Print

Voice Matters: Developing Your Voice As A New Screenwriter

Voice Matters

By Angel Orona

 

“EXT. POSH BEVERLY HILLS HOME – TWILIGHT

The kind of house that I’ll buy if this movie is a huge hit.”

The above is now legendary stage direction for 22-year-old’s Shane Black’s first screenplay “Lethal Weapon”, which became a monster hit in 1987 and would go on to spawn several sequels.  He was paid a quarter of a million dollars, and it would kick off a screenwriting (and eventually directing) career that many a Hollywood wordsmiths would kill to have...Myself included.

Being of a certain age, I remember all this quite well.  It was a huge inspiration in fueling my own screenwriting aspirations, despite being only in my mid-teens at the time. 

It was also the first time I would be introduced to what is a screenwriter’s “voice”.

If you’ve seen any of Black’s numerous action movies over the years you know that his films are just as well known for their sharp, witty dialogue as they are for his explosive, camera-ready action-driven set pieces.  If you’re read any of his scripts (and if you’re aspiring towards the action genre then it is a must!)  you know his humorous nature carries over into his stage direction as well.  Keep in mind that none of these amusing asides will make it into the completed feature film.  The only people seeing them are those involved in developing and producing the film, but they give the script some flair that makes it stand out, and more importantly, it makes the experience of reading the script immersive and memorable.

And this is why it’s so important to develop your own voice as a writer.

Over the years I have supplemented my screenwriter career by working as a story analyst, and I’ve read hundreds of scripts.  It’s not the easiest of jobs because so many screenplays are written (admittedly by neophytes) in a flat, lifeless manner.  There’s no passion, no energy, no heart to it; in summary, no voice.  The truth of the matter is that even the most generic script could be transformed into something fresh and exciting.  Let’s briefly go back to “Lethal Weapon” for a moment.  I love both the film (and most of its sequels) and Shane Black very much.  If I too, however, am a little more critical of the movie’s plot I could readily say that the movie itself doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel.  It all breaks down to being the story of a pair of mismatched cops battling a drug dealer and his henchmen.  It’s Black’s quirky mindset and insight that helps transform it into an action classic with classic dialogue and memorable characters.  (The terrible, recent TV series reboot clearly showed what happens when you fail to bring a fresh, distinctive voice to the party.  The result is bland pablum that looks like every other generic cop show over the past thirty years.)

If what I wrote above may make me seem like a Debbie Downer, then take heart, because you can bring your own voice to your material...And the best part is that its unique and original because no one else has it.  This is your voice and if you embed it deep enough into your screenplays then there could come a time where an exec recognizes your work without even reading the title page.  I must tell you that it won’t be easy, but as you grow more comfortable and relaxed in your writing, the easier your voice will develop and instinctively help shape your written words.

Let’s go back to me for a few minutes...Because what writer doesn’t love talking about themselves, especially when there are important lessons to be learned by their failures?

The first few scripts I wrote after “Lethal Weapon” attempted Black’s same smart-alecky tone.  Now I can fill a stadium with people who will sign a notary confirming that I am as much of a smartass as they come.  The issue was that I wasn’t writing as myself, but I was trying to emulate Black.  It wasn’t long before frustration and dissatisfaction overcame me.  I wasn’t a screenwriter.  I was a hack.  Hollywood is probably the only industry where you could likely enjoy a successful career as one.  The problem was (and still is) I had too much integrity to just be a hack or a copycat.  I wanted people to make my movies because they were My creations, written in My own voice.

Now I just needed to figure out how the hell I was going to do that.