Most writers don’t give it a lot of thought. They just keep writing until they develop a voice. It just comes with time and lots and lots of writing. What if writers made more of a purposeful effort to find their own voice? It could save them months and years of writing their way through to it.
Let’s say you wanted to try to find your own unique voice? How would you go about it? Here are some ideas;
Think about the experiences you’ve had, preferences and characteristics that set you apart from others. Think about the most extreme examples. It doesn’t help much to describe yourself in bland generalities. You have to skip over the “honest, loyal, like to read, like to play soccer, like to ride rollercoasters” stuff.
Look instead at what makes you different, and by different, I mean, strange, odd or even bizarre.
For example, I know I’m interested in stories about people’s weirdness. How did I discover this? For one thing, a good friend of mine pointed it out.
I was telling her stories about why heroin addicts would rather live on the streets, homeless, than stay in a shelter. I discovered it was because shelters had rules. You couldn’t bring food or drugs into the shelter. You couldn’t even bring a dog.
This same friend noticed that my humorous Facebook posts tended to point out weirdness, or showcase odd or strange things about life. She’s right. I find those things interesting.
Keep in mind, I don’t just like pure weirdness in story and character, I like a funny take on it. Above all else, for me, my voice has got to be funny. So, odd, strange, funny, it’s a mix.
I also noticed that I like movies like Nightcrawler, A Clockwork Orange, and Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, no doubt because all three films were populated with people who 1) obsessively photographed accident scenes, or 2) who needed to wreak havoc on everybody, or 3) about people with no limits, especially when it came to getting high.
When I spent a summer reading every novel that appealed to me I found myself reading Kafka, Camus, and James Joyce, writers who populate their novels with very odd, quirky and downright weird characters.
Add to all these influences, that of funny people. People like Lenny Bruce, Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain, George Carlin, Grouch Marx and especially Woody Allen. I was obsessed with that group of people. Totally.
When you combine weird, quirky and funny, that’s what I like the best. Think of a movie like Fargo, where the array of bad guys included a funny, inept kidnapper (William Macy), and some very deeply disturbed killers who did things like put bodies through wood chippers.
Notice I discovered these aspects about myself, by examining what I liked to read or which movies I found the most interesting. I recommend you make lists of books you like, not the classics, but the ones that are way different. The ones you reread.
Since my partner and I wrote television comedies most of our career, we weren’t able to set the tone of every script we wrote. When you write for an existing show, you write from the voice of the show’s creator.
However, we tried to find work on shows that we liked, where the show runner shared our sensibilities. We were lucky to work with Larry Charles (Dilbert), Reno and Osborne (Duckman, Private Dick), David Richardson (Manhattan, AZ), and Matt Stone and Trey Parker (South Park). We were also able to create our own shows that showcased our unique voice.
All the screenplays we’ve written have a dark, quirky sense of humor. The half hour comedies we created (The Wild Thornberrys, Cleghorne) had offbeat sensibilities too.
After a while, producers found that wrote wrote edgy, dark comedy and asked to us to work on scripts with those traits, including the animated feature, National Lampoon’s Politenessman, and a Pee Wee Herman live action NBC television pilot.
Think about writers like Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin. You can sometimes tell, just hearing their dialogue, who wrote it. The Coen brothers are like that, too. And Diablo Cody has her unique sensibility.
Embrace what makes you different. Think about the way you say things, the language you use your unique visual sense. Give your characters strong attitudes and opinions that you can back up. Find your tone and genre, whether it’s dark, edgy, gross, light, family, comedic, acerbic, grandiose, tragic, bighearted, or a combination. Write from your strengths.
When producers are looking for something different, something original, your voice will be one of the most important factors that sets you apart from the pack.