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Screenwriting Voice

Above is a picture I took of my best friend and roommate at Amherst College, Harris Wulfson, at our graduation in May 1996. I wouldn’t claim to be his best friend, but he was certainly mine.

I use past tense because we lost Harris in 2008, to suicide as a complication from adult-onset schizoaffective disorder. Sorry for the bummer.

Harris was not a screenwriter. But he was brilliant. He was a musician, and a computer programmer, and a loyal friend with a dazzling wit.

Circa 1995: A bunch of us were in the cafeteria looking at the student newspaper. We saw an article about a woman who I think was a speaker or activist about campus rape. At the time, these issues were coming to the fore in a major way (a good thing).

Harris glanced at her picture and said, with perfect timing...“Hey, she’s pretty cute!”

Obviously, in black and white text, this sounds terrible. It’s even worse today if you make that joke because you’re immediately disrespectful about rape, women’s rights, gender relations, modern society, etc.

But Harris said in a tone that implied the “quotes.” Of course he was joking. He wasn’t actually saying, hey, let’s sexually harass the woman who is against sexual harassment. Although the irony of that is what made it funny.

But what really made it funny, I remember...the woman was pretty cute!

With just a gentle, perfect deadpan delivery, Harris cut through all the bullshit to evoke our common humanity—we all admire pictures of attractive people, no matter how elevated we claim to be. We’re mammals looking to mate!

Another time, also in the cafeteria, we were dishing about people we knew, and Harris said, “I dunno, he’s kinda dull.” Another friend was like, “Why do you say that?”

And Harris said, “Well, Julia, in this case, I would define dullness as: lack of wit. Lack of intelligence. Lack of humor. Lack of insight...”

And we all cracked up—Julia most of all. (Hi Julia!)

Oh! One more story. This one is about how great I am.

We went to the campus chapel (it’s not a religious institution, but the building is a holdover from the 19th century) to hear the rehearsal of the commencement speeches by our classmates.

They weren’t outrageously bad, or unusual—just normal, lame speeches littered with clichés. But I became restless and annoyed, not just at the tripe I had to sit through, but that people had blown this opportunity to say something meaningful about a significant moment in our lives. On the way out, trudging down the stairwell, I ranted to Harris:

“Jesus Christ! A hundred something years ago there were men dying in ditches in the Civil War crying for their mommies who would have given anything in the universe to be anywhere else! Now here we are, all fat and rich and happy—maybe those folks were us, reincarnated, like we got our wish!—and those lame speeches are the best they can do?!?”

Harris just humored me by saying, “ get it.”

I miss my friend, a lot.

What does this have to do with screenwriting?

Well, “voice” is a thing. It matters a ton.

It refers not solely to the actual writing style of the prose—that’s important, but a good script with great structure and dialogue can survive bland or even incompetent action writing—but far more importantly, the point of the view of the writer.

It’s what turns the scripts of the elite writers—Aaron Sorkin, Tony Gilroy, William Goldman—into bona fide literature.

Even writers who you don’t associate with great, high-minded subjects can have amazing voices. James Cameron’s scripts are breathtaking to read. From Aliens

It’s that humanity of their “power greeting”—and you know that exact moment from the film—that makes you go, “Hot damn, I feel something.”

Nobody is more entertaining on the page than my old pal, Shane Black, who was less entertaining in real life when he puked out my Subaru driving down Coldwater Canyon after a party (but did have the foresight to ask me to pull over).

But my favorite nowadays is Gilroy. This is the first page of his script to Devil’s Advocate:

I recommend you read all of Gilroy’s scripts. Don’t try to copy them—the way he writes with everything as an “-ing” verb won’t work when you do it—but just study the VOICE.

And here, the voice means the sheer force of intellect and knowledge—of storytelling, of culture, and, last but absolutely not least, lived human experience.

This is a man with a razor-sharp mind who is nonetheless overflowing with empathy.

No less than Bill Goldman once advised, don’t ever start a screenplay with a courtroom scene. (I forget where he said this, but I’m pretty sure it was him.)

This was because by the time you’re done introducing the plaintiff, the defendant, the judge, the jury, the witnesses, the courtroom staff—the reader will be stone asleep.

Look at how Gilroy does it: “The JUDGE a stern, old hand. The PROSECUTOR, an efficient man with a good case.”

What Gilroy does is he takes everything we already know about trials—from lifetimes of watching television—and, like a virus, slips his way into our brains to express the exact and only things he needs us to know about his story.

To do this, oh man—you have to know what people already know about courtrooms. You have to know what is essential to your story. And you have to know how to sneak one inside the other, with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of feeling.

Recently, in offering to read people’s scripts, I read a bunch of openings (duh). A lot were well written. We all know how crucial page one is, so we put in a lot of effort.

But...they tended to be overwritten. It’s not that they were necessarily purple, but that absent a human element—you could write the best description in the universe of dew glistening on trees and it just won’t mean anything.

I guess the best way to say it is...the pages were kind of vacant.

They just didn’t move into the kinds of human relatability and intrigue that would grab us and inspire us to keep reading.

How can you cultivate an elite screenwriting voice?

