Let’s talk voice.
If you have been writing for any amount of time, and doing any amount of research the chances are high that you’ve come across the term, ‘voice’ or ‘voices’. There are lots of things about having a unique voice in the industry – the abstract ‘voice’ – and making sure your voice doesn’t get in the way of the story – the more concrete ‘voice’.
It’s weird. Hell, I’ve written the word, ‘voice,’ multiple times already and I’m already at that point where it stops looking like a real word at all. It’s only my second paragraph.
The truth of the matter is that your writing will reflect you as a person; sometimes your voice will be so unique it becomes a character unto itself, and a signature that follows you in your writing career.
So let’s break it down, and then look at some super unique voices that you probably know and love from movies and television.
Nota Bene! This is not talking about any particular character’s “tone of voice,” whether they’re high pitched, breathy, sexy, raspy. That’s neither here nor there. This is about your voice as a writer and author.
Your voice on the page.
Your unique voice in your writing is your calling card and signature. This is something that’s both a blessing and a curse for a lot of writers; the fear of getting trapped in a genre corner is real. If you prove you’re exceptional at writing action, you may never get to write emotionally tense dramas or slapstick comedies (at least for money in the industry)). Sure you may have a few different screenplays under your belt but if you’re looking for representation, you try to emphasize your strengths repeatedly over multiple works — while still being unique and bringing new stuff to the table with each piece. (A hard bar to clear.)
While it seems like your voice is just a natural extension of yourself, in fact, the opposite is true in many ways. Sure, your unique voice will come out in your writing, but you also must practice it and hone it. This a really difficult line to walk. Your voice should be the easiest part, right? Your specific, distinct ‘you-ness’ shouldn’t be tampered with.
For example, I know I’m really good at dialogue but that doesn’t mean I can just sit back whenever a dialogue-heavy scene comes around, close my eyes, and let it flow. If anything knowing I’m good at it naturally means I have to be extra careful not to get carried away with it. Maybe I want a scene to go on a couple of pages longer than necessary so I can get a few more really good lines in, but that might not benefit the story. Knowing I’m good at dialogue means that I also need to be good at bringing dialogue to the right finishing spot.
Are you good at setting the scene? Fantasy creations? Writing intense arguments between your characters? These are important aspects of your voice. Instead of falling back on these, you have to do everything you can to make sure the rest of the writing enhances it.
Your voice in the industry.
Your presence in the industry, especially with the rise of social media, is going to be a big part of your image and voice. Are you advocating for social justice a lot? I think that’s great, but some exec may see that as a reason to pass on you as a creator. This is the quintessential blessing and curse scenario. If you’re losing work because of your political affiliations or something comparable (like being vocal about your gender, sexuality, or race; which is just existing but is thought of as political), you’re losing work. But do you really want to be working with someone who clearly has such a differing viewpoint that they won’t hire you in the first place? That’s a recipe for disaster.
Your voice also comes out in what you chose to write. John Singleton, the creator of Boyz in the Hood, made a point in that film of writing about his life and experiences as a black man. He was determined to make his film and is the youngest person to get an Oscar nomination for Directing. If he hadn’t stayed true to his voice, that might have never happened.
Now, let’s talk about…
Two famous voices in film land!
Everything Joss Whedon does is tinted with his signature sharp wit and snappy comebacks. Colloquially called Joss-isms or Whedon-isms, the director and writer’s use of language is exceptionally unique. His voice is present in everything he has had a hand in writing. From the first Toy Story to Buffy to Firefly to two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Avengers films. Joss has the range and the zippy repartee that most dialogue writers would love to emulate.
At the same time, his voice is so ever-present in his works that it can take away from the story. Personally I hated the way Whedon treated some of the characters in the Avengers movies, and I thought Ultron was completely ridiculous as a villain. Ultron’s weird speeches and completely inane ideology fell flat, and a lot of it had to do with Joss’s voice getting in the way.
Age of Ultron sucked.
The ensemble banter that made the first Avengers movie so fun was there, but it didn’t make sense. The characters had grown, but Whedon shoehorned them into weird little tropes that had set rules for their dialogue. Ultimately his voice made the movie a flop. Captain America the goody-two-shoes and Black Widow as the tortured femme fatale trashes all their character growth from Winter Soldier. I’m still mad about it. The characters had changed, but Joss hadn’t.
Joss writes witty chats. But his voice can stifle a lot of character development. I’ve complained/mentioned Whedon before in my tropes article, so maybe it sounds like I hate him. I don’t really. He’s just got a voice that has a time and a place and sometimes it just doesn’t match up with what is needed for a story.
(Also, he’s kind of misogynistic for someone who’s brand is so “girl power” so that’s hard to swallow. Not uncommon in this industry, but still lame)
Hannibal, created by Bryan Fuller
This show is the main reason I wanted to write this piece. It’s an objectively good show. The voice of this show is so incredibly unique and clear and precise that you could probably teach semester-long writing classes on it alone.
And every single line of dialogue, every single scene makes me want tear my hair out.
No one talks like that! No one! I hate it, I want to strangle the actors and just beg them to speak in normal sentences. Not because I don’t understand it, but because it’s just so weird and unsettling.
And that’s the point.
I may not like it, but I’m not above admitting that it’s effective as hell. The weird dialogue and speech patterns are so twisty, convoluted, and metaphorical that it lends itself to the haunting and creepy situations on the screen (which are also a unique show of voice, the murders are terrifying and new). Obviously the show is a little bit pretentious, and all the characters are highly educated, some of them bordering on effete, but it works. There is a distance created by the dialogue that keeps it from being just a gory slasher tv show; art and metaphor both remove and enhance the horror. It’s really rad.
I remember hearing, “This is my design,” and hating it. But I remember it. It’s iconic to the television show and it works; talking about murder as something artistic and abstract is creepy. The show is creepy. The tone and dialogue are a perfect match. The parallel between the mesmerizing dialogue and intellectual serial killing is bizarre and gripping.
It’s well done. I hate it, but it’s so well done.
So where does that leave us?
Where does that leave you? The writer trying to make it in Hollywood? Do you make your voice so quippy or convoluted that it becomes your signature?
Yes and no.
Readers, agents, and managers look for writing that speaks to them above all else. You’re not Joss Whedon or Bryan Fuller. Sure, you could try to emulate them or learn from their styles but that will only get you so far. Your voice has to come first, even if you don’t know what your voice is yet. Hell, I don’t know what my voice is. All the notes on my writing are, “great dialogue,” but that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things.
Ultimately, stay true to yourself. That’s the best way to let your voice shine.
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