Writing in your own voice

Marilyn script
“Hmm. Billy’s new script. Men dressing up as women to hide from gangsters? Sounds funny.”

When I’ve done script notes for writing colleagues, no matter what the genre is, I can usually tell who wrote it – because of the way it reads. Each writer has their own particular style, so each of their scripts has its own corresponding “sound”. Or I’ll get notes back on my material which often includes a comment along the lines of “this sounds like something you’d write”.

This isn’t just about dialogue. It’s about a writer’s overall style, or how they tell the story of their script. You don’t just want the reader to read your story; you want them to experience it. Which can be accomplished by adding that extra layer.

Everybody develops their own individual style, and it takes time to find it. The more you write, the more you’ll be able to hone your writing to reflect your own individuality.

Just a few things to think about:

-How does your script read? Is the writing crisp and efficient, or are you wasting valuable page real estate with too many lines of  your loquacious verbosity? Taking it one step further, do you use the same words over and over, or do you relish any opportunity to give your thesaurus a solid workout?

-How is your story set up and how does it play out? Is it simple and straightforward, or complex and full of deliciously tantalizing twists and turns? Are you working that creativeness to show us things we haven’t seen before, or is just page after page of the same ol’, same ol’?

-Is it a story somebody besides you would want to see? Just because you find the subject matter interesting doesn’t mean it has universal appeal. However, there is the counter-argument to that in which you could attempt to have your story include elements that would satisfy fans of the genre while also appealing to newcomers.

-Can’t ignore the population within the pages. Are your characters well-developed and complex, or do they come up lacking? Do we care about them, or what happens to them? Can we relate to them?

-What are your characters saying, or not saying (subtext!)? How are they saying it? Do they sound interesting or dull as dishwater? Very important – do they sound like actual people, or like “characters in a movie”?

Remember – the script is a reflection of you. A solid piece of writing shows you know what you’re doing. Offering up something sloppy is simply just sabotaging yourself.

Who hasn’t heard a variation on the line about a script being a cheap knockoff of a more established writer? While I can understand admiring a pro writer’s style, why would you attempt to copy it? It probably took them a long time to find their own voice, and by trying to write like they do, you’re denying yourself the opportunity to do the same thing for yourself.

Or to put it another way: they didn’t take any shortcuts to become the writer they are today, so why should you?

Respect your reader/audience

audience
Treat them the way you’d want to be treated

What we read on the page is what we would expect to see and hear on the screen. Pretty simple, right?

Sadly, not every writer gets it. As a result, some feel they have to explain what it is we’re seeing and hearing. Too many times I’ll read a spec script where a character does something, followed by WHY they’re doing it, or WHAT IT REALLY MEANS.

Maybe they think their writing isn’t getting the point across, so they feel the need to throw this additional info in – just to make sure you’re really getting it? It’s a practice I highly recommend not doing.

Imagine you’re reading your own script. How would you feel if there was a stop in the action to explain what just happened?

My initial thought is that this is how it’s done in books, so the writer figures they should do the same thing for a script. But I’d say that would have the opposite effect.

By laying everything out in front of us, the writer is doing themselves a disservice by not having faith in the intelligence of the reader/audience. They want your story to entertain them. People actually enjoy being able to figure stuff out and reaching their own conclusions.

Which do you think would be more effective and memorable? A script that spoon-feeds you everything, or one that makes you think and challenges you to pay attention?

Another part of this is when the writer includes WHAT A CHARACTER IS THINKING, to which I always ask “How do we know that?” Film’s a visual medium, so we can’t see what’s going on in their head (unless some kind of scene showing exactly that is actually part of the story).

One of the many jobs of the screenwriter is to show the character’s thoughts via their actions and words (or lack thereof).

(Please note the key word in that sentence – show. As in “Show, don’t tell.” Three little words every screenwriter should constantly heed. Make a sign of it and keep it near your designated writing area.)

I’d much rather reach these kinds of conclusions on my own through how the story’s told instead of the writer adding it into the mix. Including the WHY, WHAT IT REALLY MEANS or WHAT THEY’RE THINKING will highlight your abilities, but not the way you want.

Doing this is counteracting how a script should read, interrupts the flow of the story, and just comes across as lazy writing. You want to have every word on the page be there for a reason. Why have something there that doesn’t need to be?

A great piece of advice that’s always stuck with me is “Imagine the sound went out while you were watching the movie of your script. Would you still be able to follow the story?” I’d say yes, to a certain degree. While I may not have all of the specific story details, I’d definitely have a strong sense of what was going on based on what I see the characters  doing and how they’re doing it.

Two suggestions to see this in practice:

-read scripts. Focus on the storytelling. Pay attention to what’s on the page (and what isn’t).

-watch silent movies. Take note of how the actors convey emotion through their actions, gestures, and expressions.

You want your reader and audience to enjoy watching your story unfold as much as you enjoyed writing it. Believe me, they’ll be able to tell.

No small feat using another medium to be a writer-at-large

HG Wells
The man responsible for tales of time travel, alien invasions, and assorted mad scientists, just to name a few…

After a gap of several years, I recently had the opportunity to reconnect in person with a respected colleague who has had more than their fair share of experience dealing with writers of all shapes, sizes, and levels of talent.

