atlanta,” the show from Community alum Donald Glover that had gone on to win a Golden Globe for Best Television Show, a Writers Guild Award for best Comedy Series, and was nominated for an Emmy in writing. Personally, I thought it looked pretentious and unfocused, so I never got around to watching it. Until now.
Before I get into my thoughts on the series, I have to share something with you. I hate Donald Glover. There’s something about the guy that rubs me like a bad batch of poison ivy. Discounting the fact that he’s an egomaniac who must prove he can act, direct, write, produce, rap, and do stand-up comedy, all under the guise of an “aw-shucks-I’m-just-trying-to-work” persona. Discounting the fact that there are articles being written about him that tell everyone to “underestimate Donald Glover at your own peril” (Gag me with an Instagram like). There are things even beyond those issues that I despise.
Mainly, that his writing is just okay. His dialogue is decent at times. But his storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. And his acting vacillates between mini mumbling monologues and looking like he’s so stoned that he might fall asleep at any moment.
Worst of all, it’s impossible not to know you’re watching Donald Glover whenever he’s onscreen. The Martian basically stopped for 5 minutes mid-film so that they could include a random “Donald Glover Short Film” Scene. I thought an actor’s job was to disappear into a role. Glover goes in the opposite direction, always wearing the same hipster clothes, always sporting the same trendy haircut, always giving the camera the same Donald Glover hangdog expression.
Which makes it all the more perplexing that the man is one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars. And it really bothers me. Not because I don’t get the love for the dude. But because every time a writer or an actor or a director (or in Donald’s case, an actor/writer/director/producer/rapper/caterer/surgeon) rises up, Hollywood is telling you something: THIS IS WHAT WE WANT. Which means you, the aspiring multi-hyphenate, must understand why this person is ascending so that you can take some lessons from it and use them to further your own career.
Yet here I stood with Glover, unable to figure out how he’d separated himself from the pack.
I’m sure Glover’s old fellow staff writers on 30 Rock (where he started) are asking the same thing. Why is this guy blowing up while we’re still trying to get staff writing jobs on The Goldbergs?
Powering down my television after that decidedly average pilot episode of Atlanta, I finally figured it out.
Do you want to know what it is?
What Donald Glover has that all those other staff writers and bottom feeder feature assignment writers and aspiring amateur screenwriters don’t have is a VOICE. It’s undeniable. Glover is bringing something unique to the table that nobody else out there is doing. I don’t know what it is, exactly. But I do know that when I watch his shows or listen to the dialogue he’s written? It’s different. And the reason this is so important is that VOICE is the equivalent of GOLD in the artistic community – the most valuable commodity there is – to the point where it can propel someone like Glover to stardom.
Think about it. How many people in this business truly have a unique voice? Very few. The majority of Hollywood’s army are cogs in a machine, regurgitating or helping to regurgitate the same old movies and TV shows over and over and over again.
When someone emerges from that glut of sameness to give us something unique, they stand out like a punch at a cuddle party. In fact, the very reason I hate this guy is tied to his voice. That’s what voice does. Its unique point-of-view incites passion one way or another. In my case, it’s “or another” but for a ton of people, it’s “one way.” He’s got something unique.
As artists, there is no bigger fear than being bland. Wondering whether we’re one of those also-rans who doesn’t have anything original to say keeps us up at night. Don’t get me wrong. You can still work in Hollywood without a voice. If you can perfect form and technique and craft and understand how the storytelling and character creation mechanisms work, you can work in this town. But you’ll never be special. You’ll never stand out like Donald Glover.
So today, I’m going to help you find your inner voice. The bad news is, voice isn’t something you can construct through pure force of will. Your voice is who you are at your core and therefore emerges naturally. When you look at someone like Bill Murray, his unique persona isn’t calculated. It’s just him. On the flip side, there are clearly celebrities who enhance their voice in a calculated manner. Lady Gaga, for example, does a lot of calculated things in order to enhance her “voice.”
With that in mind, here are seven things you can do to find your voice so you can be more like Donald Glover and less like those journeyman staff writers on The Goldbergs.
