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?

  • E.C. Henry

    Would love to be the next great “voice” that gets discovered. Have definately written enough to merrit some consideration, 18 specs. I’m a slave to “story”, whatever I can do to enhance the premise I do. Typically I spend a lot of time on one given spec.

    I know my voice is distiinctively different than Shane Black’s or Quentin Tarantino’s. I don’t like drawing attention away from the story and onto the writer, but rather draw the reader in to real hone in on what the cinematic experience I’m trying to take them on is like.

    In the next week or so, I’m going to do a post on my blogsite of how I write, and why I write the way I do. A new paradigm? I hope so. A better one. A paradigm that makes the reader feel smart. A paradigm that puts the reader on the same plateu as the writer as he unveils the “sacred vision.”

    Regaurdless of whether I ever get discovered or not, I do hope new voices in screenwriting DO get discovered. That’s why we’re all here, right? We write, and want our work to be embraced. Hopefully SOME work out there, be it mine or someone else’s, is worthy of carrying on the torch that the giants before us started.

    • jlugozjr

      18 specs? Drop a link to your favorite. I’d definitely check it out.

  • Citizen M

    Cormac McCarthy has a distinct voice but it hasn’t translated to screenwriting success. But that proves nothing except maybe mastering the craft comes first, developing the voice comes afterwards.

    Maybe you could add to your list

    8) Concept and tone — What situations do you find interesting enough to spend months writing about, and what’s your take on them? Some people are drawn to family dramas, others to crime capers. Some like a wacky, humorous tone, others like a tightly-plotted, fast-paced story full of tension and action.

    A couple of my favorite quotes on the subject:

    James Hollis in Art and Fear
    “Artmaking involves skills that can be learned. . . In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive. . . Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work.”

    E. Nicholas Mariani ScriptShadow interview (The Flight of the Nez Perce, Desperate Hours)
    “I would just say keep trying and be yourself. I struggled for years, in part, because I was trying to imitate others instead of developing my own voice. Find the stories you’re passionate about and don’t try to be something you’re not. And, most importantly, if you love writing, then keep doing it – regardless of whether you “break through” or not. Paper is free. Ideas are free. There’s no excuse to quit.”

    • themovienerd

      I have that quote taped to my wall. Seriously. The whole “Desperate Hours” episode, from reading the script to the ensuing articles, is what made me a Scriptshadow fan for life. My writing improved leaps and bounds during that time.

  • Hadley’s Hope

    Wouldn’t a major part of a writer’s voice come from how personal each story is to them?

    I just started reading a behind the scenes book on the first two Terminator movies (Terminator Vault). The early chapters talk about James Cameron’s early years and background. You get the impression that he put a lot of personal ideas and fears into that first Terminator. He even had an agent who was interested in possibly representing him, but this agent told him to scrap The Terminator due to robots and time travel being too silly and not what the audience would want. Cameron walked and stuck to his guns. The rest is history.

    So maybe personal obsessions and confidence are a huge part of voice.

    How else can a writer stand out with a unique approach to the craft if they cave under the pressure of nebulous industry barriers?

    I mean look at Charlie Kaufman. Either genius, crazy, or lucky? Perhaps some of each?

    • Matty

      Charlie Kaufman is a crazy genius.

      He certainly isn’t just lucky. He’s not even close to my favorite writer, but I definitely think there isn’t anyone who’s a better example of a unique voice than he is. And he’s a nice example because, until 2008, he was just a writer, unlike Tarantino, Coens, PT Anderson, etc.

      Re: James Cameron. One of my favorite stories about him is that when he was pitching Aliens, he walked into the room with no treatment or anything, and just wrote on the chalkboard “Alien$”

      Not sure how true that is, but I like it because I feel like it sums up James Cameron’s career for the past 16 years.

      And I entirely agree about a writer’s voice being related to how personal it is to them. Look at David O. Russell, whose films always involve familial conflict (aside from Three Kings). Or PT Anderson, where father/son conflict is a huge part of all of his movies (aside from Punch Drunk Love). I’d be willing to bet dysfunctional families and conflict with his father were part of those guys’ lives, respectively.

      • Hadley’s Hope

        I like that Alien$ story. I’ve never heard that one, but I could believe it being true.