This person used to deal a lot with screenwriters, but now deals primarily with writers of manuscripts. Over the course of our conversation, I was asked about my scripts and my writing (What do I like to write? What genres are the scripts I have now? What kind of stories am I working on?)

As has been documented here before, my genre of choice is definitely adventure, along with hyphens connecting them to other genres (i.e. western-adventure, pulp sci-fi adventure, etc).

I gave a quick thumbnail sketch/five-second elevator pitch for the two completed and the one currently in revision mode.

You’d be harder pressed to find a stronger advocate for using your already-existing material as a springboard to jump into other mediums – primarily books and/or graphic novels.

It was their opinion that all three sounded like very original and fun ideas, which would make each a prime candidate for attracting attention. And this person has also been following the blog for quite a while, so their opinion is also that my writing is pretty solid. They cited examples of writers they knew who’d foregone the traditional route of trying to get in with one of the high-profile publishing houses and done it all themselves, each achieving respectable levels of success. Nothing to break the bank, but still some impressive numbers.

“A script is more or less an outline for a novel. And even though you’re not limited by page numbers, it still takes talent to create a novel,” I was told. “Your stories are original and unique, which makes them prime candidates for this. At least think about it.”

Believe me, I am.

My success in trying to get these scripts through to reps and production companies has been practically non-existent at best, yet I persist. I’m sure I’ll continue along that avenue, but this new alternative is definitely food for thought.

I’ve been told by more than a few people that my writing is very visual (which you would think would make it ideal for film), and that it really moves. In the past, I’ve entertained and even at times partially investigated the notion of applying my scripts to a graphic novel format (a great match), but am also not averse to trying my hand at converting it to pure prose.

I’ve no intention of stopping writing scripts. I like it too much. But I also like the pure act of writing by itself, so for the time being, all this talk about working in other formats is nothing more than speculation and conjecture.

But in some ways, still worth considering.

My enthusiasm, your enjoyment

rollercoaster
Offering up excitement and thrills for everybody

I admit it. I was weak. I couldn’t resist. The urge was just too overwhelming.

So I accepted the reality of the situation, and just went ahead and did it.

I went back and revised the pages I’d already written for the pulpy adventure spec.

No regrets.

The character that shouldn’t have been in there was cleanly removed, but in the process of doing so, a new idea emerged with a way to further weave some of the subplots together. Always nice when that happens.

Engaging in this mini-rewrite also provided me with the opportunity to take a step back and just read. Was it still working? Were my aspirations of producing a ripping yarn being achieved?

Seems that way so far. Then again, I’m slightly biased.

Some notes I got on an earlier draft of the western were along the lines of “it’s good, but the writing’s a little dry.” With this script, there’s more of an effort to avoid repeating that by really punching things up.

I’m getting a real kick out of seeing what I can do to make this an exciting read for anybody, including myself. Many’s the time I’ve heard that you should be able to see the writer’s love for the material on the page. That’s something I’ve always tried to do, and working on this script is no exception.

So after this temporary pause, things are back on track. Momentum will be regained, and progress shall continue.

Exciting times all around, chums.

-Friend of the blog/consultant Jim Mercurio is running a crowdfunding project for his latest film project American Neorealism. It’s VERY close to being funded, and there are just a few days left, so donate if you can to help him reach (or even surpass) that goal.

For crying out loud, DO SOMETHING!

bored
Is THIS how you want your audience to react?
While the November writing project moves forward at a pleasant pace (but now appears to be more of a November-December thing), part of my time has also been spent giving notes on some friends’ scripts.

One in particular had a few problems, some of which were easily fixed, but what really stood out was how it committed a cardinal sin of screenwriting by having a lot of scenes where the characters talk repeatedly about something “important” they want to do, but by the end, they end up not doing anything. And I mean that literally. These were some of the most passive characters I’ve experienced.

It didn’t help that the characters also had no arc. They were exactly the same from beginning to end (with maybe the exception of one who might have been arrested, but even the circumstances involved with that are still somewhat unclear).

Let’s face it. A main character who’s all talk, no action, and doesn’t change is the death knell for your script. Why would somebody be interested in seeing what happens to them, especially if they don’t do anything?

One of the most frequent problems I’ve seen is when the main character isn’t the one driving the story forward. They just kind of hang around and watch stuff happen.

Bo. Ring.

Remember, you’re trying to get your main character to their goal over the course of the story. They have to be the one making things happen in order to achieve that, or at least react to what happens in such a way that it helps them. The way these characters were written, I honestly had no idea what their individual goals were.

Take a look at your latest draft. Which character is moving the story forward? Is your main character active or passive? Are they making things happen? If not, can you see what you’d need to change in order to do that?

You definitely want your characters to come across as believably three-dimensional. Having them do little or next-to-nothing throughout the story is doing you no favors. Character motivation and actions are some of those key elements that simply cannot be left out. Audiences can forgive certain things, but a dull, passive main character isn’t one of them.