A debate on finding your writing voice
Over the time Michele Rowe and I, Richard Beynon, developed our new Screenwriting Crash Course, we often discussed the questions being raised in the various modules of the course – and debated the ideas provoked by those questions. We thought it might be fun to capture one of these debates on paper for your entertainment (puts teacher’s hat on) and instruction.
So here it is:
RJB: I’ve always told myself that we do absorb an awful lot from watching movies – just as writers of, say, crime fiction, absorb an awful lot from reading the stuff. But unless you really think about what you’ve read or what you’ve seen, unless you really practise specific techniques (over and over and over again!), your efforts will be grossly amateur. That practice period can last for years, unless you enlist the help of professionals, either via the books they’ve written or, ahem, through the courses they offer. Your thoughts?
MR: I agree that one absorbs a lot from movies and books, but I am always aware that there’s a danger in that, that you can end up reproducing tropes and clichés. I would say the most important aspect of writing is to find your own voice. I know that’s an old chestnut, but it does have some merit. A good teacher can help enormously with that. Especially when you start out, it can be difficult to identify what is unique in your writing. You are too busy copying what you think of as ‘good’ writing.
RJB: I’m aware that writers who’re struggling to master all the skills involved in, for instance, structuring their screenplays effectively, or writing punchy, efficient scenes, focus entirely on the so-called “technicalities” and forget, as you say, how important voice is. But voice is precisely what distinguishes a really good screenplay from run-of-the-mill work. But it can be difficult to define. I’ve always thought of it as the unique outcome of a complex interaction of authentic dialogue, a compelling theme and a particular moral standpoint (if that’s not getting too philosophical). Take the very particular voice of No Country for Old Men, whose script (and book) I’ve been reading, and which I watched again for the umpteenth time a couple of nights ago. It’s composed of McCarthy’s very spare, very laconic, very bleak vision of a universe in which justice is very seldom served, and in which chance trumps all our best intentions…
But if voice is difficult to define (and I’d love to hear your thoughts on that), it’s also more difficult to teach. It’s one of those things that you have to grow yourself, wouldn’t you say?
MR: I would say it’s a question of finding rather than growing, because I think that voice is innate—it’s the particular, individual and idiosyncratic prism through which each human being experiences his or her reality. It is, as you say, made up of theme and dialogue and moral standpoint, but it has this added dimension, what I’d describe as attitude—a unique way of seeing. McCarthy’s bleak vision seems to come from completely within himself. Great writing like his has this marvellously fearless, revelatory quality—you go—‘Wow! I’ve never experienced life in quite that way before.’ You feel your understanding has been expanded and enriched by the imaginative voice of the author. But how does one find the pipeline to that inner voice? I think it’s a matter of trust, trusting your own instincts and trusting your reader, or in the case of a screenplay, your audience. That voice is often messy and unrefined when you begin the writing process, but a good teacher can guide and hone and encourage you to keep going, to be fearless, and to trust that from this clay you can fashion something wonderful.
RJB: I thoroughly agree with your addition, Michele. But now on to perhaps a less elevated question: if participants on our (or any similar) course, take away just three fresh insights, what do you believe they would be? I’ll pre-empt you by saying that one of my key take-aways would be: restraint. Restraint encourages you to show, rather than explain. (Show the smoke, they say, and lead the viewer infer the fire.) Restraint encourages you to write dialogue that doesn’t spell it all out. Restraint encourages you to think of the clever twist or reversal, rather than the obvious, clunky one. I’ll graciously invite you to nominate your two top suggestions…
M.R. I hope participants will come away from the course understanding that a screenplay is made up of moving pictures. Pictures that are strung together to show rather than tell a story. So I think they will come away thinking about story in a more visual way. Another take away would be that film compresses time. These two key points are linked. How can you use images to show, in seconds, what a novel might take pages to convey? Which brings me to your excellent point about restraint—that less is always more when it comes to writing a screenplay.
Our conversation was fairly rarefied – the Screenwriting Crash Course is the very opposite: hard-edged and practical, tightly focused on how to master the skills of writing screenplays or television scripts. If you’re interested in jumping in for the adventure, find more information and sign up here, or email us to discuss further.