        I think the thing with making art or showbiz ‘personal’ is that it isn’t just something that applies to screenwriters, but also directors as well. Steven Spielberg puts a lot of father & son relationships into his films, as well as making several films where World War 2 is a setting. James Cameron has basically infused apocalyptic imagery into every single one of his films, even Titanic.

        Just looking at a writer or director’s choices in subject matter seem to lead back to the stem of personal signature. It seems like that could potentially be a major component of a unique ‘voice’.

        Isn’t there some quote about how every artist grapples with one specific meta-theme over the course of their career? With movies, perhaps the same basic theme dressed up in different cinematic clothing.

  • martin_basrawy

    Very good article, Carson. Lots of things for me to mull over. Thanks.

  • Illimani Ferreira

    Thanks Carson! Quite challenging article there. I’m trying to apply your 7 points to my own writing and it’s not easy, not sure if it’s a viable tool for self-assessment, although it can surely be used to analyze other people’s writing. What about a Saturday column where you analyze emerging writers’s voices using this framework? That’d be rad.

  • Paul

    When I hear executives go on and on about knowing a unique voice, sometimes I wonder if they actually can pick out that “voice.” I defy many of these executives to pick out a Jeffrey Boam script in a blind read test. Aside from the extreme examples like Tarrantino, Charlie Kaufman and Shane Black, you’re not always going to be able to distinguish a “voice.” I think it’s just backwards rationalizing. Executive A reads a well written script that tells a story well and has a clear command of storytelling, so then he does an interview and says “I knew it….I saw the voice jump off the page because I have great taste.” Sometimes a writer like a Jeffrey Boam, who’s “voice” is not as distinctive as Charlie Kaufman or the guy that wrote the Beaver might actually be better for a project. While his style might not necessarily call attention to itself, he’ll be able to blend the thriller, mystery and comedy elements of that 100 million dollar tentpole you’re banking on.

    • John Bradley

      I agree, I have read scripts where the writer had an amazing voice but the stories on the page were average. I think having a unique entertaining voice sometimes covers deficiencies in a story. With that said, someone with a unique voice does have a leg up as he further learns the craft.

      • Paul

        That’s a great point. I think it’s much more important to be a good storyteller….each story is different and some of the best writers I’ve seen, you might not be able to tell their “voice” if you didn’t see their name on the cover and backwards rationalize, but you can certainly see their craft and creativity, to be able to solve different scripts in different ways. Kind of like a Gary Oldman of screenwriting.

  • Rodney92

    While I appreciate what you’re trying to say, Hollywood does not embrace “original” voices.

    • Eddie Panta

      While your point may be valid. I believe Carson was suggesting that having “a voice” will indeed help you get through the gate. While Hollywood Studios might ignore it, readers, managers, and agents will appreciate it, even if it is only something that makes it a more enjoyable read. Besides it will go a long way to get you writing work.

  • drifting in space

    Just write your story how you want it to be written.

    There’s your voice.

  • Mr. Blonde

    #6 is the reason why I will never end up having a screenplay get produced. I struggle big time with comedy and, as a result, none of my scripts are ever any fun, mainly because there’s never any comedy in them. It would be just my luck, too, that an agent or script reader or producer would read it and think that it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever read. However, they tell me, “But where’s the fun? Who’d want to spend their money watching this? You’ll depress the hell outta people!” I follow that up with going home and writing a new script that’s even more Eeyore-like than its predecessors. Vicious cycle.

  • themovienerd

    My theory (and perhaps sum up): If you are a straight screenwriter, then your “voice” becomes simultaneously less important to your success at selling scripts and more important to your script’s success at the box office as your career takes off and is going.

    It helps you get noticed early in your career by readers, where it helps that x-factor something tick into “Oh, ‘same but diff’t.’ This is what I’m supposed to be finding.” And as your career progresses to where you’re a “name,” or a “brand,” the voice on the page isn’t going to matter nearly as much as how the audience reacts to how your voice has translated to the screen.

    My 2 cents.

    • Paul

      You’re right, it’s much more important how you are able to translate it onto the screen…or at the development stage, how well you tell the story to make the development exec look good for choosing you.

  • Calavera

    Reading this article and how “all of the major voice people aren’t writers at all, but rather writer-directors”, one could argue French movies are very “voice-y”.

    Hehe ;-)

  • Eddie Panta

    I think some people, even readers, confuse having “a voice” with a script having a style. Style and Voice are two very different elements in a script.

