Voice is an odd concept. It’s elusive, slippery, hard to hold between two firm hands and define. It’s even harder to describe. Yet for scriptwriters, it’s everywhere. It’s tossed about in blog posts, praised (or condemned) in film reviews and loosely referred to in interviews. Voice is clearly a determining factor in every writer’s style, something that can make or break you, but… what is it?
Going back to basics, voice doesn’t refer to our actual spoken voices. It’s more of a metaphor to represent our individual style and tone as a writer. It’s something distinctive that no amount of mimicking or studying can truly replicate. Voice is your own distinctive personality that shows up through your writing – it could be inherent, it’s definitely environmental and purely exclusive. Put it this way, if you gave three writers the same plot device, the same character and antagonist and told them to write out the same idea, three very different stories would still emerge. Be it vocab choice, technical prowess, sentence structure or dialogue, those three voices would differ to the point of opposition.
This is because everyone’s voice is different. The following are steps to develop your voice.
1. Be Honest and Experiment
Honesty is an important factor. I don’t mean that everything you write should be honest to the point of memoir nonfiction, but you should write from experience. If you tap into your own emotions for fictional situations, your writing will be powerful- it usually is when a writer’s experience filters through, it’s noticeable in the quality. Even if it’s just a sentiment that you empathise with your protagonist because you’ve experienced it, the reader will sense the power behind your words and feel the punch it packs. Your imagination will fill in the rest of the gaps for you.
2. Know Thyself
This goes hand in hand with the whole honesty thing. If you want a distinctive voice, you need to know what you care about. You must take note of how you notice the world, your own perspective, your own beliefs about things you might not even have thought about noticing before. What is your take on religion? Or death? How do you think people experience betrayal? How would you experience betrayal? Thinking about your own reactions to situations that don’t arise in everyday life will help you develop your voice.
Your voice will be most distinctive when you’re writing about something that fires you up. Take Gillian Flynn, for example, writer of Gone Girl and its film adaptation. Her infamous cool girl description, which she admitted to writing as part of an exercise to clear her thoughts, was something that came from within and poured out of her in a moment of deep reflection. She developed her voice by writing what she truly felt, what she knew.
The actual passage goes a little something like this:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding.
Flynn’s voice focusses on the darker aspects of humanity through a very casual, conversational style which is at once readable and thrilling.
3. Be Inspired by writers
It’s okay to mimic your favourite writers’ style because you love their voice. Chances are, you like them so much because you share certain aspects of voice. This is an excellent way to outgrow a certain style and create your own distinctive voice, by moving beyond what you loved about them.
Write out a passage of someone you love, try to understand the dynamics of that sentence. Is it the structure, the length, the vocab choice? All those things? Analyse and maybe write something that is similar in tone and voice. Frank Darabont, for example, loved horror when he was younger – inspired of course, by Stephen King, and this shared passion helped him develop his own voice in drama.
His love of the author’s work was a defining turnstile when it came to voice, as he went on to adapt Stephen King’s short story into the Shawshank Redemption. He even broke the golden rule of show, don’t tell by using Red to narrate. This technique was a driving force of the story, and a real defining mark of Darabont’s writing voice.
I must admit I didn’t think much of
Andy first time I laid eyes on him.
He might’a been important on the
outside, but in here he was just a
little turd in prison grays. Looked
like a stiff breeze could blow him
over. That was my first impression
of the man.
What say, Red?
Little fella on the end. Definitely.
I stake half a pack. Any takers?
Darabont’s voice, portrayed through the characters is immensely rich and distinctive– it takes talent to write like this, and a unique voice to portray something so realistically.
4. Voice through Collaboration
Collaborating is not everyone’s cup of tea. Especially if you’re shy or self-conscious about your work. But it is true that collaboration is a fast-track ticket to developing your own voice, in more ways than one. First, you use your real voice to agree, disagree, voice your thoughts so that all in all, you become a more critically aware writer. You end up knowing what you like, what works for you and what doesn’t.
Even if you’re two writers with two very different voices and you end up clashing, the process will still have been positive. At least now you have a more defined awareness of your voice, whereas before you might not have been able to pinpoint it. Besides, if you know your writing partner well, and there is a certain degree of trust between the two of you, then harsh criticism and constructive feedback can be some of the most effective solutions to developing voice.
Wes Anderson, for example, developed his unique voice and style through his collaboration partners. He wrote Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and the Royal Tenenbaums alongside actor Owen Wilson, with whom his decades-spanning friendship produced a great number of projects. After this, Anderson’s voice was further punctuated in Darjeeling Limited, blew fans away with Moonrise Kingdom, both of which he wrote alongside Roman Coppola. His latest and perhaps most popular script, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was written alongside close friend Hugo Guinness, so it’s easy to assume Anderson’s voice is forever flourishing and developing throughout this collaborative process.
The nine other guests of the hotel each observed from a respectful distance: a frail student; a fat businessman; a burly hiker with a St. Bernard; a schoolteacher with her hair in a bun; a doctor; a lawyer; an actor; and so on.
What few guests we were had quickly come to recognize one another by sight as the only living souls residing in the vast establishment — although I do not believe any acquaintance among our number had proceeded beyond the polite nods we exchanged as we passed in the Palm Court and the Arabian Baths and onboard the Colonnade Funicular. We were a very reserved group, it seemed — and, without exception, solitary.
As you can see, Anderson’s voice is delightfully debonair. It’s quirky and idealistic. Classic and polished. Some say his voice speaks five degrees beneath reality, but isn’t that what makes him so appealing?
A unique writing voice is something that makes your script stand out – it’s as natural as your own personality, rare as your own individual imprint. Voice takes time and effort to develop, but it’s something (the main thing, really) that your readers, viewers and future fans will learn to recognise. To familiarise themselves with. And to crave.
Elena Alston is a freelance writer and editor based in London. She writes about technology, screenwriting, culture and travel–and has a knack for bringing brands to life with words. There are two things she can’t live without: books and the sea. Not necessarily in that order.