Well, it’s easy, just have the right combination of genetics and childhood, and add a lifetime of learning and practicing.

I am, unfortunately, not kidding about the genetics and childhood. It is what it is.

You can, however, control the adult learning and practicing...but I kinda get the sense that people aren’t doing this.

Mostly this is because they’re preoccupied with bullshit—things that don’t matter—and not opening their minds and hearts to the things that do matter.

For some reason I just thought of that great scene from The Godfather, Part II (they’re all great scenes) where Michael has the foresight to anticipate the communist revolution:

So what I am saying is we should all find breathtaking new observations about human behavior like the noted humanitarian, fictional character Michael Corleone.

There is such a thing as “screenwriting Twitter,” which is a mix of professional and aspiring screenwriters and some managers and producers.

I continue to be, not shocked, but disappointed and generally uninterested in the conversations.

A lot of that has to do with my own lifetime challenge of being an aloof misfit.

But it reminds me of sports talk radio. I used to listen to WFAN (the best, out of NYC) and the Boston channel (not very good) back when I lived in New England. Some of it was interesting.

But it struck me one day—this isn’t even about sports! It’s about what athletes say, not what they do. The hosts aren’t analyzing the three-and-two curveball that a pitcher threw with the bases loaded for a walk, and would a fastball have been better?

No, they’re ranting that somebody guaranteed a win and didn’t deliver. Or some coach called out a player when the coach has had an even worse year.

It’s just town gossip—but writ large via mass media, about grown men playing children’s games.

What was the big sports story last year? Aaron Rodgers not being vaccinated?

I rest my case.

And on screenwriting Twitter—I don’t even know what it’s about. There are a handful of “blue check people” (professionals with confirmed identities) who usually dispense good advice, and I’m grateful because I’ve learned a lot from them.

But sometimes I get the sense that they want to be treated as Greek Gods who stepped down from Mount Olympus on a lunch break and seek adulation from the mere mortals.

There’s a lot of business advice, which is helpful. And emotional support, which I can’t believe people find helpful...but I guess they do. Which is perfectly fine with me.

But the only creative discussions seem to be about whether writers should use “we see” or not. Trivial things. (The actual answer: it doesn’t matter. If the script is good, you can use whatever you want!)

Mostly, people stay away from creative discussions because they don’t want to share their work in a public forum—don’t blame them there—and they certainly don’t want to criticize anybody else’s work...which is also the right way to behave as a human adult.

But I’ve seen tweets from hundreds of writers and only a handful of times do I think, “Wow, that person is interesting.” (There’s a guy named Jace Serrano who I found consistently entertaining and tonally spot-on as far as spoofing the community.)

Some people are funny, maybe if they’re comedy writers. But, you know...years ago Howard Stern had one of his bozos interviewing celebrities on the red carpet and asking inane questions. The guy asked Dustin Hoffman if he farts in the bathtub—like it would be a big scandal and this was some grilling that everybody was being subjected to at this particular event (I think it was).

Hoffman just said, with a twinkle, “There’s no better place”—and kept walking.

Dustin Hoffman—not a dummy!

I guess I’m nitpicking. It’s hard to have a lot of personality in 280 characters, and not call attention to yourself by being an asshole. You absolutely cannot get away with, “She’s pretty cute” on Twitter the way my friend Harris could with three friends at the school cafeteria.

But when people have a strong writing voice, they tend to have a voice in all their communications—emails, on the phone, in a blog (haha! see what I did?).

Maybe it’s dry and subtle, but it’s there.

I’ve met people with great communication voices where the work wasn’t good, mostly due to craft issues—but I don’t think I’ve ever met somebody with a great voice on the page who didn’t also have a compelling personality in real life.

In screenwriting courses—I’ve never observed one, let alone taken one—I get the sense that “voice” is not taught at all. How could you? No professor wants to tell a student, “The real problem with your writing is that it sucks. You have no voice, and sadly I cannot teach you one, because you are too stupid.”

But that is, just as a law of numbers, the truth, I’m sorry to say.

Don’t blame me, I’m just telling it like it is.

Can anybody teach a voice? No. But everybody can learn some extent.

The first step is opening your eyes, mind and heart to actual human behavior.

You know, just that small thing. I’ll address it...another time!

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Well put, Lukas. I think my main issue with screenwriting twitter is that there is a huge swath of people who have lots of advice... but much less experience. And most of that "advice" is thin and anecdotal. I think there's a huge desire - perpetuated by twitter - to "have written" and be full of sage wisdom, and if folks put as much time into actually writing as they did into posturing as being "experienced" it might be a better resource.

Lukas Kendall
Lukas Kendall
Jan 12, 2022
Replying to

Survey says...true!


Jan 10, 2022

I enjoyed your commentary about voice. I was turned on to you through a friend of mine. I did laugh at the - hahaha see what I did there - comment. I appreciate what you said about voice. I'm not sure I have it in all levels as you mentioned email et cetera. I do believe that personal experience has a lot to do with how you express that "voice".

Lukas Kendall
Lukas Kendall
Jan 10, 2022
Replying to

I might be doing that soon! Thanks for asking!

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