In Part 1, I explored what the writer’s voice is and why it’s so important?” In Part 2, I gave suggestions on ways to develop your voice and how to know if your voice is unique? In my final installment, Part 3, I’ll tackle the tricky notion of how to apply your voice to multiple genres and formats.
As writers, we don’t want to limit our creativity based on arbitrary notions like genre/format. Not that long ago -- sometime between 2012 and this morning-- Hollywood gatekeepers discouraged or, worse, prevented writers from working in multiple genres and formats. As recently as five years ago, these same gatekeepers expected writers to have spec episodes of existing shows. TV writers and screenwriters rarely “crossed the streams.” Network sitcom writers only wrote on network sitcoms. Procedural writers were procedural writers. Genre writers wrote from an alley out back. I mean only wrote about aliens, demons, robots, etc. Lower-level TV writers weren’t “allowed” to develop until they reached a certain level on staff.
But the times they are a-changin'. You are now freer to move about the cabin-- no longer prohibited from writing in multiple formats and genres.
PICK A LANE… FOR NOW.
Succeeding in any genre means knowing the specific tropes, conventions, techniques, and approaches in that genre. Then you must know if you’re coming at it head-on but with a unique POV or subverting the genre entirely. It may take some time for you to figure out your strongest genre. As a snowboarder, I rode with my left foot forward for years, and I never got the hang of it. As soon as I switched to goofy (right foot forward), I fell only 25% as much and looked like a snowboarder. Now I can ride well either way. You’ll become a stronger writer by trying to write several types of projects.
The truth is, once you “make it” or “break in,” prove yourself, and reach a certain level, it’s much easier to get opportunities in new genres/formats. But until then, if you break in on a particular genre (i.e., staff first/sell a show in that area), you can become a prison of your own making. You’ll be frozen in amber, only writing time travel manatee erotica, period queer sci-fi erotica, or psychedelic multi-cam eroticomedy.
I have some pragmatic advice before you go bonkers and take out a one-hour Sons of Anarchy with mermaids with a multi-cam workplace comedy about a croissant factory. I think it’s pragmatic to have two EQUALLY STRONG samples in the same format and genre. What do I mean? I know. This shit can get confusing. If you’re a comedy writer, you can have two single-cam comedies or a single-cam comedy and a dramedy, or a single-cam and multi-cam. Any combination of those would be helpful. If you’re a drama writer, it’s beneficial to have some combination of a dark drama, light drama, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, crime, etc. Therefore, you could staff on a network drama or a cable genre show. Feature writers should also pay attention. It’s good to have two regency scripts, space operas, or horror comedies. Having two scripts in the same genre establishes your brand, making it easier for your reps to pitch you to showrunners and execs. It is also crucial as you apply to writing fellowships.
The good news is your voice can go beyond genre and format. Your voice is your unique take on the human experience. It includes the types of stories you like to tell and the worlds that you explore. You’ll often consciously or subconsciously revisit themes across all your work. Again, it’s your POV. When you sit down to write a drama after writing a comedy, what happens? Your natural voice comes through.
Jesse Armstrong took his deliciously awkward and harsh half-hour comedy style from Peep Show and applied it to Succession's deliciously awkward and harsh one-hour family dramedy. You can see the same DNA in both. Jordan Peele is another innovator who parodied genres on Key & Peele then created Get Out, which created a new genre called social thrillers! Liz Feldman, a multi-cam superstar, created the darkly hilarious dramedy Dead to Me as she explored her experience with loss. Now we all know what a “Liz Feldman show” is. Michaela Coel gifted Chewing Gum to the world then blew our minds with the genre-bending masterpiece, I May Destroy You. Some writers are chameleons whose voices blend in with the genre. In contrast, others are so specific that you know precisely who the storyteller is. The genre morphs to fit their voice! Phoebe Waller-Bridge did this with Fleabag and Killing Eve!
TAKE IT TO THE BRIDGE:
Let’s say you’re proficient in, or known for, writing in one genre/format, but you want to pivot to a different genre. What do you do? As James Brown said, you “take it to the bridge.” You want to write a bridge script, which connects (bridges) your dominant genre or format to another one.
So, what would your bridge script be if you wanted to transition from workplace sitcoms to gritty one-hour crime dramas? Perhaps, you’d write a dark but funny one-hour that takes place at a police precinct or in the world of the mob. What would your bridge script be if you wanted to transition from kids' animated TV to live-action, grownup dramedies? Maybe, you’d write an edgy half-hour animated series about death or a dark YA series.
Here’s an exercise: Take your favorite shows in a genre, look at your samples, and see how you can build a bridge.
HOW WILL I KNOW?
How will you know if your voice is coming through in the new genre? You’re applying your sensibilities to a new project, which would happen within your genre, anyway. See, it’s not a big deal. Have fun with it! Deep down, you’ll know if it looks, feels, and sounds like YOU. It will represent what’s in your heart and how you see the world. You’ll also find out because other people will tell you! Yay! The upside is you’re not inventing or manufacturing your point of view. Regardless of genre/format, anything a reader picks up should LOOK, FEEL, and SOUND like you! Thanks for reading this series. I hope you and future writers who aren’t even born yet will get something out of it. Thanks!