    When a screenwriter is described as having a voice, I think it means that there is a strong sense of honesty that comes through their prose or dialogue.

    This can occur in a sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge, way, when you write a sentence or sequence and tip your hand to the reader allowing them to know that you are actually utilizing a cliche or troupe. Essentially telling the reader you are lying to them, which in it self is a form of honesty.

    There is a lot of screenwriting lingo out there… Words, phrases too often repeated across scripts, essential language that does indeed help establish genre. However, when the script lingo is overused, it destroys your voice.

  • J. Lawrence Head

    I blame Save the Cat and its force fed it’s Mad-Lib formula.. insert moment A here, moment B here, plot twist 2a here. Structure is important, yes. Plot is important, yes. But if you use a cookie cutter, guess what? All cookies will look the same. Even if the recipe’s a little different.

    • Eddie Panta

      Perhaps, but we can’t really be sure. By the time the screenplay is released… Now anyway, the voice, has been beaten out of the spec script, either for right or wrong reasons.

      Scripts aren’t meant to be read, They’re meant to be shootable.
      A voice gets your script into production. Production takes it out.

      Also, lets not forget how few screenplays now, rather than back in the 90’s have more than one writer. You can’t sustain a voice in the screenplay after two or three other people have contributed to it with concepts and revisions.

      If anything is really to blame it is the reductiveness of the screenplay page.

      M. Knight, Shane Black, Kaufman… They can all write 8 line paragraphs.( back in the 90’s) Hence, voice is clear and deliberate. Now, contemporary writers have only two or three lines to get the same job done.

      • drifting in space

        Brian Duffield is a great example of having a “voice” but within the limitations that writers are forced into now.

        • Eddie Panta

          Cool.. Any scripts of his online?

          • drifting in space

            I found all of the released ones on the Write to Reel forum.

            Monster Problems
            Your Bridesmaid’s a Bitch
            Jane Got A Gun

          • Eddie Panta

            Thanks… Finally got the links in those threads to open.

          • Crystal

            Help our a girl who, for whatever reason, ain’t getting approved by the moderators

            godisagnostic @ gmail . com

  • maleficedark

    My mom says im special

    • Midnight Luck

      my dad says I’m a bitch,
      my mom says I’m an asshole,

      guess that’s why i’m a writer

      • J. Lawrence Head

        But they say it with love.

        • Midnight Luck

          and a whip

          • J. Lawrence Head


    • Alex Palmer

      My mum just says I’m “different”.

  • garrett_h

    Comparing all of us to Quentin Tarantino and Charlie Kaufman is simply unfair… :(

    • Alex Palmer

      I’d say comparing Tarantino to Kaufman is unfair!

      Yes, I’m leaving that one ambiguous :P

      • garrett_h

        You leaving your comment ambiguous is also unfair! So, so unfair!!!

        • Alex Palmer

          I’d tell you who I was alluding to, but that would be unfair on them.

  • Midnight Luck

    So it seems from the state of the industry that we are all being forced into a box.

    We have an amazing unique voice and we get noticed, but no one wants
    then we are forced to write like everyone else because it’s what sells.

    Write The Beaver –
    so I can Work on Green Tights 3: Nair in my Spandex 3D

  • Midnight Luck

    Top 5 reasons the Unique voice has died:

    5. CGI
    4. 3D
    3. Previous successful Properties
    3a. Teen book Market
    2. Gutless Producers
    1. $$$ rules

    • JW

      Well said in 20 words or less!

    • wlubake

      Another way of saying this is that if you aren’t a writer/director, the odds of your unique voice surviving to the final product are very slim.

  • Matty

    I think a great way to develop a “voice” – and especially to really SHOWCASE that voice to make your work stand out – is to do something you wouldn’t normally do. Now I don’t mean abandoning what you’re really good at writing and what you love writing because that accomplishes the complete and total opposite. What I mean is taking your strengths and marrying it with something very different. So let’s say you’re really good at writing crime thrillers. That’s what you have always written, maybe you’ve tried to write a sci-fi or action film or something but it didn’t work out so well. Everyone has their strengths and genres and types of films they are best at writing and love to write. Okay, so you love writing crime thrillers. Take that and marry it with a romance story. You’d normally never write a romance – you’ll never be capable of or even want to a straight-forward romance flick. But, now you can take what you are good at and what you really love to write, crime thrillers, and blend it with a romance story. The result is something that showcases your “voice” – your strengths – and is a unique approach to doing so. You get the best of two worlds and someone is more likely to want to read it. At least I know if someone came to me with a script, and all I knew was the genre, I’d pick a crime/thriller/romance over simply crime/thriller.

