The Screenwriter’s Voice: Part Two

We know what a screenwriter’s voice is now: their style, their tone, their personal outlook on the world of their story, condensed into the prose of their scripts. Next question is: how do you develop one? Well, you can ask yourself a few questions…

What’s your brand? Hollywood screenwriter Doug Eboch has an excellent blog post on what branding means to a screenwriter, and how to use it, here

Branding is what puts your name at the top of the list for a particular genre (and yes, there are lists!) Branding is what separates you from all the other writers who can write in your genre.

Your voice contributes enormously to the perception of your brand, and you need to think about how the way you write relates to the person you are. Are you witty? Precise? Apparently chaotic, or laser-focused? Laddish and matey, or formal? This is why imitating someone else’s voice won’t get you anywhere. There’s no point in your work being a shallow ripoff of Shane Black or Aaron Sorkin if it doesn’t match you.

What’s your genre?  If your voice is hilariously funny, but you write tragic family melodramas, you can guarantee anyone reading them will misinterpret your intentions. If you write horror or thrillers, your voice had better be fast-paced and able to create tension. If your work is slow-build character pieces, you need to be able to conjure up a world of internal emotion in a sentence or two. Develop a voice that reinforces the world you want to create.

Your voice, or your character’s? This is something of a delicate balancing act. If, say, your story world is drily funny and your hero is sarcastic and snappy, then your prose voice should reflect that to an extent. But if your voice is exactly the same as your central character’s dialogue voice, their individuality may disappear into a generalised sea of snark. Whatever your voice, your characters must still stand out as individuals, recognisably part of your world but not inseparable from it.

Shorter is better.  A novelist can afford to develop a voice that rambles, that goes off in random directions, that luxuriates in complex words and rich description. A screenwriter can’t. Even if you make a point of your work being erudite and grammatically rich, it still has to get the job done quickly and efficiently.

Don’t get too hung up on it.  Which seems like a contradictory thing to say, after two posts on the subject, but in the end, voice isn’t the thing you’re selling. It’s a sign of professionalism and an indicator of talent, but it’s a bonus feature, not the main attraction. If the story you’re telling is intriguing and emotionally compelling, you can pretty much forget all about voice.

But then, if the story you’re telling is intriguing and emotionally compelling, you’ll probably find you develop a voice to tell it in anyway…

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…