Finding Your Voice
The Screenwriter’s Voice…
You hear about it all the time. Agents and managers are looking for “fresh voices” in screenwriting, producers and studios are looking for “unique voices” on the page, etc.
But what is voice, and how do you find yours? Well, as we always do here in the House of Guyot, let’s first dispense with the lies so we can get to the truth…
WHAT VOICE IS NOT
The writer’s voice is not your character’s dialogue – though the writer’s voice can come through the dialogue. Shonda Rhimes, Wes Anderson, Aaron Sorkin, are all good examples of this. But that is not what voice is.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking Quentin Taratino’s voice is his character’s dialogue, but that is not correct. If it were, then Aldo Raine would sound just like Hans Landa, and O-Ren Ishii would sound the same as Vernita Green. But they don’t – not even close.
However… ALL those characters sound like a Tarantino script. But they would never be heard/seen in an Aaron Sorkin script. See what I mean?
Imagine the Aaron Sorkin version of DJANGO UNCHAINED. Wait, don’t do that, your head will explode.
So, what is Voice?
Forgive me if we begin with a brief history lesson…
For decades a unique voice was considered taboo in screenwriting. All the greats of the Golden Era -- Odets, Diamond, Brackett, Krasna, etc., were under contract with the studios and while they were all outstanding writers – they wrote screenplays basically how theatrical plays were written.
And any voice only came through in the character development and dialogue. You could stack all their works together, and they would all look and sound relatively the same. That’s why so many movies from that era “sound” the same.
That all changed in 1965 when a screenplay hit the town called HARPER written by WIlliam Goldman. He had never written a screenplay before; he wasn’t one of the Schmucks with Underwoods as Jack Warner referred to studio writers. So there were no Rules for him to follow… or break. He just wrote in his own voice. He wrote the movie he wanted to see and hear. He was paid 5 grand, which would be about 45K today.
HARPER went on to do well, and Goldman was nominated for a WGA Award and won the Edgar Award. He followed it up with BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID – a spec script which he sold for $400,000 – a then record sum. That’d be about $3.5 million today - which would still be a record.
And for me, BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID is the one screenplay that changed our industry and our profession forever. For one reason only - the screenwriter’s individual voice became the calling card for great scripts. Over the next 40+ years a couple of dozen new writers would make millions and win all sorts of awards for their own unique screenwriting voices.
Jay Presson Allen, Shane Black, Nancy Dowd, Woody Allen, Robert Towne, Steve Zaillian, Robert Benton, Nora Ephron, the list goes on.
Thus ends the history lesson. Back to you and just what in the name of Alvy Sargent is this voice thing you keep talking about?
Voice is HOW your favorite scribes – Wes Anderson, QT, Rhimes, Sorkin, et all – write.
My personal definition is as follows:
Voice is the distinctive qualities of your own creative personality as expressed on the page. This includes your turn of phrase, syntax, punctuation, character development, and even formatting. Yes, formatting is part of Voice.
But wait, you shout, “I’ve been told my script MUST be formatted to the exact standards of Hollywood taught to us by Syd Field, and retaught by a handful of other failed screenwriters!”
Ah, therein lies the rub, young Jedi. Yes, your scripts must be formatted *correctly* – but did you see my asterisks there? Not quotes, asterisks. Because it is not an either-or issue.
There is formatting, and then there is formatting. Remember, this website is about the TRUTH. And the idea that there is only ONE correct way to format your script is a lie.
Does this mean you can write it in crayon and make your sluglines vertical instead of horizontal? No.
Does it mean you can put your character names on the far right in 18pt Gill Sans?
Probably best not to.
You could do these things, but unless your screenplay is the greatest since THE GODFATHER, you will likely be kicked out of show business and have to go work at your cousin’s storage facility in West Covina.
What I do mean, what the truth is, is that as long as you write your screenplay in the generally accepted formatting terms, you are okay to play around with certain aspects.
If you look at the scripts written by Barry Jenkins, Eric Red, WIlliam Goldman, Jay Presson Allen, even QT, you will see how and where they “break the formatting rules.”
And don’t even start with the “But they’re big names, they can do whatever they want.”
Wrong. They became big names BECAUSE they did it their own way, in their own voice.
ANOTHER WAY TO THINK OF VOICE IS MUSIC
A script should SING. It should read like music - like jazz or pop or hip-hop, whatever the tone of your particular story is. And the screenwriter’s voice should be like music as well.
Think of Sorkin’s voice as jazz, Coltrane or Miles. Tarantino is Guns N’ Roses. Shonda Rhimes, Usher. Paul Guyot? Probably along the lines of Red Hot Chili Peppers, if I’m being kind.
But here’s the difference in tone and voice.
I wrote a spec last year - a heist film - and the tone was very much jazz. Very Dave Brubeck or Wes Montgomery. That’s the tone I wrote it in. Right now I’m finishing up another feature and the tone is very different. Musically, it’s more like Mahler or Strauss - Richard, not Johann. But while they are each very different in tone, they both have the same Chili Peppers voice.
My syntax, my turn of phrase, my use of certain punctuation, my character development, my phraseology is my voice despite how polar opposite the tones are. If I’ve done my job, someone should be able to read each script and know they were written by the same person.
So, how does one develop their own voice? How does one find it?
By writing. And writing. And then rewriting. And rewriting. Whether you’re writing a feature, a television pilot, an episode of a series, a short film, whatever, the more you write, the better you get. It’s impossible not to.
You could be the world’s worst cook. But if you cook every day for a year, you’ll be better than you were. You may still be awful, but you’ll be better than you were. And you will cook in a certain way that you didn’t when you were starting out. You will find your groove, your mojo, the way you like or don’t like doing certain things. Same goes for playing the guitar, or dancing, or painting, or bricklaying, or… screenwriting.
Trust yourself. Tell YOUR story YOUR way. Only you know your life, your experiences, your triumphs and tragedies, your process, your point of view. All of these influence your voice if you allow them to.
— Paul Guyot