The screenwriting and writing itself is for the artist to do; there are no rules, no magic recipes to apply, no golden ticket. But all good screenwriting and writing has a distinct voice. Why read one columnist over another in the Sunday Times? It almost always comes down to that writer’s original voice. The way two or more writers would describe the same element in a script might be quite different, yet they all could accomplish the writing objective with equal quality.
“Words are the voice of the heart.” - Confucious
There is no better way to put it. Your voice, simply put, is you: it’s your scent, your soul, the abstract elixir of your core. As a screenwriter, it’s the way you describe the action, it’s your style and word choice, it’s the pulse of the page, it’s rhythm, and just as important, it’s also the decisions you make to grab the reader’s attention and connect with the audience. It’s the execution of the well rehearsed yet original dance you have with the audience as you lead them to become active participants in the story.
Your voice is all of this, but the one thing it’s not is dialogue. Your characters own that. Each character must have his or her own distinct way of speaking - cadence, dialect, accent, vocabulary, etc. - and although each character’s dialogue is created and developed by you, it manifests from a very different place, and, if done properly, it comes from a separate person entirely - the character him/herself.
In this section, you will learn tricks of the trade to help establish and maintain a strong audience connection. You will learn how to sell the future of the story through the use of advertising, you will be able to apply multiple plants and payoff to your script, you will learn to use scenes of preparation and aftermath to maximize audience involvement, you’ll begin to see how tension, mystery, and suspense can all dictate a reader to hope and fear and reach conclusions (right or wrong), you’ll digest how delaying information or using a reversal can affect your reader, and you’ll learn techniques that can help in developing atmosphere, style, and rhythm in your screenwriting.
But your voice itself, the writer’s voice, cannot be taught; it can’t be forced. It develops over time, and like anything, if you want to do it well, it demands practice... so do it. Just write.
A hidden connection is stronger than an obvious one. - Heraclitus of Ephesus
Connecting with the audience. This is paramount. If the audience isn’t invested with the story, if it doesn’t care about the characters, if it’s not intimately involved, anticipating, reaching conclusions, and adding it up... well, then you’re in trouble, riding a sinking ship.
Understanding your audience is essential. All good writers (reporters, cartoonists, novelists, and the like) craft their work with the audience in mind. Even Shakespeare wrote to an audience - from the poor, illiterate goundlings to the privileged lords and gentlemen of high society - and he used an array of devices to connect and involve that wide audience with his plays.
This is your job as well: to learn and master specific tools of the trade that help to create connections with your audience and make them active participants, not simply static observers. The audience is your customer, and you must write to that customer - Always!
And why? Because even though a screenwriter may not be rewarded with Pulitzers, he can earn comfortable sums of money. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get paid. But the screenwriter who ignores the audience will struggle to find sellable success. We don’t make movies for one person. We make them for the masses, the many, the mob - sometimes the general universal audience and sometimes a specific one - but in the end, without the audience, there is nothing: no film, no script, no screenwriter.
It's helpful to think of screenwriting as a triangle: the writer, the subject, and the audience. No one goes to see a rom-com to be surprised. The audience has an firm expectation that everything works out in the end. The fun is in the journey to that end. Imagine Shrek or Toy Story without the writers considering both kids and their parents - not the same films. When you write with the audience in mind, you'll find it easier to determine how and when to reveal things, when to cut scenes, where to start a scene and how to get out early.
Remember, making movies is a business and screenwriting is a key part of that business. As a screenwriter, you are selling a story to an audience. They are your everything. You write for them - so they can laugh, cry, hope, and fear. But don’t force-feed; your audience is smart. Never just tell the story. You must show, so your audience gets connected and involved. Let them add up two plus two, because when you do, they love you for it.
Insist upon yourself. Be original. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
When it comes to screenwriting, you don’t necessarily need an original idea to be successful. How many times have we seen Romeo and Juliet? Hundreds? Thousands? It’s a simple story really. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. They come from opposite sides of the tracks. Families hate each other. But despite everything, they fall in love. Now Shakespeare takes them to a tragic end. But there’s no rule that you have to. And if you’re writing a romantic comedy, you sure as hell better end with something happy. The audience demands it. We know exactly how a rom-com is going to end before we sit down. The journey to get us there is the fun part.
It’s wonderful if you do have an original idea, a plot we’ve never seen before - hold onto it like a Wonka’s golden ticket - but if you want to be a working screenwriter, don’t feel as if you must reinvent the wheel. It’s okay to rip-off a plot we’ve seen before, but the way you disguise it from it’s forefather is key. Avatar was Dances with Wolves in Space, and Dances with Wolves was Pocahontas on the Western Frontier... and so it goes.
The trick is to change the world while incorporating remarkable and unforgettable characters: Romeo and Juliet as divorced ex-starship trooper marines working for competing deep sea oil companies on a new mineral rich planet, living within an underwater city at the bottom of the deepest ocean in the known universe. Same story... different everything else. Your originality comes in the everything else. To say James Cameron is not original is laughable, but to say Avatar was an original story is arguable.
When it comes to three act structure, sequences, and major plot points - all key ingredients to a successful script - again, originality is not a primary concern. If fact, it is quite the opposite. Almost every drama is about two hours: 30 pages for Act I, the next 60 for Act II, and the last 30 for Act III. Most comedies are about 90 minutes: 24 pages for Act I, the next 48 for Act II, and the final 24 for Act III. There is nothing original about that. Can you image every novel locking it’s protagonist into a predicament between pages 24 and 30? The novelist has freedom to go anywhere, do anything, at anytime. The screenwriter, conversely, has an expected structure with sequences and plot points: inciting incident, lock-in, mid-point, main culmination, third act twist... and so on. There is not much originality when it comes to the rough carpentry of building a screenplay.
But despite all this, originality within the screenwriter’s voice is paramount. If you’ve done your homework, you know your characters so deeply that they’ll begin to write themselves. You just put them in the right situations so that they can interact, but the way you describe the action within each scene becomes your personal canvas. And you must paint - being clear, concise, and creative - with an original stroke. Word choice, rhythm, the stylized use of fragments, sounds, and sentence flow - that’s all part of it.
Two or more writers could be given the exact same non-dialogue scene assignment with detailed direction as to what must occur, but the voice of each writer should ring different. Same story; different execution. Remember, you’re no robot, so don’t write like one. It’s your voice. Your stamp. Your brand. Make it original.