The Screenwriter’s Voice: part one

Possibly the hardest thing for a screenwriter is learning how to handle the words on the page. Not the dialogue: we all know how people speak, in movies and in real life. Not even the layout and formatting rules: we can learn those.

Not, the tricky bit is learning how to actually describe the action of the movie in a way that not makes sense on the page, but accurately, excitingly conveys something that’s going to be seen and acted to a tired, over-worked reader skimming though a pile of scripts.

It’s the equivalent of a novelist learning how to write elegant, evocative prose. But anyone who has any desire to be a novelist has read novels. Few film fans ever go as far as to read screenplays, not until they actually decide they want to write movies.

So, step one is obvious: read every screenplay you can, old and new, successful and unsuccessful.

And one of the things you’ll notice is – every screenwriter has their own voice.

Which makes sense, of course. If you gave the same plot to John le Carre and to Helen Fielding, you’d expect the feel, the tone, the style of the finished piece to be very different. It’s the same with screenwriters. Compare this snippet of Lethal Weapon, by Shane Black –

Okay. Okay. Let’s stop for a moment. First off, to describe fully the mayhem which Riggs now creates would not do it justice. Here, however, are a few pointers:  He is not flashy. He is not Chuck Norris. Rather, he is like a sledgehammer hitting an egg. He does not knock people down. He does not injure them.

He simply kills them. The whole room. Everyone standing.

To this, the very first words of The Bourne Ultimatum by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, and George Nolfi:



MOTION — flat out — it’s us — we’re running – stumbling — breathing rushed — blood in the snow…

We are JASON BOURNE and we’re running down an alley…

Supered below:   MOSCOW

BLUE LIGHTS — from the distance — strobing through the night — rushing toward us — POLICE CARS — three of them –

– SIRENS HOWLING as they bear down — closer — faster — until they whip past the alley…

Up against the wall — BOURNE is hidden in the shadows.


Pretty different, huh?

Developing a distinctive voice is important to a screenwriter for several reasons.

It will mark you out from the crowd.  Think back to that script reader trawling through submissions, looking for the one that’s going to make their career. They’ve been reading flat, workmanlike, even awkward, prose all day. Give them something that amuses them, or gets their pulse racing, and you’re already ahead of the competition.

It shows professional confidence. You’re not slavishly copying what you read in a screenwriting manual, or ripping off your favourite writer. You have the confidence to do things your own way. On a related note:

It shows experience.  It takes a little time to develop your own style, and that suggests you’ve written a few screenplays, and learned lessons from them. You’re someone who’s taken time to learn their craft, and who takes their profession seriously.

It shows an understanding of genre and tone.  A comedy screenplay that actually gets the reader laughing (harder than you’d think!), a horror screenplay that sets the reader’s heart racing. These say that you know your genre, and you’re using all the weapons at your disposal to create the desired effect. Even the actual words on the page, which the audience will never know.

So, if I’ve convinced you that an authorial voice is a good thing, come back in a few days for my next post, and we’ll talk about how you can develop one…

Irony in Character

Many simple narratives, such as Lethal Weapon, take two characters with entirely different, opposing views and qualities and pair them up to create fireworks.  However, we can do better than that.  What if we combine those opposing qualities into one character?  Then we have internal conflict – and character irony.

Many of the most memorable characters have a deep vein of irony at their core.  This is a technique that comic book writers have been using for the best part of a century to create instantly recognizable characters with clear characteristics, who’ll stand out in the convoluted, soapy plotlines of a long-running story.

So, Superman, protector of the human race, is in fact an alien who feels emotionally distanced from humanity.  Batman is the face of justice who also happens to be borderline psychotic – and just for good measure, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate ‘poor little rich kid’, the man who has everything in the world except the one thing he needs, his tragically deceased parents.

You could write entire essays on the use of irony in The New X-Men.  HankBeast” McCoy, the sophisticated, erudite intellectual trapped in the body of a hairy ape.  Charles Xavier, a telepath so powerful that he can make contact with telepaths on other planets, yet has been confined to a wheelchair for much of his adult life.  And, perhaps one of the cruelest – and most realistic – ironies in fiction, Erik “Magneto” Lensherr, the concentration camp survivor who ends up embracing a policy of genetic purity and superiority that would have made Hitler proud.

So next time you’re thinking about using two opposing characters to illustrate the theme of your narrative, ask yourself – could I combine those opposing ideas into one character instead?