Does your script sound like you?

When was the last time you read a script that was really hitting on all cylinders?

Great story, cinematic writing and vivid imagery, compelling characters, the whole kit and kaboodle.

What’s the one thing that ties all of them together?

That writer’s voice.

We hear about it all the time, and I’ve always described it as how the writing in a script is a reflection of the writer’s style.

If you read a script by Shane Black, Judd Apatow, Nora Ephron, or Quentin Tarantino, you’d know it by the way it reads. Each one is written in the distinctive voice of each writer.

And that’s what you want to achieve with your writing. When somebody reads your scripts, they’ll know it was you.

The need to establish your own voice when it comes to your scripts can’t be stressed enough.

I’ve read a lot of scripts that try to mimic an established writer’s voice, and it usually falls flat. Part of the reason is that the writer is trying too hard to sound like the established writer, which seems counterproductive. If I want a script that reads like Judd Apatow wrote it, I’ll read a Judd Apatow script.

It also doesn’t help that some of these established writers created a niche for themselves with their writing style, so anybody who comes after them with the same approach will immediately be labeled a pale imitation. You might have a phenomenal script, but if the only thing somebody remembers about it is that it’s just ripping off Tarantino, you’ve just wasted everybody’s time.

Now this isn’t to say that you can’t write in a similar style, but you need to put your own spin on it to help it stand out.

What are some of your strengths, writing-wise? In what areas do you really shine? Is there a way you can apply that to other aspects of your script? You want your script to have a real impact on the reader; one with a strong voice can help accomplish that.

Another benefit of a script with a strong voice is that it helps make it that much more memorable. Not only does it leave an impression, but chances are it’ll stick with the reader long afterward. Many’s the time I’ve finished reading a script and within five minutes don’t remember a thing about it. Sure, the writing may have been adequate or possibly just slightly above average, but a lack of a distinctive voice from the writer is a key missing ingredient.

Then there are those I’ll remember a long time after. Maybe it was the story or even just the concept, or the protagonist, or a great scene/sequence. No matter what it was, you could come to me a few months from now, or maybe even next year, and ask “Hey, do you remember that script about ____?”

Chances are I will BECAUSE of the writer’s voice.

Which is exactly what you’re aiming for.

Reinforcing the shoestring

For those unaware, I had the good fortune last year to connect with a producer-director seeking a writer for their microbudget feature project.

After hearing their ideas and what they were looking for, I started developing the story, keeping them updated as things progressed at a decent clip.

One of the comments occasionally made during all this back-and-forth was, and I’m paraphrasing here – “Is there a way to cut the costs on that?” Since this is a micro-budget project, it’s imperative we get as much out of every dollar as possible.

Thus the changes and alterations began. A scene originally intended for a hospital room now takes place in somebody’s bedroom. A scene in a restaurant now has the two characters drinking to-go coffee and talking on a park bench.

You get the idea.

As the writer, it can be a bit of a challenge to revise a scene or sequence to accommodate the budget, but it also forces you to dig deeper into that creativity and come up with a solution that works just as effectively, if not more so.

If this were a regular spec, working within a budget wouldn’t be an issue. I’d just write whatever worked for the story. But if that script got picked up and the producer needed changes made, then they would be made.

Looking over some of the revisions, I also realized that some scenes could pack even more of a punch by utilizing sound and lighting (or lack thereof) for emphasis, rather than on just what we see. Leaving things to the imagination – what you hear and don’t see – has the potential to be much more effective.

(For a strong example of this, check out the 1942 classic horror-thriller CAT PEOPLE.)

Taking this “less is more” approach also helped with resolving a story problem in a significant way. A sequence that would already have been challenging to make is now drastically different but would be very simple to pull off, and we’re both very enthusiastic about how the end result would look.

While some aspects of the story and how it’s presented may have changed, the tone remains the same. There’s still a ways to go with the script, but writing it with this kind of mindset helps me figure things out so the story is just as compelling while also getting the most bang for the buck.

Reading for reading’s sake

This week I opted to give myself a bit of a break among the writing and outlining sessions, and read some scripts just for the hell of it. Admittedly, some of them had been in my “to read” queue for quite a while, and right now seemed as good a time as any to finally get to them.

No notes. No feedback. Just sitting back, relaxing, and losing myself in the stories.

They ranged from a horror to a historical action, a western to a drama based on true events.

And each and every one was fantastic in its own unique way.

It also helps that these are the works of some excellent writers to begin with, so that made the overall experience that much better.

If I’d been asked when I was starting out if I could ever just read a script, I’m not sure if the answer would have been yes. I suspect I’d’ve been too concerned with thinking “what works in this script?” and “what can I learn from this?”