    Tarantino did that very thing with True Romance, and it was his first sale. Diablo Cody did something similar with Jennifer’s Body. She took her voice – quirky characters and comedy – and mixed it with something totally different, the horror genre. David O. Russell took his aptitude for finding comedy in typically unfunny situations and mixed with the war film in Three Kings (as well as heist, action, political).

    Think of them as hybrids. They’re very appealing in concept (the execution is dependent on your talent obviously). And above all else, you get to showcase your voice, still write what you love, and it will be DIFFERENT. It’ll be unique. Love writing low budget indie dramas, which as we all know makes this game a lot more difficult? Take your skill in low budget character driven scripts and mix it with a high concept.

    It’s fun to do, shows your strengths, and makes for a much more appealing product. We all hear “the same but different.” Well, this is one way to do that.

    • drifting in space

      I really like this. Sums it up perfectly.

    • Midnight Luck

      great thoughts.

    • John Bradley

      Really great ideas for me to think about.

  • JW

    Speaking of not building an original voice (or maybe I’m just misinterpreting), does anyone have the ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ script? Has anyone seen the trailer to this thing? Transformers meets Source Code. Wait, Cruise gets caught in a Groundhog Day loop and has to use this to stop an attack. Please, please, please someone out there tell me there is more to this story… if you have the script, I’d love to take a look. On a day when we’re talking about “unique voice” this would be an interesting parallel.

    • wlubake

      Include “All You Need is Kill” in your searches. That was the original title, I think.

      • Midnight Luck

        yes, in the IMDB listing it says it is from the Novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka…(novel “All You Need Is Kill”)

        why did they change the title? All You Need Is Kill is an awesome title. Edge of Tomorrow is so bah and forgettable. Any idea?

        • Poe_Serling

          “why did they change the title?”

          If it’s a PG-13 flick, the marketing people probably think the softer title will be more soothing to parents… who in turn might let their kids go see it. It’s just a guess on my part.

          I gotta admit the title Edge of Tomorrow reminds me of the classic Star Trek episode – The City on the Edge of Forever written by Harlan Ellison.

          • Midnight Luck

            good point.
            they haven’t listed what it is rated yet. But man the title is boring. I would love to have more titles that have some Kick to them. Speaking of kick, there is a guy in the movie who’s real first name is Kick, odd.

            I gotta say though, even the Logline is uninspired:

            —-A soldier fighting in a war with aliens finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, though he becomes better skilled along the way.—-

            “though he becomes better skilled along the way”. What? are you really putting that in the log line? couldn’t come up with anything more interesting?

            I love Doug Liman, I think he has made some great movies in the last 15 years. Swingers, The Bourne Identity, and I really liked GO also. This surprised me, I didn’t think he would go all CGI, space alien adventure like in a Tom Cruise movie. But he did do Mr. and Mrs. Smith with giant actors Jolie and Pitt, so who knows (though it is basically just a present day retelling of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid mixed with True Lies). I just hope this one is as good as some of his best.

          • wlubake

            Thought Go and Swingers were great, too. Liman has definitely shied away from that type of story, though. I guess that’s what the big paychecks will do to you. I thought Bourne Identity would kill him in the industry (despite being a big hit). He jacked up the budget rewriting the ending a few times (and filming each). Studio was so pissed he didn’t get an invite back to direct #2, but his contract kept him on as a producer. I didn’t think studios would trust him with big budget fare again, but then Mr. and Mrs. Smith proved that wrong.

          • kenglo

            This is the original logline from the 2010 Blacklist – “A new recruit in a war against aliens finds himself caught in a time
            loop where he wakes up one day in the past after having been killed on
            the battlefield.”

          • Midnight Luck

            that is much better, but I guess I can see why they changed it, since it sounds EXACTLY like Source Code with some aliens.

          • Citizen M

            Well, not EXACTLY like Source Code. And speaking of voice, screenwriter D W Harper’s voice is three-quarters testosterone.

