Voice – A Writer’s Journey
Our gratitude to Master Cat! Anne Lower, who has outdone herself (a difficult feat) with this brilliant, writerly, and soulful advice:
A couple of weeks ago, I was meeting with an executive to discuss my scripts. He ordered up one in particular, not because he was interested in considering it for a purchase or for option, but because, as he explained, he wanted to hear my voice.
Voice is often one of the last things that we, as screenwriters, pay attention to during our journey towards completion, and yet, voice is by far the most singular element of your script that can elevate it above the others; its stamp has the ability to make your story unique.
Structure is universal. There are no original stories; however, there are new ways in which to tell your story — and that is where voice is crucial. Let’s take a look at a current release: the most fetching comedy, Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen.
Can you see it? Paris, the city of light; Gil, in the street, as he waits for the clock to toll midnight, the car to appear and to whisk him away to the company of the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, and, of course, Papa Hemingway.
Can you hear the truth of the film? Wilson as Allen’s doppleganger? The charming quality of the script? The delight of it all?
Now, close your eyes. Imagine this script — same story beats, same actors — told by one of the following:
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
The Coen Brothers
What is the difference between each of these masterful writers? What is it that makes them unique? Their voice. And, using their authentic voices, each one of these writers would execute a completely different script. The story would be the same, but the way that it would be told, those little moments, the dialogue, the lines of action – each would be unique to its author. This is an example of how much influence voice has on story, and why it is crucial for you to discover your authentic voice, and let it sing.
How does one find his or her own voice? Ah, the million dollar question. I wish that I had an easy answer for you… but I do not.
Write. Write as much as you can, and then write more. Look at your bookshelves — what type of fiction do you surround yourself with? Let’s look at my shelf: Mark Twain, Shirley Jackson, Sue Monk Kidd, Shakespeare, Rilla Askew, Isak Dinesin, Walt Whitman, Anton Chekov, Horton Foote, Blake Bailey, Daphne du Maurier, Stephen King, Lewis Carroll, Anais Nin, Patricia Cornwell, Nora Ephron, Steve Martin, E.M. Forster, and a few others.
I think that it would be safe to surmise that my authentic voice lies in a more literary form of screenwriting; that I value character over plot, and am most interested in what happens to ordinary men and women when they are thrown into extraordinary circumstances.
So, I would be more prone to be in my comfort zone writing character-driven drama, dramedy, or comedy; my horror of choice would tend to be more super or preternatural than torture/slasher or creature horror; if I were to write thrillers, they would be female based, and I would write more rural than urban settings.
And, as I muse over the above, I find myself nodding in agreement over what I just typed. This list of targets that I have just generated for myself can help me to choose my next project — and to build it in a commercially appealing form.
I’ll share a little secret with you: I recently rediscovered my authentic voice, and, now that I have found it, I cannot imagine writing without it. I had written without it; I did this for over a year and a half before I realized what a miserable experience this had been. I felt disconnected from my true self. I did not know who Anne was or where she had gone… nor did I know if I would ever find her again. I felt a pretender, a sham. I was the (wo)man hiding behind the curtain, just praying that Toto wouldn’t pull it back.
I felt alone in the dark. I was terrified.
In the midst of this agony, I returned to a rewrite, and began from page one, and three months later… through the completion of this script — now going to market — I have rediscovered my voice. It’s here. Intact and stronger than ever. I’ll never write without it again.
I pledge to take care of my voice, to nurture it, for it is the only one that I have.
I pledge to listen to my voice — for it is my muse.
I pledge to not abandon my voice.
I pledge to protect my voice against the shoutings of others.
I pledge to exercise my voice, to permit it to grow.
And, most important… I pledge to trust my voice implicitly. I pledge to surrender myself to it, to embrace it with abandon, for when I do, my script sings to the gods, for my voice is true.
Does your voice change? Yes, it does. It changes as you change; it deepens and becomes more resonant as you journey through your life. It is affected by events, by grief and by joy, by maturity and by wisdom.