But the experience that’s come from reading and writing scripts has enabled me to look at a screenplay as more than an educational document. I can see solid storytelling, strong plots, three-dimensional characters, snappy dialogue, and all the other elements.

All of those elements combine to make for some darned good scripts.

It’s one of the best pieces of advice when a newer writer asks “How can my scripts be better?”

READ SCRIPTS!

There’s a vast assortment from which to choose, making it super-easy for you to customize your reading list.

And to take it one step further, numerous members of the online screenwriting community would be happy to share or swap scripts. You just have to do the work in finding something that piques your interest. Believe me, they are definitely out there.

If your schedule allows, try to make the effort to read one to two scripts a week. You’ll be glad you did.

The heart of the matter

The past few weeks, part of my writing schedule has involved revising the outline of my animated fantasy-comedy spec. It’s been fun to develop – having a previous draft to work with really helps. The action sequences, the story, the jokes and sight gags haven’t been too difficult, but I’ve been making more of an effort to build up the emotional aspect.

This isn’t to say I’ve never included that. It just hasn’t been as prevalent in the early stages of planning and plotting process.

It’s not enough to just show the stuff that’s happening, you need to show how it’s relevant to the characters. While the plot is about the external goal (what do they want?), there’s also the importance of establishing their internal goal (what do they need?).

Sometimes the internal and external goals work together, and sometimes a character will achieve one and not the other. There’s also the tried and true “they got what they wanted, but it wasn’t what they needed” (and vice versa). It all depends on how the writer wants to the story to go.

To help myself get a better grasp of this, I’ve been reading the scripts for and watching other animated films to see how they approach it. There has also been the occasional “read a few pages of the script, then watch how it plays out onscreen”.

*helpful tip – for prime examples of incorporating emotion into story, you can’t go wrong with well-made animated films. They do a fantastic job of setting everything up as fast and efficiently as possible. Sometimes singing is involved. And as it should be with live-action, each scene manages to include advancing the characters’ emotional arc as well as the story arc.

As more than a few readers have said to me, sometimes my writing is more about what we see onscreen and not as much about what’s happening to the characters on the inside. Hopefully that won’t be the case this time around. Since I’m still outlining the story, I try to include what the emotional impact is in each scene. Does the point of the scene affect the character(s) the way it’s supposed to?

At first, this was pretty challenging, but watching how other films accomplished it, it wasn’t as daunting as I initially thought, plus the more I think about it and plan for it, it’s not as bad as I thought. It’s helping with the overall development because I’m taking that sort of detail into consideration as part of the initial planning stages, as opposed to trying to work it in later, along with avoiding a few unnecessary rewrites.

Since this is a slightly different approach for me, I’m sure it’ll be chock-full of trial and error along the way, but am fairly confident it’ll yield the results I’m hoping for.

Solutions sought (and found)

The past few weeks have been all about working on developing this new script.

After a bit of a rough start, I’d come up with what seemed like a solid storyline. I had my plot points mapped out, and started filling in the blanks between them.

The ideas were coming at a decent pace, but things started to feel…odd.

I got to around the midpoint when things suddenly came to a grinding halt. Something just wasn’t clicking, and it was up to me to figure out what was wrong AND how to fix it.

My mind started racing for potential ideas. But the more I thought about it, the worse the ideas became. It was getting to the point of ridiculousness.

Being so laser-focused on this was severely messing up my creativeness. Since you can’t force inspiration, I took the easier path:

I stepped away.

Like any good writer, I’ve got more than a few projects in various stages of development, so I let this one simmer and turned my attention to something else.

Over the next couple of days, I made some progress plotting out this other project and didn’t even think about the first one.

I’ll also admit to spending some time doing some script notes and indulging in some pulp-y books featuring tales of adventures

And all of it really helped.

Feeling a bit more prepared to face my story problem, I opened the file and looked things over.

Thus did the wheels start turning…

I’d originally thought I’d have to delete a majority of what I’d already come up with, but a lot of it still worked, so I needed to figure out another way to utilize it.

Taking a closer look after a bit of a break helped to shine a spotlight on the problem as well as presenting an effective way to resolve it. Without going into too much detail, it involved expanding on what I already had for the first half of the story (along with a little rearranging of scenes), then expanding on those results, along with some relevant subplot goings-on, for the second half.

I’m sure there are many more bumps in the road ahead for this script, but it’s still great when you make this kind of headway.

Now – back to the story and filling in the rest of the blanks.

Hope your weekend is equally as productive, if not more so.