            – WHUMP! THUMP! FHUMP! SOLDIERS hit the beach, hard enough to
            leave CRATERS in the WET SAND.
            last second his jacket goes into AUTOLAND; tiny JETS cushion
            the fall just enough to not break any bones and… WHAM!
            Two seconds of ear-ringing silence. A GASP as Cage’s lungs
            refill, he staggers up, WET SAND falling from his faceplate,
            his HEADS-UP highlighting TERRAIN and FRIENDLIES –
            THREE OTHER SOLDIERS stagger up out of their own craters.
            HAPPY SOLDIER
            WE MADE IT!
            THE HAPPY SOLDIER smiles at Cage, and –

          • Eddie Panta

            if you have the pdf of this I’d like to read it.
            e p p nyc gmail

        • wlubake

          Although Edge of Tomorrow is lame and generic, it does hint a little more at the storyline then All You Need Is Kill. EOT touches on the time loop. AYNIK only focuses on the violence. I’d go more in the middle, similar to the trailer: “Fight. Die. Repeat.”

    • Poe_Serling

      The trailer sorta reminded me of a wacky mix of Looper and Starship Troopers with a pinch of the Matrix’s multi-tentacled creatures for good measure.

      • JW

        Visually, yes. But, story-wise, they pushed it as basically a higher-budgeted sci-fi Source Code. I thought that was really strange, because even from a marketing perspective, you don’t want people to think they’ve already seen this film. Although it’s Emily Blunt and not Michelle Monaghan (Cruise vs. Gyllenhaal), the female character is still there, the “attack” is still there, and the “loop” is still there, and having to find a way to defeat the “bad guy” is still there. I just find it strange that the marketing department would be willing to basically paint this film as something we’ve already seen and expect us to see it again. Meanwhile, Source Code only came out 2 years ago, so it’s not like everyone’s forgotten about it. I feel like there’s something I must be missing here.

        • kenglo

          It’s based on a Japanese series…..see if it translates as some folks say…

    • kenglo

      It’s ALL YOU NEED IS KILL….sent

      • Midnight Luck

        ooo, could you send it to me also? please? thanks

        m (at) blackluck dot com

      • Hadley’s Hope

        In the Great Script Wars, all you need is VOICE.

      • Midnight Luck

        thanks so much

        • kenglo

          No problemo

  • Poe_Serling

    I always look for a distinct ‘voice’ in every script I read. Why? I see it as an enticement to keep reading on… in that tiny hope that I’m in good hands and the writer will lead me to somewhere exciting and unexpected.

    Don’t get me wrong – a memorable story will always be the foundation in the process of building your script from the ground up. I just kinda see the whole unique ‘voice’ thing as the fancy door of your project that will get people to want to come in and possibly stay to the final fade out.

  • Midnight Luck

    guess me screwed.

    I write the spec that sells,
    they love my voice
    all I’m offered is
    a Men in Tights movie
    an Adam Sandler opus
    I cut my throat
    swallow pills
    or back to steinhatchee, ohio
    for me

  • Dyland55

    I don’t think it’s a question of writers not having unique voices anymore, as you write you naturally develop your own no mater what, I think the real issue is that studios aren’t letting the writer explore their voice as much as they once were. Today, a writer can come up with an original story, the studio will buy it and pass it off to another writer after one draft, and another after that. What you end up with a lot of the time is a story, that while structurally good, misses that unique “voice”. If studios and producers would have the confidence in their writers that they used to I think we would see more confident pages the express the voice of the author. After all, if you get to see a script from development to shooting it’s bound to have your specific flavor, if you bring on a handfull of writers each one will leave their mark a little and the result will be bland.

    • tom8883

      The secret may be to see voice in terms of structure. Weave it in. I watched the pilot for Orange is the New Black last night and I thought that it was executed really well in this way. The voice was not over-the-top. It was sum of every part. The high-concept weaved into fantastic transitions which connected to theme. The voice was a product of all these elements.

  • Midnight Luck

    Thanks Carson. Love these articles. One on voice is awesome. I think it’s an ongoing topic for everyone to discuss.

  • TruckDweller

    My experience with voice is: it helps to get you noticed but it doesn’t necessarily help you get things made. Before anything else, if you’re trying to sell to a studio, concept is still king. Without an air-tight sellable concept, a prod-co is taking a chance with your voice-forward writing and most folks out here don’t like taking chances. Nobody wants to be the person to say yes if there’s a risk the script won’t pan out.

