This week, in Part 2, we will discuss how you develop your voice and do you know if it's unique enough? The final installment will be Part 3: How do you apply your voice to multiple projects or genres?
HOW TO DEVELOP YOUR VOICE:
I'm not gonna lie. This is a tricky one. I'm about to make up a bunch of shit. But that's what we do for a living or hobby, right? I've included some obvious approaches, mainstay techniques, and some off-the-wall ways to develop your writing voice. Let's start with the ONE SUREFIRE WAY… say it with me… WRITE!
Yep. The best way to develop your writing voice is to write. "Goddamnit, you said there wouldn't be homework!" Sorry kid. There's no way around it. You gotta write some screenplays. Some people get lucky off their first or second scripts and nail their voice. That would be moi. I was encouraged to pursue writing because of my voice. My first pieces were letters home from the road. That's what drew people in first. None of the other cool shit. But I've sharpened and refined that voice over many scripts and adjusted based on being compared to others. More on that later. For those who still struggle with finding your voice, you’ll get there. You'll need to get in your reps (like working out, not your lawyer), your 10,000 hours, your 100 rejections, or whatever philosophy you subscribe to. OK, it probably won't take that long, but you know what I'm saying. BTW, my Achilles heel was structure. Some of you were born with big beautiful brains with an innate knowledge of structure. We all have our thing.
Live your best life.
Having wild experiences or even a singular take on mundane experiences will always help your writing. How do you feel about these events? How do you view them? And how do you communicate that on the page through your characters?
Similar to how I started writing. Journal entries are letters to yourself. Letters are journal entries to someone else anyway. Whether you write three pages in the morning a la The Artist's Way or you do it at night, journaling is a great way to see your attitude on the page without judgment. You're not really supposed to go back and look at the writing, but you can cheat a little to see if something emerges.
“You better watch yourself!”
Duh. Watch TV and films to get the cadence and rhythm of distinctive styles. The more you watch, the more you'll see what you like, and it'll just become a part of your writing voice.
If it ain’t bolted down.
Picasso once said, "Good artists copy, great artists steal." It sounds kinda messed up, but it's true. You have to start somewhere, so why not study the masters? The great musicians, painters, and basketball players of all time studied the masters, then made their techniques their own. Kareem got the hook shot from George Mikan and made it the Sky Hook. Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten were in the audience at the same London gig where The Ramones played. Selena influenced Beyonce on the radio. And yes, Shonda was heavily influenced by Aaron Sorkin, specifically The West Wing.
Read everything. Read scripts, poems, novels, non-fiction, news articles, web content, tweets, even text messages. Great writing exists everywhere you like, and it's yours for the taking. Highlight things you like, then STEAL THE FUCK OUT OF them, aka incorporate it into your unique blend of voice, style, subject matter, themes, etc., until it feels like all your own.
Practice in prose.
Sometimes a great way to develop your inner voice without the mishigas of screenplay formatting is to write your story in prose style. A quick and dirty document of the A story. Without stopping, just get it down. Don't overthink. See what comes out. You might see some patterns emerge that you like and want to keep.
Channel your heroes.
There's another exercise where you write the same scene as if you're a different writer. Shonda It. Phoebe It. Spike It. Michaela It. Others will disagree with this, but there's no harm in trying. It's also handy in channeling the voice of the show you're staffed or freelancing on.
Phone a friend.
This might seem obvious, but it wasn't to me until I started writing this article. ASK people who know your writing and see what resonates with them and what stands out. It's surprisingly illuminating. Therefore, it's imperative to have a writer's group, a trusted inner circle of non-writing readers, reps, screenwriting teachers, etc.
Take an improv, acting class, try standup, do a podcast, perform at storytelling events like The Moth. You'll learn really quick what's working for you and what's not. People will just walk up and tell you!!!! It's so crazy.
Be a Dictator.
Sometimes you need to hear the words aloud to understand what your voice is. Dictate your writing! My best, clearest writing is done while pacing around the house while on the phone with a friend.
IS YOUR VOICE UNIQUE?
Now be honest. There's no sense in lying to yourself. As they said in '80s PSAs about drug use, "Check yourself before you wreck yourself." You know whether you have a voice or not. But is it unique enough? How should I know? You can only know this from reading others, but remember, the VOICE is in the subtext. It's what you're trying to say, how you're saying it, without coming out and saying it.
IT'S A FEELING and the WAY YOU MAKE THE READER FEEL.
Shit. You thought this was going to be helpful? I'm trying my best. The good news is VOICE is where the ARTIST gets to lead. You will channel the heart of the artist inside you. The good thing is, your voice doesn't have to be so unique that it's like it came down from outer space. It still has to be familiar, accessible, etc. But you want to draw the reader into your brain, so they can see what you see and how you see it. It's very ethereal, but I think you understand. At the end of the day, you're putting your gut feeling/intuition on the page.
FIVE EXAMPLES OF UNIQUE VOICES. If you're looking for Aaron Sorkin, Shane Blake, or Quentin Tarantino, you won't find them here. I'm trying to normalize referencing scripts written by women & BIPOC, and if known, LGBTQIA, PWD, & ND. Since I used Shonda Rhimes and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Part 1, I’ll use some other folks. I’ve chosen snippets from pilots written by Steven Canals, Bryan Fuller, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Veena Sud.
Steven Canals (POSE): Check out how he builds tension using the inhale/exhale motif and puts you inside his brain with the commentary.
Bryan Fuller (PUSHING DAISIES): See how a simple conversation about a dog reveals both the characters' comfort with intimacy.
Amy Sherman-Palladino (GILMORE GIRLS): She's the owner of the snappiest dialogue in TV history. She was influenced by the Borscht belt comedians, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner…all of which you see in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
VEENA SUD (THE KILLING): Veena deftly reveals Sarah's expertise, her dry humor, and that she is leaving that day. Hmm, an odd thing to happen in a pilot. Now I have to watch.
I never discuss writing without some tough talk about how the business often works. But I hereby invoke William Goldman." Nobody knows anything." This is also my opinion.
Something I've noticed: If you and another writer have a similar voice or style, but they broke in first or are way bigger than you, then your voice might be seen as derivative. I know, unfair. From contests and reps to showrunners and executives, it can come into play. The bright side is that it could help if you’re trying to staff on a show and can mimic the voice exactly.
So, what do you do? I've experienced this myself a few times. I used to write a certain way, but people thought it was weird. Then when a now-famous writer blew up, I was seen as derivative. I pivoted. I had to find a different way to say my shit. I leaned into voice, with more side-commentary (but my own style). Then I got compared to the folks who wrote about a snarky, unkillable anti-hero in red. Damnit! What I didn't realize in both those cases—those were an issue of style.
Therefore, your POV is an integral part of your voice. What I was trying to say about the human experience was mine alone. I might have a ton of dry one-liners, but they come from my background as a kid of immigrants, military brat, musician, comedian, trauma survivor, parent, etc. See, it's your experiences that influence your voice the most. And they can't take that away from you.
That's it for installment number 2. Be sure to check back in on the final discussion, Part 3: How Do You Apply Your Voice to Multiple Projects Or Genres?