As long as you take care of it, as long as you do not abandon it, it will be there for you. It’s yours.
So, all of you writers out there. What is your voice? How will you develop it? What is your pledge?
I will take the pledge. Thanks Anne for a wonderful blog post. I always look forward to hearing your voice!
Beautiful, insightful, informative. Once again, you have inspired me to search my own heart for deeper place from which to write. Well done.
- Melody Lopez
AWESOME… love the pledge
- Bradford Richardson
Anne, Beautiful. Wonderful. Brilliant. Thank you for clearly describing what no one else has been able to describe, VOICE, and how powerful and valuable it is.
Hmmm. Not sure I’ve found my voice yet. Or maybe I have, and am too insecure to recognize what it looks like. Maybe I could borrow someone else’s for a while…
- Jan Militello
“…What is the difference between each of these masterful writers? What is it that makes them unique? Their voice. And, using their authentic voices, each one of these writers would execute a completely different script.”
Excellent example to illuminate the merit of writing with an authentic voice.
And, the Pledge is brilliant!
All – your love, your understanding, your thoughts are overwhelming… gratitude expressed for “getting it.”
Jeanne – your voice, your talent, you… fierceless. You are Momma Tigress in life and story, and I mean that with love and respect. Can’t wait to hang again.
Melody – you are a role model to me. I’m so excited to see you this fall!
Jamie – your blog is inspiring. It’s present and real. It is authentic.
D – I love you, girlfriend. You get what getting naked is all about.
Bradford – I am so thankful for your comments and your honesty. You share so much. You are brave to do so.
Atermesia – if I can find mine, you can find yours.
Jan – many thanks, kind lady. I think your voice will sing.
Lovely timing for a post on voice since “Camp NaNo” launches today.
I discovered my voice last November while participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer Month) while writing like a maniac and completing a 50,000 word first draft in 30 days.
And today is the start of “Camp NaNo”, the first summer version of the novel writing frenzy.
So I’m off to work on my 1700 word count for today.
Go, Doug, go! As a Cat! alum, can’t wait to hear how it goes down. You can and will do it… love your stories!
- evelyn "Lyn" Morgan
I loved reading this about voice. I know I have a strong voice. Often when I write with partners, it still gets buried. I pledge to write more solo. I will honor my voice because it is unique. It is who I am. Thank you, Annie.
- Al Rodriguez
Beautiful! Thanks so much for this inspiring post! Can’t wait for Austin Film Fest.
- Michael Kurinsky
Yes. I could write so much more here about this blog, but the word “yes” just sums it up for me. Beautiful work Anne.
What if your voice is uninteresting and nobody wants to listen to it? Do you quit writing? And when do you know it’s time to hang up your power cord and focus on something else? :(
I have always read your blogs so CAN the notion of not being interesting and nobody listening. Anne and JeeAnne found themselves some “Ferric Bearings” or as they say “Balls of steel”. Do not drag up POWER CORD PATTI.
- Scottie Rae
We are all of us created as unique individuals with unique voices and unique purposes. Thanks to Anne for pointing out the beauty in our individual perspective and voice.
What an illiterate menagerie of total nothingness. Glad that I have earplugs to protect me from your “voice” …
Lyn, Al, Michael:
Thank you so much for sharing, and thank you for reading the blog. Al, I am looking forward to AFF. :)
One of my favorite books to read and meditate to is Stephen Pressfield’s “The War of Art.” I read a page a day, reflect, move forward, get to the end… and start all over again. It’s a wonderful book on writers and writing.
The book is divided into three chapters; each chapter is comprised of several journal style entries. Your post made me thumb through the book and look for the entry titled “Resistance and Self-Doubt:”
“Self-doubt can be a ally. This is because it serves as an indicator of aspiration. It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it. If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are.
The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”
That you are brave enough to question yourself tells me already that your voice is interesting (like Captain, I have read your blog)… and that you have stories that need to be shared. Accept this questioning of yourself – and then answer it with a hugely affirmative YES!… and go write.
