Thursday, August 18, 2005

Original Voice?

People in the industry are constantly asked what they look for in a script; what makes a special script stand out? Quite often, they express preference for a script that has an ‘original voice’ or a story ‘that has something to say’. To some, this might sound frustratingly vague and a safe excuse for the industry’s latest rejection of your script but it’s an important consideration before you set out to write FADE IN for the very first time. So, what does it mean exactly?

Screenplays are an unnatural form of writing. While they are similar to stage plays in their depiction, their stories are not as accessible (to the casual reader) because of the format’s particular demands. On the plus side, screenplays are written in the present tense and use simple language to express the visual and audio action that is meant to be taking place on screen. Screenwriting training has become big business and people are far more familiar with the screenplay format and the basics in structure. Armed with an ‘I can do better than that’ attitude after a Friday night at the flicks and a ‘How To’ book under their arm, they endeavour to write their first script. However, most fall into an immediate trap of familiarity and cliché, or worse, bad writing. They won’t realise it of course because they think that the scripts they’ve read in research (usually about two) share the same qualities as their own, so it must be good right? Or at least industry standard. Right?

Not really. The problem with the speculative screenplay market is that all scripts read the ‘same’. ‘Same’ in the way that they are described, in the way the characters are presented and in the way the story is developed. There is no ‘original voice’. The writer has ‘nothing to say’. The writer will blind himself into thinking that his story is different and special but will unfortunately offer the reader/exec the same characterisation or visual description he’s read a million times before. So when you next hear someone important talking about ‘original voice’, they’re talking about how a script is written, how you decide to tell your story. How it was different from the others, how it grabbed their interest with its visual and literary touch, and how it compelled them to the very last page with its three-dimensional characters and unpredictable story.

Off the top of my head, here are two examples of an ‘original voice’. Christopher & Jonathan Nolan’s script for Memento, and Andrew Kevin Walker’s script for Se7en. Christopher McQuarrie’s Usual Suspects also comes to mind. More from the UK would include Richard Curtis (that’s right) and Frank Cottrell Boyce. They tell special stories (please no debates about Curtis’s work; like him or loathe him, no-one does it quite like him and with such international success), and they’ve got a particular point-of-view that they want to express in their tales. They’ve got ‘something to say’.

New writers make a lot of common mistakes that could easily be avoided. To elevate your script from ‘samey’ to ‘interesting’ takes just a little bit more effort in how you express your words and story. A lot of scripts in the spec slush pile are awful, just awful. And a lot are mediocre. A little more attention to basic narrative description can make your script stand out like a literary bomb amongst the reader’s pile. And if you can follow this through with well rounded characters and a thematic or satisfying resolution, then you’re going to earn high praise in the script report.

Most scripts are littered with lazy description, or phrases that have become accepted screenplay shorthand. “John walks down the street, clearly drunk” is plain lazy but commonly used. This is where the advice of fewer words and making your description short is misunderstood. What the script should describe about John being drunk is him stumbling down the street, singing a song, bumping into a police officer and grinning impishly. With this kind of action, there would be no need to mention the word ‘drunk’ in your description because it would be evident from John’s behaviour. Readers, and the audience, love to figure things out for themselves, even if it’s a very basic part of the story.

I suppose what I’m getting at is making every word of your screenplay count. Not enough writers take the time to be visually arresting about the most basic parts of their narrative description. Which would you prefer to read: “It’s cold and wet” or “The roads glisten from a recent downpour. Women huddle themselves into their coats as they stride down the street; their breaths forming a trail of clouds down the footpath.” What you want to do is SHOW YOU CAN WRITE and alert the reader to your ‘original voice’ on EVERY PAGE. It takes a bit more effort, and of course talent, but is instantly recognised and appreciated by the people who have to wade through a sea of poor scripts every day.

It’s not just how you tell your story that makes your ‘original voice’, it’s also how original your story’s subject is (concept) and how you present new and interesting characters to express the ideas behind your story. Scripts with originality and something to say usually win screenwriting contests and/or get you on the first rung of your career ladder. It’s worth the time and effort to give your all-action cop thriller a little bit more thought and creativity before you start sending it around town...


PS: Am away for a few days, back on Monday.


HolyhosesRob said...

Just found your blog (followed the link from jamesandthebluecat), and wanted to say how interesting I think it is. I've always been fascinated by the process of scriptwriting, even though I've no intention of ever writing a screenplay. I did a lot of film studies for my MA, so maybe that's why.

I note that, like us over at holyhoses you're registered on Britblog. I've found since listing there that we've started getting a lot of comment spam, so watch out for it. They usually say something like "nice blog" (just like I just did), but don't ever say anything specific about the content (which is why I deliberately did).

Lee said...

Hi there, I'm another one from James and the Blue Cat, by way of the Observer blog.

I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on what script-readers are looking for - I've finally started a project I've been fannying around with for the last four years, and all advice is appreciated.

I've found that floating in the blogosphere and reading about how everyone else is getting on with their own projects has been very encouraging.

Danny Stack said...

Hi there. Thanks for your comments. Much appreciated, ta.

Teenie Russell said...

I have often wondered about the "original voice" in scriptwriting. So thank you for clarifying.
As much as I do prefer to read your longer descriptions, it seems to contradict the idea of having less black on a page. How do you find a balance between the two?

Danny Stack said...

Good question, Teenie! I think if a description is longer, then it should be really necessary detail that's relevant to the character or story. As long as it's interesting and relevant, no-one's going to mind, but spacing out the description so that the script looks more inviting helps a lot. I hope that answers your Q!

Teenie Russell said...

Thank you! Definitely helpful as always.