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What Hollywood Means by a Writer’s “Voice”

This article was originally published in Script Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

by Angela Bourassa

You’ll hear it time and again – agents, producers, and contest judges who say they’re looking for writers with “a unique voice.”

But what the heck does that mean? How can you tell if you have a strong voice, and what does it really matter? Aren’t stories about characters and themes and plot points? Where does the writer’s “voice” enter the equation?

There are undoubtedly a wide range of perspectives on this topic, but I’d be willing to wager that a lot of people who talk about the importance of “voice” couldn’t give you a precise definition of what they mean when they use the term. It is a nebulous idea, the sort of thing you know when you see, which just isn’t helpful for writers trying to discover their own voices.

So rather than trying to land on a precise definition – which wouldn’t be very helpful, because everyone defines it differently – let’s break down some of the elements of story and writing that fall under the umbrella of “voice.”

Here are four things that readers are referring to when they complement a writer’s voice:

1. Writing Style and Word Choice

One of the more tangible elements of voice is the way a writer arranges words on a page. We’re all using the same basic format and following the same rules of grammar, but we all have a slightly different approach. A writer with a strong voice might write that their hero “ambles” across a room instead of “walks.” She might use a period where someone else would use a comma.

Dan Gilroy’s script for Nightcrawler is an extreme example of this aspect of voice. Rather than using normal sentences, Gilroy uses a stream of sentence fragments connected by ellipses in his action lines, pulling the reader along with no real sentence breaks.

Of course, some readers might hate Gilroy’s script for that very reason. And that’s an interesting thing about voice – a strong voice usually means people will react strongly to it, but not always in a positive way.

The main thing you’ll hear script readers asking for in terms of writing style is a “fast read.” Aim for a lot of white on the page, brief action lines that get right to the point, and where your old screenwriting books refer to 120-page screenplays, change that number to 100 (or less).

2. Unfamiliar Plot and Character Choices

Another aspect of voice is the stories the writer chooses to tell and the way they choose to tell them.

During a battle scene, for example, one writer might focus on the explosions and the bloodshed while another writer would muffle the sound and focus on a soldier’s emotional reaction to the fray. One choice isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they demonstrate drastically different voices.

When a writer tells a story about a generic cop trying to solve a generic murder, there isn’t a unique voice there. But if you look at a TV show like Bones, creator Hart Hanson brought a unique voice to an old setup by making the main character a socially awkward forensic anthropologist who studies the victim’s bones for clues. That’s new. It’s fresh (or it was at the time). And it’s a big part of why the show lasted for twelve seasons.

3. Honesty, Layers, and Details

Writers with clear voices tend to make honest choices in their writing. Rather than forcing a character down a certain path – which flattens the character and the story – they ask what the character would actually do. This often leads to a subversion of clichés and twists on expected developments.

Think of the Parks and Recreation episode “Practice Date” when Leslie is nervous about going on a first date, and Anne tells her that she has an idea. Leslie responds,

    Leslie I know what you’re thinking. I wear an ear piece, you sit at a table nearby, you speak into a mic, and you tell me what to say on the date. But let me tell you something, Ann, it never works!

    Ann No, no, no. We are going to go to a restaurant and have a practice date. I will pretend to be Dave, and you will practice on me.

    Leslie Oh, that’s a way better idea.

The honest choice avoided the old cliché and got lots of new humor out of a familiar situation while also being more honest to the characters and reality. That’s good writing.

Likewise, writers with strong voices usually write scenes and characters that are layered. Nuance and detail add layers of subtext, making characters pop and helping writers avoid unnecessary exposition.

Think of the moment when Emma Thompson realizes that her husband is cheating on her in Love Actually. She doesn’t scream at him in front of her kids. She doesn’t confront him at all, because they still have to go to the school play. So she excuses herself with a smile and retreats to the bedroom to let a few tears out and compose herself. In that moment, when she’s fighting so hard to keep herself together, she straightens the blanket on the end of her bed. (That detail probably came from Emma, not the script, but even so…) It’s a moment of cinema perfection, because it’s honest, unexpected, layered, and nuanced.

4. A Point of View

Perhaps most importantly, writers with strong voices are writers who have something to say. When a story has a provocative, empowering, divisive, or even universal message, that resonates with readers. Every story should center around a dramatic question. Can people really change? What’s the meaning of life? Is it ever too late to find love? Mind you, not every story has to be elevated or completely blow people’s minds, but every story needs to have some sort of point.

This DOES NOT mean that you should use your next script to give a lecture on your topic of choice. That’s what lectures are for. Stories are special. Stories let you illustrate ideas in a way that is often much more persuasive than argument or even facts. Do not try to turn your script into your pulpit. Instead, craft a story that examines an idea from all sides, indulge yourself with at most one good rant, and let the reader have an experience that (perhaps) leads them to your way of thinking rather than spoon-feeding them a lesson.

Finding Your Voice

The good news about “voice” is that it’s not something you have to actively develop – it develops on its own. The more you write, the more stories you tell, the more your voice refines itself. It will show in the descriptions you write, the characters you focus on, the themes you tend to favor. No one is going to sit you down and ask, “How would you define your voice as a writer?” They’ll simply read your work, and they’ll know.

Not everyone will like your voice, not everyone will define it the same way, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you keep writing and keep pushing toward stories and storytelling that you want to hear. That’s how you’ll find your voice.

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