How To Give Your Screenplay Your Voice
February 19, 2023
In my article, Finding Your Voice, I wrote about my first major spec sale and how I attributed it to my voice among other factors. I explained that the voice is an essentially an X factor: a distinctive quality that can help your material rise to the top. In a highly competitive marketplace, anything extra you can add to your script to standout is a good thing. Not only could it lead to a spec sale, you’ll have more job opportunities if you have a discernible and unique voice as a screenwriter. It’s relative to having a brand as a screenwriter.
So having a voice as a writer is important, but how exactly do you give your screenplay your voice?
One of the easiest ways to convey your voice is through dialogue. It’s the voice of your characters, but more importantly it’s your voice as a writer. Even if you’re writing a genre film that’s not as contingent on dialogue as say a drama or comedy, it can still add an extra element that gives personality to your script.
Are you a naturally funny person? When you’re hanging out with family or friends, do you make people laugh? Do you have witty repartee with coworkers or dates? If so, then you should insert humor into your dialogue; this is great way to give your screenplay your voice regardless of the genre.
Even if you’re not writing a comedy, exhibiting a flair for witty banter and one-liners, can lead to unexpected opportunities. These days many action films, thrillers and horrors contain humorous dialogue. There’s even more emphasis on entertainment factor than in the past and if a screenwriter can work in a memorable quip for the hero during an action set piece, they’ll prove themselves to have a wider skillset than much of the competition. Generally speaking, the more you can do as a writer, the more professional opportunities you’ll have. From Carl Gottlieb (Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D) to Danny McBride (Halloween, Halloween Kills, Halloween Ends), many comedic writers have had long and successful careers by demonstrating tonal adaptability and inserting their personality and wit into thriller/horrors.
But what if you’re not a naturally funny person? How do you give your screenplay a voice in this case?
Obviously not all films are humorous, so it’s not essential to be funny, but you can still express your personality in your screenplay. Maybe you have a poetic or philosophical nature. Think of Christopher Nolan and Martin McDonagh; even though they’re very different writer-directors working within different genres, what their films share is an infusion of their personal obsessions and philosophical musings into the narratives; they express these things via dialogue, plot beats or themes. In Nolan’s case, he was even able to work these preoccupations into a tentpole franchise (The Dark Knight Trilogy).
Generally speaking, you should be writing about what interests you most; the more specific your interests, the more distinct your voice will be. Before becoming an acclaimed director, Oliver Stone was an acclaimed screenwriter known for writing scripts as varied as Midnight Express, Conan the Barbarian, and Scarface. However, all of these scripts — even Conan the Barbarian — had a political undercurrent, and they all focused on high testosterone power struggles. Stone’s calling card spec script that broke him into the industry was Platoon, which detailed his experience as a soldier in Vietnam, but it also contained the above traits. In short, it conveyed his voice. When he eventually started directing his own films, they followed suit.
But what if you didn’t fight in a war or don’t have any profound or special interests? What if you’re just an average person and you don’t think you’re particularly interesting?
Chances are you’re more interesting than your realize, and you should view screenwriting as an opportunity to dive deeper into yourself and discover who you truly are as a person. When you discover what’s unique about you, there’s a good chance you’ll likewise discover your voice as a screenwriter.
Maybe you’re an anxious person or — let’s be completely honest here — you’ve been described as “neurotic.” You might view this as negative, but many writers have turned tricky personalities into produced screenplays and acclaimed films; Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind) made an entire career out of it. In the same way you shouldn’t be afraid to insert your personal life into your screenplay, you should make use of all aspects of your personality: the good, the bad, and the neurotic. Now this doesn’t mean turning your script into one big rant or therapy session, but a little mounting anxiety can go a long way. Most people, no matter how perfect their lives might appear, have problems. The more you’re able to express your emotional turmoil, the stronger your voice will be and the more it’ll resonate with readers. The entertainment industry is filled with anxious and obsessive people; a few kindred spirits might just be reading.
Whatever defines you as a person will be the same thing that defines you as a screenwriter. Whether it’s Diablo Cody’s sardonic “alt rocker girl” outlook, Sean Baker’s empathy for society’s outcasts, or Graham Moore exploring history and classicism in his work, a writer that expresses a unique worldview and style has a better chance of standing out and making a career for themselves. Even if you’re able to sell a spec script based on a good concept, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll lead to a screenwriting career. In many ways, this is the difference between selling a screenplay and becoming a screenwriter. Not that there’s anything wrong with simply selling a script — most people would love for that to happen — but obviously if you could turn your spec sale into a bona fide career, that’d be the ideal. And even if your screenplay doesn’t sell, if your script effectively showcases your voice, it can still lead to assignment jobs and a possible career.
Once again, your voice is the X-factor that can make all the difference.
So when writing your screenplay don’t forget who you are as a person and let your voice shine through…!!
Written by: Edwin CannistraciEdwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.