Building Your Voice As A Writer

by Jason Hellerman on September 6, 2014

As a budding writer your real goal, besides breaking into the business and getting films made, is to develop your “voice.”

It’s hard to completely describe the way to achieve this distinctive goal. Every professional writer is different but one thing they all share is that when you pick up a script you can tell in the first five pages who wrote it.

Screenwriters like Shane Black (Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) have words that really pop off the page. His script for Lethal Weapon is full of pulpy action writing and sizzling dialogue. It’s one of the main reasons the script was noticed and read so much. People enjoyed the ride it took them on and Shane Black’s voice was born.

Defining your voice takes time and effort but there are simple adjustments you can make to help you stand out among your peers in contests and with industry reads.

The main one is to vary your verbiage.

This seems so simple but you cannot imagine how tiring it gets reading scripts where characters SPRINT everywhere or STARE at everything. This comprehensive list from THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF FILMMAKING will help you hone your skills, keep your audience engaged, and provide you with an excellent tool for building excitement in every scene. Voice is not only about the words you use but also is reflected in the length of sentences, paragraphs, and dialogue.

Some writers like Craig Mazin (Identity Thief, Hangover II, III) are sparse with what action hits the page. These scripts only focus on the characters, their dialogue, and the physical comedy. Time is not spent describing mood or decorations; he gets right to the scene.

Others like Robert Towne (Chinatown) use action to create a mood. Using longer paragraphs often puts the reader in the noir frame of mind. Towne spends a good amount of time steeping the reader in the world, in what we see and hear, before giving us the drama.

James Cameron does a mixture of both. His script for Aliens utilizes both economy of language and exacting paragraphs focused on aesthetics to create a blend of both styles.

There’s no right or wrong way to find your voice but as you mature with your writing you need to decide what you like, what helps you visualize each scene and what capitalizes on your imagination. It’s a delicate balance between setting where we are, describing the actions, and not being overbearing.

In the end, remember that a screenplay is a blueprint that the director, cinematographer, and producers use to see the narrative in their imagination. Scripts are gateways to films. One thing that’s revived as of late, something that supports the writer as a storyteller, is viewing screenplays as a literary object. That makes voice even more important.

Voice is more crucial now than ever as people flock to screenplays before and after seeing their favorite films. In the digital age access to scripts is easier than ever. In the last ten years almost all major scripts have been made available online and each year the Academy of Motion Pictures tries to get PDFs of all the Oscar Contenders’ screenplays online so that anyone can view them.

I remember taking the Social Network script into the theater and reading along with the film. Seeing how it correlates, how Sorkin’s voice transitions through Fincher’s direction. Your voice is your signature on the script. It’s something that can’t be taken away when it becomes a movie.

A director is often called an Auteur for having a distinct style or theme that follows their films. For writers this is the voice, which is why it is so important for a screenwriter to develop and capitalize their own unique voice. Agents and Managers will often judge a potential client not just by the story they tell but also by the way their personality pops off the page. Use your imagination to create people and places that must be taken to the screen.


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