Finding your writing voice is essential if you want your script to stand out from the thousands of others that flood the spec market every year. I’ve read well over 3000 scripts in my career to-date and when all the craft boxes are ticked (great story, distinctive and flawed characters, etc) a unique writing voice is the thing that will make me excited about one script over all of the others. But what is it and how do you find it?
That question is one I get asked a lot and, I’ll be honest, it’s one of the hardest to answer. We know it when we read it but it’s tough to pinpoint why. Think of the great screenwriters you know and admire; Aaron Sorkin, Steven Moffat, Russell T Davies, Tina Fey, Quentin Tarantino. Whoever it is, you’d recognise their writing even without seeing their name on the script or credits, right? There is something distinctive not just in the stories they choose to tell but in the style and execution of those stories. That distinctiveness, that unique style, is what you want you should be developing.
So how do you find your unique writing voice? I think it’s something that evolves over time so, first, don’t panic if you’re still in the early years of writing scripts. Most great writers start by trying to emulate those whose work they admire, so if right now your screenplay reads rather like a second-rate Wes Anderson script, don’t worry. Lots of writers start by putting their favourite characters into new situations or putting their own character (who usually bears a striking resemblance to them!) into known stories. Steven Moffat says he started writing as a 9-year-old Doctor Who fan, writing short stories that were amalgamations of his favourite Doctor Who episodes.
The other thing to try, and this might sound counter-intuitive if you’re trying to establish a distinct voice, is writing in lots of different style and genres. Yes, the ultimate goal is to create a strong screenwriting brand by specializing, but how do you know that should be unless you’ve tried lots of different things? An eclectic portfolio is a definite disadvantage when you’re trying to break into the market, but in your early years it can be the very thing that is enabling you to find out who you truly are as a writer.
Yes, you want to earn a living from your craft, but in this super-commercial, career-focused world, it’s become easy to forget that writing is an art. You are an artist, a creator. You are creating something from nothing, and artists experiment and play. Not everything will work out or even get finished. There’s an old adage that to have a great idea you just need to have a lot of ideas and I think that’s true of writing. Capturing ideas, however fleeting and random and disconnected they are, is an essential part of that process. Then don’t be afraid to pick an idea up and play with it for a while, see where it takes you. It might not lead anywhere in itself but through the process of exploring the idea, other ideas are sparked. Completion can be over-rated; don’t let the fear of not completing something stop you from experimenting. Of course, a hundred unfinished screenplays aren’t going to get you very far but playing with ideas is part of the creative process.
The other thing that always strikes me about the scripts that do demonstrate a clear, strong, unique writing voice is that they are honest. Whether you’re writing a semi-autobiographical Drama or a Sci-Fi Action Adventure, there is always something personal and truthful of the writer in the work. Don’t try to produce something that you hope everyone will like – they won’t. We are all drawn to different types of stories told in different ways. Write honestly and authentically then you, too, will find your audience who will be drawn to your unique writing voice.
- More articles by Hayley McKenzie
- A Writer’s Voice column by Jacob Krueger
- Balls of Steel: Meet Author and Screenwriter Christopher J. Moore
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Developing Your Unique Voice