  • Alex Palmer

    Received it, thank you!

  • Crystal

    No offense to SS, but sites that this are part of the reason why voice is dead. There is such a slavish devotion to formula in most of these online communities that new writers are discouraged from ever stepping off the beaten path. Instead they hear, you aren’t Charlie Kauffman/Tarantino/Whoever, you can’t do that.

    • TruckDweller

      Malibu Jack wrote above the “Tarantino thinks of his scripts as stand alone literature.” I used to aspire to that as well. I tried to have clever story telling devices within the action-lines. It wasn’t sites like this that made me reassess but the reality of the industry. My early scripts gained traction but weren’t made – some people got the voice but not everyone on the long climb up the ladder. It only takes one “no” to send you back down to the bottom rung.

      I still write with voice but I keep it somewhat in check. Now, I try to write with a Raymond Carver efficiency and I keep in mind that the only perfection I achieve is in the white space.

      • Crystal

        I bet the people in your writers’ group appreciate that.

        • TruckDweller

          Please. I have to fake being sick just to avoid — oh, hey Crystal.

          • Crystal

            I might have believed that if I wasn’t still sick x-x

  • fragglewriter

    Great article about voice.

    I think voice might be difficult to instead in writing and comes across better when you have the mannerism accompanied by the actor’s portrayal.

  • Kosta K

    I don’t think “voice” is something you can add to a screenplay if it isn’t there in the first place. You don’t want your personality jumping off the page more than your story does. There has to be a balance that benefits both, but I think Carson hit the nail on the head with the writer/director connection.

    I loves me some Tarantino, but seriously, I can’t get through any of his screenplays without literally hearing the dude’s fucking voice reading it to me in my head.

    • drifting in space

      I agree with this. Plus, their “voice” adds like 20+ pages to the script. And a lot of it is classified as “un-filmmables.”

      Just like a garnish, you want to sprinkle it in to make it special. Not saturate the entire meal.

      • Eddie Panta

        Having a voice doesn’t always mean quibs that amount to unfilmable elements.

        A novelist can have a voice. It’s when you feel the story as if someone is telling it to you in person. It’s when you feel like you’re reading a story and not reading words.

        What is it about a script that allows us to recognize the author without reading the title page? The ability to make that distinction comes from the writer’s voice. Some are louder, more obvious than others. But there are subtle voices that don’t stand out in the crowd as much as the ones mentioned in the post.

        Which moments a writer chooses to express or highlight has as much to do with establishing a voice as the text on the page. The layout of the text on the page is too often regarded as a voice, when in fact it is really style.

    • Malibo Jackk

      Tarantino thinks of his scripts as stand alone literature.

      • Kosta K

        Tarantino is the reason I started writing in the first place, but I just think his personality has become such a character of its own that it hurts his writing just a little bit. (I’m not talking about his films by the way, just his screenplays)

  • John Bradley

    Really great article Carson. My favorite writers always have a unique and catchy voice, even if the stories that come from them aren’t always the most unique. Another thing that has really helped me with Voice is finding solid writing partners that you can have a good back and forth with.


  • Stephjones

    Once I recieved paid feedback that said I had a ” clearly original female voice” I gave the first ten pages of the same script to my hubby and he wanted to know why I had so many references to ” sucking dick”
    We’re still in marruage counseling. Some folks get your voice and some just don’t.

    • Midnight Luck

      that’s hilarious

  • Tom

    I think the most important component to developing voice, and one that many aspiring writers neglect, is to develop a full mastery of the English language.

    We all know English. We don’t feel there’s anything to learn about it. We spend years dissecting and analyzing movie structure, but not a minute is dedicated to dissecting and analyzing sentence structure.

    There was an Amateur Friday script a few weeks back that received comments in the vein of “Too confusing.” In truth, the script wasn’t confusing, but the nitty-gritty of the writing was. Sentences switched subjects, wording was ambiguous, fragments had no context. Nothing too atrocious, but the cumulative result was a convoluted, strained read. It was exhausting, and it hit us all on a subconscious level. The writer’s reaction to all the notes he received was, “Those are easy fixes. Gimme notes on the characters and plot.” Easy fix? If the words don’t work on a micro level, the story will never come together on a macro level.