What a lovely, inspirational piece. And it reminds me that when one’s own voice is honored and allowed to flow, then the act of writing becomes a joy in itself, not just the task one is glad to have finished doing. And I also love the quotes from Pressfield on self-doubt. It reminds of what Anne Enright says: “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”
Great article. As a musician and screenwriter, finding my voice, developing my voice and demonstrating my voice is victoriously energizing. I have discovered in one way my resistance comes across emotionally, while my flow is feeling. I love in movies when the ‘honest moment’ happens… I find my honest moments as often as possible. Body language and tone and words… surprisingly, even my body language while typing is important… and my tone… dynamic. Annie, thanks again for a great article. Very synchronous and special. Much Mahalo, B
- Cynthia McClendon
Good timing. I’ve always had a distinctive voice and recently I’ve been wondering if I should just try to sound like everyone else. But as Popeye said “I am who I am.”
Scottie: Thank you so much for reading the blog. I hope that you continue to find inspiration here!
Nicole: Ah, once again, you bring wisdom to the table. Writing, writing anything, is work. Hard work. And yet, it is, as you describe it, a joy. And yes. When I’m smug and pleased with myself, I know that it is time to be concerned. :)
Jack: Thank you for visiting the blog and chiming in with your unique voice. Earplugs or not, you heard something, and I welcome all views and opinions. Hopefully, I can satisfy your appetite here: http://meyerweb.com/other/humor/sartre.html
If not, please share your recipe for Black Forest Cake. :)
Ultimately, I’d like to thank B.J. for everything that he does. Huzzah! Your continued work, your love for and dedication to Blake and the movement… well. Huzzah. You were there at “Inception.” I’ll always remember that first intro to Cat. Meow. :)
I went to sleep last night with our collective thought of voice. I don’t know, Maybe I heard something in the night. It is my protagonist whispering, “Remember my voice.” I sit up in bed and say, “I gave you my voice what else can I give you?” Protagonist says, ” A voice that everyone in the audience feels coming from their lips.”
I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve got to borrow some voices, because mine just ain’t enough. Maybe I’ll start with you that have doubt and ARC to those of you who run on steel rails and even include the Jackass. I’ll just borrow you for a little while. I hope you don’t mind.
Applause for you, Annie! I love what you say here about voice and you have a beautiful and unique one! Thanks for the inspiration! Hugs
- Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Thank you Anne for this brilliant post.
One of the first things my writing teachers prattled on about (that made no sense to me decades ago) was “Voice.” So I studied the matter very hard, and actually stumbled into various ways of acquiring and teaching “Voice” to writers.
I just had another hard-knocks lesson in “Voice” when my publisher put one of my novels, Molt Brother, the prequel to City of a Million Legends, into audible.com recording. He got the first chapter back from the reader who had done a fabulous job “acting” the voices in the book. But what worked IN PRINT bombed big time as sound.
The opening has 3 non-humans having an argument, mostly dialogue but little exposition. But it was hard to listen to, so we solved the problem by having me write a new opening for the novel, to establish the “voice” of the novel before the aliens have at each other.
VOICE is a big part of the reason readers read novels, or viewers watch a film, or producers buy a script. It’s a huge component of the “hook” too.
Bryan: I love that you have brought songwriting into this; my project writing partner is also a songwriter/musician. So much to learn! (I’ve been loving the lyrics of Civil Wars as of late)
Cynthia: You are. And “we” want to hear YOU!
Captain: Ah, is this dialog? Or voice?
Writingmama: Thank you, my dear. Your support is precious to me!
Jaqueline: Thank you for sharing your experiences. Lessons learned… and we continue to learn, yes?
Happy Independence Day to all. May you find and nurture your independent voice!!!
Don’t sell yourself short!
- B G Mitchell
Write it how ya’ say it, man.
Thank you so much for your response, Annie! It has been very helpful.
And to you and Captain, I’m sorry but I’m not the “Patti” you’re thinking of. Maybe I should find her blog and read it!