1) Identify what your world view is – What is the operating thesis by which you see the world? Is it John Lennon-esque, that everyone should put aside their differences, hold hands, and find peace with one another? Or is it Machiavellian, where everyone’s backstabbing each other and looking out for number 1? Is it idealistic, like Spielberg? Or is it fatalistic, like Kubrick? One of the key reasons for a writer lacking voice is that they don’t explore underlying themes in their work. Without a point-of-view, a lot of what we write is empty.
2) Write stories that exploit that world view – A big mistake writers make is not writing the scripts that explore the world view they’re so passionate about! For example, if you have a Kubrickian world view, but you’re writing Das Chimp, you’re not taking advantage of your voice. Every script you write where you’re not exploring your world view is going to feel lacking in some way.
3) Break rules – Following the rules allows you to write something good. But breaking the rules is how you write something great. Writers with voice don’t make sure their inciting incident happens on page 12. They’re too busy telling a unique and unexpected story. There’s a balancing act here. You can’t ignore rules completely. They’re what keep your story focused. But if you come across a rule in regards to your script that, by breaking, makes the story come alive in some way? That’s a sign that the rule is worth breaking. In “Room,” the Screenwriting Rule Nazi would’ve encouraged the writer to either get them out of the room at the end of the first act, giving them enough time to build a storyline post-Room, or in the third act, crafting the escape as the climax (like you’d see in a traditional thriller). Instead they placed the escape at the midpoint, allowing them to explore a devastating question: Where was life better? In the room? Or out?
4) Be raw and honest – To have a voice, you have to let us into your soul. It’s the only way we’re going to get to know the true you. And the deeper down you take us, the more ‘you’ we’re getting. The majority of writers write as fanboys. They re-write their favorite horror movies, reshape their favorite action set-pieces, mimic their favorite dialogue writers. They think that’s writing. That’s not writing. Writing is baring your soul through your characters. Be truthful. Be honest. Get into the nitty gritty of how you endure the human experience. This is why everybody 30 years later is STILL trying to write John Hughes movies and failing. They don’t realize that those movies don’t work because of the fun parts. They work because of the darkness, because of the way Hughes explored human psychology during one of the most confusing times in a person’s life – adolescence.
5) Be brave – Tarantino, one of the most voice-y writers ever, once said (paraphrasing) “You should always be a little nervous to let someone read your stuff because of how fucked up some of it is.” That’s not to say everyone should include a Gimp-Rape scene in their script, especially if you’ve been hired to write The Nut-Job 3 (on second thought…..). But a good writer explores those messy areas in life and in human interaction that aren’t usually talked about openly. Embracing those awkward moments brings truth and originality to your work.
6) Evolve The Genre – We all have our favorite genres to write in. So I’m going to give you advice that’ll place you ahead of 90% of aspiring screenwriters out there. Before you write your script, ask yourself, “How do I plan to update this genre?” If you’re writing a horror film, maybe you’re infusing race into it (Get Out). If you’re writing a heist film, maybe you’re infusing time manipulation into it (Inception). If you’re writing a Western, maybe you’re bringing a level of violence to the proceedings that has never been seen before (Bone Tomahawk). I consider this tip, more than any other, a ‘cheat code’ in the game of voice, because without much work up front, you can make a script feel totally unique.
7) Make sure there’s at least one character in your script who’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before – Audiences rarely remember the plot to a movie years later. But they always remember the characters. I’ve found that voice-y scripts always have at least one character who’s totally and completely different. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Miles in Sideways. Wade in Deadpool. Juno in Juno. Unique characters go hand in hand with voice. So don’t write your script without one.
8) BONUS! – A non-traditional narrative – I went back and forth on whether to include this tip because there’s nothing more that I hate than a rambling narrative, a vague plot, or unclean structure. But the proof is in the pudding. The artists with the strongest voices tend to sacrifice plot and structure for character and situation. Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Sophia Coppola, Aaron Sorkin, Christopher Nolan. I’m not a fan of this tip. But I can’t deny its presence when it comes to writers with voice.
Carson does feature screenplay consultations, TV Pilot Consultations, and logline consultations. Logline consultations go for $25 a piece or 5 for $75. You get a 1-10 rating, a 200-word evaluation, and a rewrite of the logline. All logline consultations come with an 8 hour turnaround. If you’re interested in any sort of consultation package, e-mail Carsonreeves1@gmail.com with the subject line: CONSULTATION. Don’t start writing a script or sending a script out blind. Let Scriptshadow help you get it in shape first!