    I see this all the time. Because most writers grew up speaking English, they feel they inherently understand how English works. They don’t.

    My wife’s parents are immigrants. They speak amazing English, but their skill seems to have topped out at a middle school level. And so our conversations have all the depth of a middle school conversation. We can still communicate, but it lacks subtlety and complexity. Most amateur writers topped out at high school level English. Maybe college level. But if you want to make it as a writer, you need to be at a professional level of English.

    The writers who take the time to study English, and then master its nuances, are able to play with it. They can contort it. They can break the rules. They can make words dance. They know how to use sentence fragments, how to use repetition, how to paint scenes and emotions with 10 words instead of 100.

    I was listening to a podcast where two professional writers went on a little tangent about the proper use of semi-colons. These guys understand, intuitively, how even the lowly semi-colon works. It’s yet another tool they can use to twist and manipulate the words on the page. All these little tricks of English that impact the reader subconsciously.

    I’ve only truly come to understand English recently.

    My wife was finishing up her PhD at UCLA. I understood that her career success (i.e., finding a stable income) directly influenced my writing career success (i.e., being able to live without a stable income). So I poured considerable effort into copy-editing her research articles, dissertation, and job applications. These were long documents of dry psychology mumbo-jumbo (half-pages consisting of a single sentence). I found that I would zone out for certain paragraphs. I’d read particular sentences and they just didn’t feel right. Instead of performing a perfunctory punctuation/spelling/grammar proof-read, I started digging into the sentences. I could see the ambiguities in the words. Those little hiccups that take a fraction of a second for the mind to smooth out, but become wearisome over time. I started truly comprehending the tiny nuances of English.

    Those tedious assignments pushed my own writing forward. Suddenly, English “clicked” for me. And I’m still learning more.

    Writers who take the time to truly learn English are able to contort it. They’re the ones who can play with words. They can have fun. They can manipulate their readers.

    You can tell when a script is written by a writer who knows English. There’s a smoothness to it. It flows. Even with dense pages, the read feels fast. It doesn’t require the reader to spend hundreds of micro-seconds making sense of the sentences. Instead, the reader can allow themselves to be absorbed by the story.

    Those are the writers who have voice.

    • Crystal

      So many aspiring screenwriters aren’t writer’s at all. They are storytellers with no respect for their prose.

      Writing a lot of scripts helps. Reading a lot of scripts helps. But, really, writing prose helps the most. Fiction. Non-fiction. Blog entries. Whatever.

      • TruckDweller

        So many executives aren’t readers at all. I have a friend – high level, an EP on a major blockbuster coming out this Christmas. He wasn’t able to fill out that Facebook poll of ten books you’ve read that left an impression. He couldn’t think of ten books. Emailed me specifically to tell me that because he knows it makes me crazy.

      • Citizen M

        The best way to develop a “feel” for good writing is to read good writing; the sort that has been scrutinized by good editors and passed as fit for human consumption. The classics, of course, and also good contemporary novels and writing in the better magazines like the New Yorker.

        And to really pump literary iron, try writing poetry.

    • Citizen M

      Excellent post. Many writers seem to feel that correct English usage isn’t important, and people who insist on it are “grammar Nazis”.

      If you want to be a paid writer, you should aspire to professional standards of writing.

      It’s like a pianist saying, “I might hit a few wrong notes, but I’ve got FEELING, man. Now give me that Carnegie Hall gig.” Dream on, buster. There’s a reason why the top guys spend ten hours a day practicing their scales.

  • ripleyy

    People can change their voice accordingly, I believe. I could write a comedy with a distinctive voice, and an action with another. Personal feelings about the world, and most importantly, about yourself, is what makes a voice so distinctive. As vain as it sounds, writers portrayal themselves in some way in their characters, and “test the waters” so to speak by putting them in situations. I guess that’s an insecure way of looking at writing, instead of it being a grand, expansive way of telling stories, but I do believe a lot of what makes writing stories, is that it’s really all about fears and flaws within ourselves.

