Finding Your Voice
When writing a screenplay, don’t underestimate your voice as a writer.
My first spec script, which broke me into the business, was not a typical screenplay by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it was a dark, sloppy mess of a script. It had a few crucial things, however, going for it:
1.) It had memorable characters that jumped off the page.
2.) It had quotable dialogue.
3.) It was laugh-out-loud funny.
4.) It was different from most of the other comedy specs going around town at the time.
5.) It had a voice.
In fact, the script wasn’t written with any hope of getting sold. It was written as a lark. Nothing more. I never went to film school. If I had a film school, it was Netflix. I was in my early 20s and never even thought of screenwriting as a viable occupation. That’s not to say I wasn’t an aspiring writer. Living on the East Coast, I equated “writing” with “novelist”. As such, I had a couple unpublished novels under my belt. The publishing industry seemed impenetrable, so I assumed Hollywood would be even harder to break into.
Just the same, an idea for a screenplay popped into my head and I couldn’t shake it. One day, I told a friend—also a writer—about the idea and he thought it was pretty funny. Together, we wrote a very rough draft. It was like 80 pages and not even formatted properly, but it had the essence of what eventually became the finished script. We flirted with shooting the film ourselves with some friends, but we couldn’t get them interested. It was a funny screenplay, but what are you going to do? It was too dark and anarchistic for Hollywood.
Oh well. Back to writing my novels.
Jump a few years and a few unpublished novels later.
My rejection letters were getting more detailed and encouraging. The last book I had written had a gimmicky title and its query letter proved to be quite popular. I was finally getting some bites from major publishing houses and literary agencies. Everyone passed on the book, however, and nothing came of it. Although, there was one thing: A few editors had told me they really loved my writing. They said it was laugh-out-loud funny and I had “a voice”. This was the first time I heard the term: a voice.
I guess it’s sort of sardonic. I’m not an academic; I just know people were starting to tell me I had a voice. Around this time, my friends would read my novels and praise my characters and dialogue, but they also criticized my prose and overall narrative (it’d take me a few more years to develop a firm grasp on storytelling). They suggested I try writing screenplays rather than novels. Between this opinion and the response I got from publishing houses, I decided to reappraise that old script I co-wrote with my friend. It was still funny. Maybe I should send it out to a few agents …
A few weeks later, we’d have a senior agent at a major agency.
The screenplay became a calling card for me and my friend (who was now my official writing partner).
Not everyone loved the script, but it definitely made an impression. Most importantly, the right people did love it. Many directors told me it was the funniest screenplay they had ever read, and one movie star told me the script was like hearing Appetite for Destruction for the first time. It was rock ‘n’ roll. It was dangerous. It didn’t play by the rules.
There were many factors why the script took off and sold for seven figures: strong role for an actor, memorable dialogue, etc. There was also an X-Factor, and I believe the X-Factor to be the voice. The protagonist had a distinct voice, but it was also in the writing itself. It was in the description, the imagery … even the parentheses had personality. It’s the type of writing that only comes from two guys who love the craft and enjoy making each other laugh. Again, we didn’t write it thinking it’d sell.
This is all important because, unless you’re related to or friends with the right people, the odds are stacked against you. I know many people who keep thinking all they need to do is follow a specific formula, copy the films that are currently popular at the box office, and that’s it. Presto! They’ll have a million-dollar payday! Well, Hollywood already has its people writing those movies. They don’t need outsiders. And you better believe the only reason they would ever let an outsider in is because that person has something they don’t already have. You’ve got to be special. Unique.
Think of the screenwriters who have made a name for themselves. Diablo Cody has a voice, and that’s why Juno sold and got her an Oscar®. It’s most pronounced in her dialogue. Quentin Tarantino has a voice. Vince Gilligan has a voice. Damien Chazelle has a voice. Whether you like any of these writers or not, there’s no denying they have a distinct style and worldview that informs their characters and storytelling.
In the early stage of your writing, it’s best to develop a voice. With less original projects getting made in the film business, it’s less likely you’ll sell a script based on the concept alone (with perhaps the exception of a low-budget thriller). Most likely your spec will be an audition for assignment jobs, and in this regard you’ll want to show that you can apply a fresh take and personality to an existing property. More and more these days, studios are hiring indie filmmakers to handle their tentpoles. They have to keep finding new ways into these established worlds and characters. The job of a screenwriter will be to add color rather than to create a story from scratch. Because of this, it’s more important than ever to have a distinct voice as a writer. It’ll be more about “how” something is told as opposed to “what” is told.
Before writing your spec, you should ask yourself the following questions: “What makes me unique?” “What are my strengths?” “How can I bring the reality of my life to my writing?”
When you start answering these questions and apply them to your writing, you might discover your voice.
Edwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.