So the other day, I was sitting there surfing the net, coming up with excuses not to work (What!? Of course I want to see what those 80s stars look like now!) and like a flash of light, a reality hit me. We don’t have any new voices in screenwriting.
I mean who’s the new Charlie Kaufman? The new Tarantino? I mentally cycled through the last few years of film and came up empty. I mean, I guess you could say M. Night was a dominant “new voice” for awhile. And then, of course, we had Diablo Cody. But was that it? And do those two compare to screenwriting demi-gods like Tarantino and Kaufman?
And what does this say about “screenwriting voice” in general? Is it not as important as it used to be? I mean look at spec machines like David Guggenheim and Kurt Wimmer. They’re not exactly bringing anything new or unique to the table. They’re just really good at execution. And they’re selling plenty of pages because of it.
This got me thinking about the state of “voice” and how important it is. There are guys like Kyle Killin, who blew up a few years ago with his number 1 Black List script, The Beaver, a wholly unique dark comedy about a manic depressive who speaks to people through a beaver hand puppet. But what happened to that film? It disappeared. And while Kyle has written some challenging material in the meantime (Awake, Lone Star, Scenic Route), the public hasn’t warmed to it.
When you think about it, almost all of the major “voice” people aren’t writers at all, but rather writer-directors. Quentin Tarantino, Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, M. Night, the Coens, Cameron Crowe, John Hughes. So it’s a little misleading. Because those writers get to build on their material in cinematic form and make it look more “voice-y” than it actually is.
To be honest, I think a lot of the more inventive writers are running off to cable television, where they can play around with their stories and actually have fun. Vince Gilligan wrote the mega-hit Hancock. Yet he opted to go to TV to write Breaking Bad afterwards. From shows like Community to Arrested Development to Orange is the New Black to Mad Men to Game of Thrones to Girls to Dexter, the “voices” in our line of work are choosing TV.
With that said, there are still some primarily writer-only screenwriters with strong voices. Diablo Cody. Eric Roth. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. And there are some new guys on their way up. Brian Duffield (who wrote the amazing Monster Problems and Your Bridesmaid is a Bitch), Max Landis (Chronicle), Brian K. Vaughn (who wrote the still unproduced sure-to-be-a-megahit Roundtable), Chris Hutton and Eddie O’Keefe (who wrote the awesome pair of scripts, “When The Streetlights Go On” and “The Last Broadcast”).
So I still think writing with a unique voice is a great way to get noticed. Because readers respond to things that feel different. It may be harder and harder to get these “voice-centric” scripts made. But you’ll definitely get noticed off them and get an opportunity to start your career. The question is, how do you do this? What is voice exactly and what is it made up of? I looked back at the last few years of cinema and screenwriting to find an answer. Here’s what I discovered.
Voice can be broken down into seven distinct categories. Some of these categories are things you have a measure of control over. Some you have to be born with. Of course, you can always improve on a component with practice, but you gotta know what they are first. So let’s take a look.
1) How one sees the world – This is something that you can’t teach and is probably the most important component of voice. How do you see the world? And, more importantly, do you see it in a slightly different way from everyone else? If the answer is yes, your writing is going to come across as unique without you even trying. Alexander Payne obviously sees the world as a very cynical place, as a place of struggle. But he also sees it as a funny place, as a world where people say strange hilarious things at unexpected moments. The way he mixes those two ingredients is what makes an Alexander Payne film different from any other film out there.
2) Writing style – This you have control over. Do you write with a sense of humor? Do you write cold and to the point? Do you keep your prose moving quickly like David Guggenheim or do you focus on every little detail like S. Craig Zahler? Are you self-referential? Or do you never want to break the reader’s spell? Your writing style will influence how your voice is delivered.
3) Narrative – Non-traditional narratives are one of the easiest ways to differentiate yourself as a writer. Tarantino mixed Pulp Fiction’s narrative up. The Coens basically wrote an act-less plot-less feature in Inside Llewyn Davis. Oren Uziel (who’s now writing mega-assignment Men In Black 4) wrote his breakthrough screenplay, Shimmer Lake, starting from the end and going backwards. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wrote 500 Days of Summer jumping around haphazardly. How you approach your narrative helps establish your voice.
4) Choices – A writer’s story choices are a critical component to his voice. Take the Coens, who decided to introduce their protagonist in Fargo, Margie, a full 40 minutes into the movie. Or Tarantino, who decided to kill off Hitler in Inglorious Basterds. Or Charlie Kaufman, who invented stuff like the seventh and a half-floor for Being John Malkovich. If your choices aren’t unique, chances are you don’t have a strong voice.
5) Character – This goes without saying. If your characters are straight-forward and familiar, like Melissa McCarthy’s character in Identify Thief, you’re not a “voice” writer. If they’re unfamiliar and unpredictable, like Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in Django Unchained, you’re going to be seen as different. Find characters that see the world the way you do, and your voice will come out naturally.
6) Sense of humor – There are some genres that play better with “voice” than others. And humor plays the best. Especially dark humor. It’s why The Beaver was heralded as such a unique voice. It’s why Being John Malkovich was heralded as having such a unique voice. It’s why Michael R. Perry’s “The Voices” (which recently finished shooting!) was so universally loved. How you play with humor, in your writing, in your choices, in your characters, in your dialogue, will have a huge impact on your voice.
7) Dialogue – If dialogue really pops off the page, like Diablo Cody’s did, everyone’s going to take notice. Unfortunately, this is one of those things that is very talent-based. The Coens or Tarantino or John Hughes – they have a talent for making characters sound different and for putting unique/witty/unexpected/well-written words in their mouths. Much like character, if you insert people into your story who share some of your views on life, your voice will naturally come out. Also, you can always improve dialogue voice with practice. Just make sure your characters don’t say what’s typically said in a situation. Voice is about finding new ways to look at and say things.
Now here’s the tough thing. All of these things individually influence voice. But it’s how you combine them that determines your voice. Maybe you like writing crazy “out there” dialogue but prefer traditional narratives. Maybe you’re obsessed with violence (how you see the world) but diffuse it with a healthy dose of over-the-top humor. Which ingredients and how much of each ingredient you use will determine how your “voice meal” tastes.
But this begs the question – are you born with your voice or can you create it? Or maybe the more appropriate question is, if you DON’T have a strong voice, should you try and create one? I mean, isn’t voice WHO YOU ARE? So if you try and manipulate it, aren’t you then becoming something you aren’t?
Not necessarily. Your voice is not unlike how you present yourself to the world. You know those guys who dress in sweat pants and t-shirts and don’t cut their hair and defiantly expect girls to like them because they’re being real? Because by changing they’d be lying about who they are? Well, you can still be who you are, just a better version of yourself. There are nicer clothes out there that will allow you to keep your relaxed style. You can still have that “messy” hair look, but make it look better with a recent haircut.
The same is true for voice. Find out what’s unique about your writing and exploit it. If you like sarcastic humor, write stuff where you can play with sarcastic humor. If you have a strong sadistic side, always try and add a sadistic character to your ensemble.
I think a big part of having an original voice is just seeing what no one else is doing and then, assuming that void gels with the kind of stuff you write, exploit that area. That’s what Shane Black did with his big over-the-top dark action comedies. What are you going to bring to the table that’s different?