    The “Cold War”, for example, inspired a great deal of fear in people and movies and books reflected that accordingly. Feeling fears and insecurities can create a distinctive, vibrant voice. This is just a small way of looking at it, I know a lot of what makes a “voice” is that it is about writing in a style that is completely different from others. I believe that’s what makes a “voice”. Write differently, and most definitely, you will get a few fans. :)

  • Dale T

    I have two possible solutions:

    1) Watch foreign films. The way an Indian film differs from an American, Chinese, French film goes beyond than just the aesthetic cultural nature. Each of those countries have different standards for their films, and yet the good movies all accomplish the same thing, providing us with great story and literature values. However how they get there is all different, and exposing yourself to more foreign films allows you to have a greater scope in how many different “voices” you treat yourself to.

    2) Expose yourself to different mediums of entertainment. I feel like the moment I started getting a better grasp of my own voice was when I started reading books. Before that I watched TV, movies, played RPGs, and read comic books, but always avoided books. And when I invested more and more time into books that was when I saw a spike in my storytelling ability. I feel like the reason for this is because each of these mediums of entertainment are told in a different perspective. Books of course goes inside the head of the characters, movies is completely third person, and comic books can do both.

    It seems to me that some of the best authors or screenwriters have also dabbed into screenwriting and novel writing.

  • Andrew Orillion

    The Beaver was an interesting movie. The script is brilliant, one of the best I’ve read. It had me laughing out loud and I couldn’t stop reading it. It was remarkable and bursting with a unique voice.

    The movie on the other hand, was just okay. Something got lost in translation. What was really funny and charming on the page was just awkward and weird when acted out in real life. It played so much funnier in my head than it did on the screen.

  • K.B. Houston

    I’ve never been a huge fan of the term “voice.” What does it even mean? I’ve had writing teachers talk about it all my life yet I still don’t understand exactly what it means. To me, it’s always been an underhanded way of skating around what you’re really trying to say. The sentence, “you need to find your voice,” always seemed to come off as, “it’s just not that good.” Plus, the term “voice” implies some sort of sound being uttered, specifically from human vocal chords. Last I checked there ain’t no sound in the act of reading outside of the occasional ruffling of pages. It’s just a weird term.

    But to answer your question Carson, the reason quality “voice” (or writers) are hard to find is because — as a few have mentioned below — REAL voice, REAL CREATIVE TALENT doesn’t follow the rules. This whole website, the whole concept of breaking through with a spec sale, is ALL about following the rules. Think about it. When you write a critique on this site, how often do you hammer someone for being too “out there” or not falling exactly in line with long-held scriptwriting guidelines? I’m not blaming you. That’s the way it is in this business. But Tarantino, Kaufman, Anderson, Hughes — these dudes were able to truly connect with their creative side and take chances because they’d already been established. People like us who are trying to get noticed can’t really take chances. We have to abide by the guidelines and often that means playing within the parameters of the very conservative, mathematically plotted playground.

  • tom8883

    Screenwriting hasn’t had its Golden Age yet. Actors, of course, and even directors are brands.The time is coming when screenwriters will become brands.

  • Citizen M

    I suggested upthread that subject matter and approach (humorous, serious, etc) were parts of your voice. On reflection, no.

    Your voice is your way of expressing yourself in words. It is the style you arrive at after lots of trial and error whereby you can express yourself with ease and comfort and people will understand the nuances of what you are trying to say.

    Voice + subject matter + approach = brand.

    Take one of my favorite authors, Le Carré. He has a wonderful way of expressing himself, and he writes murky and intricate spy thrillers with a slightly world-weary tone. He’s your go-to guy for that kind of story. See Clive Cussler on a book cover and you know what you’re getting. These guys are brands.

    I think as writers we ought to be developing our brand. When producers are looking for a writer to script a hot action concept, they don’t call on Kurtzman and Orci for their voice, they call on them because that’s what they do.

  • Alexander Felix

    Fantastic article, Carson. Right up there with the GSU one.

  • Citizen M

    Screenwriting methods: I Thought I’d Heard Them All dept…

    “According to Scorsese, the first draft of Mean Streets focused on Charlie’s religious conflict and its effect on his worldview. Along with fellow writer Mardik Martin, Scorsese wrote the whole script while driving around Little Italy in Martin’s car. They would find a spot in the neighborhood to park and begin writing, all the while immersed in the sights and sounds of what would eventually appear onscreen.” — Wikipedia

  • Cfrancis1

    Great article. Very true. I think I have an interesting voice. Problem is, I come from a theatre background so my characters tend to ramble. It’s something that I need to reign in.

  • kidbaron

    Carson — You forgot about William Monahan? Where does he fit with regards to voices?