I am thrilled that this happened. It reminds me of my high school track meet in Summerville in 1962. I was last in the mile relay and felt like I could run no further. My buddy Kenneth was by himself behind the bleachers Cheering me on. I handed Kenneth the baton and told him to run. Kenneth was not even on the track team, he was wearing street clothes, and it surely was not an approved hand off. Kenneth took off like a rocket, passed the entire field and came in first. We were immediately disqualified, but everyone laughed and it was good fun. A college scout in the crowd did not laugh. He had timed Kenneth on his last 100 yards. Kenneth gets a college scholarship playing football when the scout learns that Kenneth learned to run by running down cows on his daddy’s farm and throwing them down by hand so he could train them to go into the barn. I don’t know what this has to do with our relationship Patti but you get the magic baton. It’s all I have.
Fan-freaking-tastic blog! Thanks for the reminder to focus on transforming our “stories” into “our stories”. (After all, the whole idea of having our own voice is, I suspect, the underlying reason most of us became writers in the first place.)
I’m still trying to find my voice. And what little bit of “voice” I had disappeared when I returned to school and wrote academic papers. Ugh. Thanks to this blog post, I have hope of finding my voice as I keep on writing, writing, writing. I do have a question though… as a screenwriter, how do I write with MY voice, yet keep all the characters from sounding like me?
We jump into their skins one at A time, and embrace the schizophrenia as a good thing.
Trudy, that’s a great question!
I can only speak from my experience. One of the things that I recommend to writers is to take acting classes. Yes, acting. See, I was an actor before I was a writer. Or, I was an actress before I was a writetress.
Acting and writing are very similar forms; both are crafts of storytelling. Both steer you to ask the questions: “What is my character’s goal? What is the obstacle preventing my character from achieving this goal? What will my character do to overcome this obstacle?”
You also learn to create back story; you also learn to examine choices. These are exceptional tools for finding voice, for they inform you about the world that you are creating, and the people who inhabit it: their hopes, their dreams, their joys, their sorrows, their lives. Their unique experiences are what color and affect dialogue, and it is through this research and this work, that the dialogue can crackle in your head.
I would like to add that when we speak of voice, we’re not simply addressing dialogue! Voice is tone… and style. Voice is how you tell your story – do you whisper it? Shout it? Is it literary? Poetic? Or is it hip? Edgy? That’s what voice is — not just what the characters say. It’s more abstract, and yet, if you read screenplays from the referenced writers, you will immediately see (and hear!) the differences of the writer’s voices.
Thanks Captain. Loved your story. Will accept the magic baton and start running. “Captain my Captain!” Thank you for the inspiration!
Very well written piece! As Dr. Suess said, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
— Dr. Seuss (Happy Birthday to You!)
Thank you, Will! I’m enjoying going through your blog!
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Sing that pledge, sister! Almost two years ago, I finally discovered the power of my voice. But I didn’t find it while screenwriting; I found it writing a freelance article for Writer’s Digest. The then publisher, Jane Friedman, asked me to write a piece on my Twitter experience. I’ll be honest, this was my very first freelance gig. I was terrified. So I produced a quality “how to” for Twitter and submitted it. While she said the piece was “solid,” what she had really wanted was my unique voice… the one I share in my blog… my snarky, funny, witty, out-of-the-box opinion, written in a way only I can. She added that she could get the kind of piece my original submission was anywhere. What she wanted (and would pay for) was my voice. I was floored. A huge lightbulb went off. That is the key.
The only thing we really own are our words and the style in which we put them on the page. We must write them as no one else can. I now carry that lesson to my scripts. Without any hesitation, I can say that Jane taught me my most valuable writing lesson to date, and I take that lesson to my Script Magazine column, blog posts, and now to my scripts.
There’s no question I still struggle with getting that voice to resonate in a script, but in truth, I believe it’s because I write with partners. But I’m finally writing a script solo, and my voice is singing all over the pages. Maybe one day you can address the partnership issue though… how to find your partnership voice, separate from your individual one? Would be an interesting discussion.
Thanks, for the great post, Anne!