Creative Screenwriting Magazine asked Alexander Robb, Manager at Insignia Entertainment, to shed some light on a screenwriter’s voice. Your voice can make or break you. So many questions. Let’s get some answers.
To me, a screenwriter’s voice is everything. I often tell folks, “I sign off on voice, not concept.” A writer has to be a visionary on the page. That’s what really excites me as a rep and a producer. To see someone mastering the craft to create a story that’s poetic and captivating in the physical authorship. Just like a great novelist. Just in the format of screenwriting.
So what is a screenwriting voice? Voice is style. Or having a style. The phraseology, the rhythm, the punctuation, the word choice and elevation.
Where a writer separates themselves from others is in the recipe they blend together. Anyone can make a chocolate cake. But it’s how you pick and choose the ingredients, along with the sculpting of the presentation, that defines what makes one cake unique over another.
The question of how do you know when you have a style is a good one. I would ask, do you have a grasp on the use of simile and metaphor that sharply conveys the tone? Do you clearly establish the character and scene orientation? Do you use an elevation of description to layer your ideas? Do you use the cinematic elements of lighting and sound? Do you have a handle on not just the pacing and structure, but do you efficiently take us up and down the rollercoaster ride of the read? What about engaging the reader’s sense of smell?
That last one, smell, is often overlooked by screenwriters because it can’t be easily manifested on screen. But I think of the movie SE7EN. You can practically smell the rot of death. To convey that in a script bucks the conventional teachings of the medium because it’s ethereal. But when it comes to making your screenwriting stand out, it’s a wonderful tool to connect the reader to the world and characters. And often, one that can be conveyed through a character reacting on screen, which subliminally impacts the reader/viewer in the most unique way.
When it comes to developing a voice, practice is essential. But knowing the tricks or “rules” of what makes your writing distinct is the first step in honing your voice.
I’ve seen a fair share of writers with MFAs in Screenwriting do little more than carve out a basic template in the physical execution. I don’t mean to undermine the educational institutions. They’re a great way to get your foundation of the industry, but too many of these scripts felt flat and sophomoric. Which doesn’t excite me. Same can be said of the aspiring writer or even a well-established industry veteran who has simply been taught one way.
If you look like everyone else on the page, why would I remember you?
So here are a couple tips to anyone reading this…
Never use the words, “is, are, we see, we hear.” Not until you have a handle on your flow, word choice and elevation, punctuation, rhythm and cinematic elements. The use
of those words creates a flat, didactic interpretation that sucks all of the energy out of the read.
Also, keep your reader in the present by making your action description in the present. Think of it as establishing a rhythm of “shots” without constantly having to use “CUT TO” and camera direction. That way, the reader is always on the curve of the moment bc the characters are of the moment. Conversely, novels and journalism often mix the tense of the writing, which, in screenwriting, is a big no-no because the format only has so much real estate to get the story and style out.
Just watch what that does to your voice. You can pack more detail in, which helps the writer convey the layers of the world and tone, and the details of the characters and their emotions. You also end up avoiding passive uses of “ing” that puts the moment ahead of the reader, thereby hindering the intensity of the read.
One of the first things I tell people is that what I teach and why I teach it is not gospel. You can succeed without the ideas and concepts like these.
What I deal in, is probability. That is, I push my screenwriting clients to the peak of their talents as artists, so as to raise the probability that others will take notice and bite. For baby writers, and even well-established screenwriter vets, selling material is no easy task. Especially when IP is such an influence today. But every script, as well as pitch, needs a polish that showcases the writer’s talent and professional preparedness.
And that’s why establishing a screenwriting voice is so important. For any rep or exec to fall on the sword (who knows they’re going to dedicate a minimum three to five years of their lives on a project), they need to see the talent on the page. And that talent has to galvanize them to fight for the property/project.
While I can’t say I know exactly when a writer finds their voice, I do know what it looks like to blend into the pack. And therein lies the rub. Let’s dovetail that into the next question…
How have you described the voices of some of your clients?
That’s tricky bc each has their own identity. But I help each of them shape their vision per the format of film or TV and the genre.
Understanding how to convey what you see, with a handle on the physical execution that sucks the reader in? That’s a big piece of having a white-knuckled grasp on your voice. And that’s what I look for as a manager and producer. Having a feel for the genre is essential.
Think about it. Every story we’ve ever been told, from the campfire to the water cooler, there’s always a delivery that makes the presentation of the story unique.
Some reading this will recognize the phrase I say, “Every genre writes itself.” Meaning, when a writer can focus and twist the rhythm and flow on the page, they can create and blend and shape the narrative of any genre.
Ultimately, the talent of the pulling our emotional and intellectual strings as readers is a challenge but also a huge opportunity to be creative, and that’s where the meeting of genre and voice or style meet.
Lastly, to piggyback off of the previous and to end that on the development of the craft, the truth is, screenwriting, and writing in general, has always and will always be changing. As society, language, medium and technology continue to evolve, so too will writing. The grand realization I hope to wrap all of the previous up in is, when it comes to authorship and screenwriting in particular, once you know the “inside baseball” of how to create a vision, you can create something unique that will draw others to what you see and do as an artist.