Monday, July 2, 2012

What is "Voice?"

"Voice" is one of those things that readers, managers, agents and executives all say that they're looking for in a script.  Unfortunately, when pressed to explain exactly what that means, the trouble in defining such an ephemeral quality becomes difficult.

But having made it a little more than halfway through my pilot viewings, I think I can make a stab at explaining this.  To a certain degree, voice probably is one of those "you know it when you see it" kind of things.  I can't tell you how to write in your voice, it's just something you're going to DO on your own.  Still recognizing voice is probably a good first step in defining your own voice.

I'll have more to say about this in the coming months, but despite a number of strong pilots this season, there are plenty that fell short of my expectations, weren't really for me, or were simply terrible by any standard.  Among the ones that didn't work, lack of a strong voice was a common flaw.  Particularly in comedies, I saw a lot of writers who failed to develop and express their ideas in an original way.  There was a lot of imitation, not just in plot and concept, but in overall expression.

That's a problem, people.

Too many comedies had a forced "quirky, wacky" tone to them.  Sometimes this took the form of a male protagonist clearly trying to channel Matthew Perry's "Chander" delivery.  Other times I could feel the writers straining to depict the elastic reality that defined Arrested Development or Scrubs.  Yet in these new entries, those elements felt unnatural.  It was like watching a wedding band try to rock out to Queen.  They play the notes, but there's no authenticity to them.

I briefly wondered if the problem was me, that I had simply tired of that style of comedy.  Then I watched The Mindy Project, written by Mindy Kaling.  In a lot of ways, it nailed the comedic tone that so many other shows failed at.  Kaling's had years to develop her voice and you could feel the comfort she has with the material.  The show isn't going to spawn a new era of comedy but it establishes a world, finds a tone that compliments that world and matches it with a heroine completely suited to that style.

So how can you develop your voice?  Write.  You're not going to find it on your first script, maybe even not on your second or third, but you'll get there eventually.  Your writing will likely start off with imitation of the sorts of things you like.  It's okay if your style is eventually similar to other writers out there.  What's important is that you find what you do well because that will sharpen your point of view and focus your writing that much more.

My first screenplay was a mystery-thriller that owed a lot to the pacing and style of Law & Order and Homicide, two of my favorite shows at the time.  My second script was sort of a self-aware romantic comedy, which made use of a lot of the meta-humor that defines Kevin Williamson's work.

My third script, however, came out of the idea to take my love of comic book superheroes and treat the criminal proceedings in their world with all the seriousness of Law & Order's courtroom shenanigans.  There was imitation there, but it was synthesized into something new by merging two genres I knew inside and out, with some of the self-aware conventions I picked up from Williamson and Whedon.  I reread it a while back and it clearly would need a major rewrite before I showed it to anyone, yet I think that was an important hurdle to cross.  I found I had something to say about two different genres I loved by putting them together and using that to deconstruct them.

You might say that's what Quentin Tarantino does.  So many of his movies feel like mash-ups of genres, concepts and other movies that he loves.  He steals from everything, but in doing that, he changes it in a way that makes it feel fresh and unique.  Even if the ground he covers is well-trod, it feels fresh.  THAT is Tarantino's voice.

It's funny that as I look at the scripts I've written since then, there's a strong element of deconstruction in at least two of them, even if they couldn't be more different in terms of concept and subject matter.  At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if someone detected a Joss Whedon influence on my writing, but I hope it's executed in a way that feels authentic to my passions rather than just me doing what Joss does because it sells.

It's strange because my writing is this weird contrast of stories like that and then character-driven stories that are all about exploring how particular people cope with extraordinary circumstances.  It was weird to go through my Dead Idea folder a while back and come across a concept that was very much in the same ballpark as the much-missed series Life Unexpected.  And this was an idea I had back in 2004!

The thing is, I only recognize these patterns in hindsight.  When I started writing, I just had these stories I wanted to tell and these ideas I thought were cool.  Eventually I developed that, getting past "imitation" and eventually writing like "me," not "me doing my best Kevin Williamson impression."  So my best advice to those of you attempting the same would be to keep writing new things.  Each script brings you closer to discovering your own voice.


  1. I find this a lot with the writers I deal with too - the new kids want desperately to sound like their current favourite thing in much the same way a garage band will jut pick their shared favourite band and write songs that sound like that. The kids also have the impatience of youth flare up badly when told that developing their own Voice is going to take time. 'Time? But... that's, like... years!'

    What I usually find is that it's very hard to get a sense of your own Voice simply because you're too close to it. Other people commenting on your work is what helps you build up a sense of how the Voice sounds - you'll have some ideas of your own, but there may be influences and elements so subconscious you're not even aware of them, and it'll take someone on the outside pointing out 'you know, your girl characters as always so Whedon' for you to go 'hmm... maybe so, padawan. Maybe so.'

    I also believe - and I do get stick for this - that some writers will never develop a Voice. They're only ever going to write stuff that sounds like somebody else - a covers band of the script world. Not that there's anything wrong with that [/seinfeld]...

  2. My first couple of scripts were... imitations of my favorite movies at the time. They weren't bad, but they clearly weren't in my voice. Just me trying to sound like more successful writers.

    I found the more I wrote, the more comfortable I got, and as a result my voice started to develop. I look back over this earlier scripts and I have a hard believing it written by me.

    It's amazing what experience will do for you.

  3. Are voice and style different. I've been told that I have both. Are they the same thing?

    Yes. It def takes time to develop. I'm still trying to better my voice with every script. It's gets easier.

  4. It's funny...people talk about voice so much, yet have trouble defining it.

    To me, it's a combination of your style and your point of view/take on the world. But it's also tone, theme and the stories you choose to explore. Kind of like your "writing personality."

  5. Would we say 'voice' is something that applies more to dialogue, then? Action/direction too maybe?

    1. While dialogue is probably the easiest place to spot it (see that Sorkinisms video as one example), I feel that tone and subject matter have a lot to do with it. Look at guys like David Simon, J.J. Abrams and Larry David and see what they bring to successive projects beyond dialogue.

  6. 500 Days of Summer had a really distinct voice. I remember reading something in the script along the lines of "This is the montage where our character gets his shit together... maybe" prior to the act three finale. These kind of phrases were peppered throughout the script, and weren't just cutesy unfilmables. The writer's voice was the way the love story was structured.

    Great post!

  7. It's hard to say whether a produced show fails because of the writer or because of the many, many note-givers who are part of the process. The "unnatural" elements may have been foisted upon the writers by execs who were trying to copy the formula another hit show.