The Craft of: Voice
May 31, 2022
Voice is such an elusive and ephemeral thing, yet it can identify a writer as definitively as a fingerprint. When I hear the (literal) voice of someone familiar, even in a crowded room or in the first seconds of dialogue on screen, I often know who it is before I see them.
The same can be said on a macro-stylistic level about so many of the “Great” screenwriters. You know Tarantino, Lynch, or Shonda when you see it, hear it, or read it.
I think what makes these writers’ Voices so distinct and appealing is that they’re fearless. They don’t give a shit what you, producers, or readers are going to think about their stories, their characters, or the world they inhabit. They are writing for themselves because they know they have to or their heads will explode. Those movies and shows have to be made. They have no choice but to be born into the world at any and all cost.
What’s wild is that within each writer’s crafted universes, all with instantly recognizable and repeated themes, tones and rules, every character's voice will still stand out as unique within a particular story. I mean, sure there’s some overlap. You’ll find a lot of the same fave archetypes played by different characters from one movie or TV series to the next.
Oftentimes, you can track the writer’s maturity across their career as their POV characters become more seasoned and wizened. But these characters, themes, or even scenes, which may crop up again and again in a writer’s work, won’t repeat themselves in the same script.
A lot of times I’ll read someone’s script and find myself confused by which character is speaking. If I have to check the character’s name or have to go back and find, “Oh, yeah, he’s the cousin,” then that character’s voice is weak or muddied. Every character must stand out.
Ask any actor: there are no small parts (see: Boba Fett). If they’re in the story, they are necessary to the story. If they aren’t necessary, get 'em the hell out of there. The parking attendant can be the most memorable part of the car chase through the garage, and their wry wit with one word (“ticket?”) can change the whole trajectory of the scene.
Often, where things get real swampy is when you have two or more characters in the same job or group: a couple of sisters in grade school; soldiers in a unit; office drones in the mailroom; teammates surviving a plane crash. Every one of these people is living their own internal lives. You may feel like they don’t matter as much, or you have difficulty relating to them but, you are them and they are you. We’re the secondary characters in every moment of our lives around strangers.
Every character is an opportunity to explore whatever side of yourself is that character. What would you say to your MC if you’re the LETTER CARRIER (divorced, 2 grown kids, just found a weird lump this morning that wasn’t there before)?
Well, you might not say anything, because you’re just delivering the mail. But even how that mail is placed in the slot, tossed in the box, squinted at to make sure it’s the right address, might make a difference to the story and gives that character a unique Voice that makes them matter.
On the macro level, your Voice is simultaneously one of the hardest and easiest things to cultivate. It’s hard because there’s no specific trick or lesson or game plan that will help you find it. It’s easy because all you have to do is write -- a lot. And keep writing. And don’t stop writing because that’s your job, or it’s what you want to do for a job.
You have to prove to yourself that you can do this. You have to write with the confidence of someone who knows the rules and exactly where and how to break them. You have to write so much, so many characters, scenes and themes, that your style is undeniable. That’s the goal anyway. I personally don’t feel like I’m there yet but it’s not for one to judge oneself. That’s up to the world and you must not care at all what they think. You must be fearless.
The distinctness of a writer’s Voice, to me, is the one true objective measure of how “good” they are. Everything else can be learned. Format, structure, description, clarity, and even story-telling can and have been analyzed and made into lesson plans and books.
But your Voice is you. Only you can learn how to find it. Like Glenda, the Good Witch said, “Everything you were looking for was right there with you all along.” Your unique style will shine if you can manage to get out of your own way and let it.
No copycats needed
- Avoid mimicking the Voice of others. Sorkin can do whatever the hell he wants because he’s Sorkin. If you write like him, everybody will see it. It’s worked great for him, but that's not you. When you read scripts that won awards, bear in mind that it’s not their success that made them winners, it was Story first, then Voice.
- Second, and I’m sure some people will disagree with this, don’t be afraid to bend and break the rules. I.E. rules of grammar, format, even spelling. Learn them first, but only so you know how to break them artfully, purposefully and with elegant intention. Picasso didn’t paint wrong, he purposefully ignored the old rules to get to the core of his own vision.
How to find your Voice
- Write! Write what you have to, how you have and do it often.
- Listen to your characters, talk to your characters. Listen to yourself and, yes, talk to yourself.
Your characters’ voices will be loud and clear in the story and your Voice will shine through in every word of your Scene, Action and Dialogue. Now, getting all these voices to shut the hell up so I can sleep? Dunno. Workin’ on it. That’s another article.
Written by: Chris Pittas