9 Tips for Finding Your Authentic Voice as a Screenwriter

Let’s compare apples to oranges first.

What does Eminem have in common with Robin Williams?

Creative genius would be one answer, of course. To the latter, no one — no one — could duplicate the voice of the late, great comic and actor.

Well, maybe Groucho Marx back in the day. His frequently spontaneous ramblings were something to behold as well, similar in some ways to Robin’s decades later.

Who could possibly write for these guys? Oh, they had their writers … but they were frequently second-guessed and upended for two gentlemen who used scripts as de facto bullet points, then went on and worked their own magic to make those writers look that much better.

The fact that both also tested material in front of live audiences certainly helped.

Regarding Eminem, he too is a wordsmith unlike any other. His earliest material foretold a breakout success, and he very nearly revolutionized the music business. Unlike another Caucasian rapper like Vanilla Ice, who was not taken seriously by the rap community and accused of appropriating aspects of the culture, not only was Eminem looked upon as the real deal but he has received more awards — mainstream and otherwise — than most any other rap artist.

Because he had presented his unique and authentic voice to the world, he made an impact. His words were emphatically not PC, and yet he received respect from such icons as Elton John and others, who believed the rapper shone a much-needed light on negative cultural stereotypes.

Via his own original voice.

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Now let’s compare apples to apples.

How many of you appreciate the work of iconoclasts such as Quentin Tarantino?

Quite a few, apparently, as following the release first of “Reservoir Dogs,” and then “Pulp Fiction,” every other script producers such as myself received were mob-related with shotgun dialog. We all received veritable copies of Tarantino’s hits, along with one-pagers threatening to “out-Tarantino Tarantino.”

Very few of the copycats sold.

What about Tim Burton? Are you a fan? Could you have written such a personal, metaphorical work as “Edward Scissorhands?”

Writers such as Robert Towne (“Chinatown”), Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”), Jane Campion (“The Piano”), Mario Puzo (“The Godfather”), David Mamet (“Glengarry Glen Ross”), Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Ed Wood”), William Monaghan (“The Departed”), Steven Zaillian (“The Irishman”), Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”), and Bong Joon-ho (“Parasite”) are studied in film schools for reason. Some have worked with other writers on their most prominent films; others have written alone.

All have developed distinctive voices.

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Back to us now.

We’re screenwriters. Some of us have sold; some of us have yet to sell. How do we find our unique voices?

The following is a list of tips to help you create a sincerity and specialness in your writing that will help you stand out:

1. Use elements of real life acquaintances in your script.

Friends and family sometimes have an issue with writers, but as Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell told Michael Douglas’ Nick Curran in “Basic Instinct” (as written by Joe Eszterhas) in so many words, as a writer no one she meets is safe. Everyone is fair game for her writing. This should be a general rule for writers of any stripe. No one you meet has the same voice. Everyone you meet has a different tone and edge to their words. Take advantage of the world as presented before you. Base your characters on different people you meet.

2. Watch bad movies, then do the opposite of what they do.

I’m not kidding. Watch films that either you dislike personally, or have not been acclaimed at all by either critics or audiences. Study the laughable dialog … and write down, as an exercise, what you would have written in its place. It helps.

3. Study awards-worthy movies.

We’ve all seen films critics love and audiences loathe, and voice-versa, so I’m meeting both goalposts here. Notice, as I said earlier, how no two characters sound alike. Consider why.

4. Write down a list of 10 distinctive traits for each of 10 people you know or have met.

Keep these in a file, and refer to them later as you write your screenplay and flesh out your characters.

5. Think of your characters’ pasts.

If you are an outliner — outlining a script prior to writing it — consider your characters’ circumstance(s) and write traits that you believe may well match them. Before you do, however, imagine your characters’ pasts. What unique circumstances brought them to this current point? For a relevant example, a white man born in New York City to wealthy parents will likely not have had the same upbringing as a black man born to poor parents in rural Alabama. The reverse is also true: A black man born to wealthy parents in New York City as contrasted to a white man born to poor parents in rural Alabama. Or, a black man born in rural Alabama to wealthy parents contrasted to a white man born to poor parents in New York City. When you begin to visualize distinctions, they are easier to write.

6. Go against expectations.

When creating and reflecting on your characters’ pasts, surprise us! Be brave; you’re a writer. Avoid of stereotypes. Subvert expectations if you want to delight your audience.

7. Learn tropes and archetypes.

Stray from the former, as tropes are interchangeable with clichés. Learn your archetypes. For example, Luke Skywalker was a farmer on a desolate planet who strived for adventure amongst the stars and met his destiny. His quest spoke to the adventurer in all of us. Similarly, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa spoke to our inner underdog. If you can hit resonant archetypes, and give them unique voices, that’s half the battle.

8. Acknowledge your characters are every bit as important as your story.

A weak story will not be saved by strong characters, nor will weak characters be saved by a strong story.

9. Consider the concept of misconceptions.

What is the biggest misconception people have about you personally? Ask yourself why that misconception exists, and then contemplate creating a multi-dimensional character that addresses both his or her inner or outer lives. All characters should be multi-dimensional, and never just surface.

 

Developing a unique voice is imperative for a successful screenwriter. That voice encompasses both your characters, primarily, but also your storytelling ability and perspective — as they are closely related.

Don’t give up. You got this.

Let me know, as always, if this helps …

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning writer and producer, and partner in Council Tree Productions, a television development company. He writes and edits a publication for Medium, “Writing For Your Life,” which you can follow here.  

Related blog post: 7 Ways Screenwriters Can Impress a Producer