Friday, February 09, 2007

Story Vault: Original Voice?

A bit snowed under this week, pardon the pun (although it's just wet on the coast), so here's a post from the past (August 2005, when the blog was just beginning) about what the hell 'original voice' actually means. Laters.


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. People huddle themselves into their coats as they stride down the street.” What you want to do is SHOW YOU CAN WRITE and alert the reader to your ‘original voice’ on EVERY PAGE. It takes a little 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...



Anonymous said...

Hi Danny,

I was just wondering if things had improved since you moved to a bigger agency. I was told that only a handful of agencies can get scripts read in America and that if you can't get on their books it is much more difficult, is this true and what agencies would you recommend.


Kate P

Bela said...

Such good advice, so simply expressed! Now, how to apply it... :-)

Danny Stack said...

Kate P: It's probably true that the bigger UK agencies will have better access to key people in the US (PFD, Curtis Brown, ICM, AP Watt etc), but I think it's more down to 'who you are' and 'what you've written' rather than which agency you're with. In other words, you've gotta have the goods, not just the representation.

Enzio Pesta said...

You do go on and on. Take a break. Come by for a visit. I've been on haitus. But I'm back! Ok, so it was more like an extended stay at the sanitorium.

James said...

Great food for thought.