For just over the last year, I’ve worked in the world of academia in the film department while also still being in the film industry. At times it feels like I’m back in school earning my film degree. A big part of that is because I’m surrounded by students. Every now and then they teach me something about screenwriting and filmmaking that turns my world upside down.
A few weeks ago, one of our student workers asked me about my process, and we discussed “voice”—a writer’s voice. As screenwriters, we’re told from early on that we need to have a clear voice. The idea of the writer’s voice is akin to being our brand. I, myself, felt I had a clear and clever description of my voice—“I write YA dramedies, not tragedies.” A slight reference to my teenage years as an emo kid but also a clear description of what I write.
At least that’s what I thought.
As we continued talking, this student asked me point blank, “How did you know when your voice was developed?” In full confidence I said, “Probably about two years after grad school.” Which was about eight or so years ago. For a brief moment I was completely confident in the stories I wrote and the ideas I was passionate about.
Then, I started to go through my most recent scripts, examining how I defined my voice and began to realize I had defined it in a too simplistic way. I focused purely on the genre I was writing when I first started. It was limiting. As I pondered the question, I began to realize that while genre might have a small place in defining a writer’s voice, there are so many other aspects that add to it. The genre I had stuck myself in had little to do with my voice.
Genre was the first part of my writing identity that I could hold onto with any certainty. After three scripts, I knew I wrote coming-of-age stories. By the fifth script, I knew they were solidly in the genre of dramedy. In my second year of grad school, through an adaptation class, I was able to step outside the realm of YA. In the last five years, I’ve written dramedy and some straight drama. There was even one outlier that was a historical thriller … though light on the thriller.
However, genre is not voice—it’s a preference, not a style. I had to look at the guts of my scripts to begin to understand the identity of my voice.
Theme and Characters
My favorite part of screenwriting, and why I’ve always gravitated toward television, is the ability to spend hundreds of hours exploring theme and characters. Drop me in a world, fantastical or real, and I can spend hours delving into the dark corners of a character’s soul. When starting a new script, I love working out the minor details of my characters backstory, the things no one but me, and a potential writer’s room, will know—their favorite song, their relationship with their parents (though we may never meet them), and their most traumatic moments, all get fleshed out in pages that won’t go near the script.
Mentally, I took an inventory of my main characters and found a host of similarities. All bore the marks of some trauma, usually happening off screen prior to our story starting. They all grew up just a little too fast, and because of that, had little time to figure out their identity. Some were more confident than others, some funnier, some quieter. At their core, each of my characters were telling a coming-of-age story. Even as I moved out of YA and away from dramedy, there was this idea of finding an identity. At varying points in their lives and varying points in history, these characters were just trying to figure out who they were outside of the trauma that built them.
That’s where the theme I liked to play in started to materialize for me. Even before the most traumatic moments of my life happened, I was writing about coping with trauma and finding oneself. Looking back at each of my scripts, that has never changed. Sure, each character has different trauma. Some of it is pulled directly from my life, some I made up. They all react differently. It pains me to say, but the reality is I’m just writing stories about the human condition (though that sounds utterly pretentious and uncreative). It’s what we’re all doing, but I’m picking particular aspects of this to explain the theme of trauma and recovery.
In looking at my characters and theme, I can now see that this aspect of “my voice” carried through. There’s a throughline with my characters from where I started to today. There’s an arc with the themes I write. It’s grown but stayed the same at its core.
When I started writing, I never thought of “my style.” I bought into the idea of being moldable, adaptable. I didn’t want a reader to see the artist's hand as they read my script. But without even realizing it, I created a style all my own.
The first script I ever wrote had magical realism in it. Though, at the time, I had no idea what magical realism was. To date, only one script hasn’t had that. I know what you’re thinking—what makes magical realism in my scripts a part of my style? It’s the way I use it. That element takes shape in the story as the protagonist sub-conscious. It’s how I get my characters to deal with their trauma. Sometimes it’s an unreliable narrator, or a hero giving the wrong advice. Other times it's a ghost. Magical realism is a device that I’ve incorporated into my themes and ultimately became a part of my voice.
More so than with genres, my style has changed. When I began, I never put anything you couldn’t see on the page. Now, I’m more prosey than some would like. I crack jokes in my action/description. My scripts can also be action heavy—not in the genre sense of action but in the sense that I will write out the actions explicitly. I’ll use action for a response rather than dialogue.
Dialogue in my scripts is the most important thing. My aim is that it sounds realistic and of that world. My characters don’t sound like each other, but the dialogue has a conversational flow. They sound like real conversations, from the 1890’s Mafia pilot to the present-day pilot that’s set in the world of sports journalism. My hope is that when someone reads my pilot, they see the dialogue pop. That is one thing about “my voice” that I hope never changes. So far it hasn’t.
Every writer’s voice changes over time. The themes I explore change with what I go through. My style can change with the way the artistry of screenwriting changes, and I use the genres to help me explore the theme I’m focused on.
Though my voice changes, the changes are never enough to not see my hand in the story. If you read my first script, written a decade ago, and then read my most recent one, you would still know I wrote both. The core of my artistry is still there. The magic is there. The intentional action and purposeful dialogue are there.
Perhaps change is the wrong word. It’s not so much that our voices change but grow. Our scripts are like pictures of who we were at the time, and if you line them all up, you should see a growing and evolving voice.
*Feature photo by Ron Lach