An article by Theo Sariklis.
The first step to becoming a writer is easy. You decide that you want to be a writer.
The difficult part is that very next step; in which you have to decide what kind of writer you want to be. For some; the process is short, and they can hit the ground running, but for others, it takes a lot of time and introspection.
Finding your voice is the most personal and possibly the most difficult challenge you face when starting out. The art of crafting a story has been analyzed endlessly when it comes to the basics of writing characters, structuring plot, devising themes, etc; but what about this most abstract aspect of storytelling?
Luckily for us; we have recently seen the release of some truly unique films showcasing the voices of many talented auteurs with a lot to say on the matter.
1) Write about what interests you
Writing is a deceptive term in and of itself. It sounds simple when that could not be further from the truth. When you say you’re writing a story; you’re also conceiving and developing characters and their arcs, you’re researching and building the internal logic of your world, you’re planning the structure and pace, you’re defining themes and motifs, etc. It can be a long, laborious process.
If you write about what interests you, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort, and increase the likelihood that you’ll finish your story. Not only will you be more motivated to write, but you’ll be less likely to put aside the project when the numerous inevitable writing obstacles surface.
French filmmaker Claire Denis (the director/writer of last year’s High Life) had this to say about her creative process:
“I suppose I am interested in the variety of human life – how people live… how they respond to challenges or to difficulties, or just to each other.”
Once you can define what the focal point of your writing is, and you have that creative foundation laid out, everything else should fall into place.
2) Try everything
Fun Fact: The earliest form of written literature dates back to about 2600 BCE. Since then, countless methods have been devised for writing stories. The reason I bring this up is that you shouldn’t feel discouraged when a story isn’t coming together for you. Sometimes, the problem can be solved by simply changing your method.
It’s important to try everything when you’re writing. If a story isn’t coming together in spite of your copious note-taking and preparation, try throwing all of that aside and going with your gut. If improvisation has left you in a creative dead-end; go back and plan out your scene so you can approach it with a renewed sense of purpose. If you don’t take the opportunity to test different methods, you won’t find what works for you.For example; Bong Joon-Ho is a filmmaker known for mixing genres and telling very idiosyncratic stories, as showcased by his latest film, Parasite.
When asked at a press conference at Cannes about his unconventional style, he said:
“I follow my instinct – I don’t calculate everything in detail i.e., will the gin & tonic be made with 40 percent of gin and 60 percent of tonic? I focus basically on the situation, the actual moment in time.”
Despite all of the educational resources available, it’s easy to forget that there isn’t a right or wrong way to approach writing a story, and sometimes the methods that seem counterintuitive can be just what you need. An important part of finding your voice is finding the method that works best for you.
3) Present things you’ve seen before in new waysThe phrase “there’s nothing new under the sun” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to film. When you consider the fact that this medium has existed for over a century, it’s easy to accept its validity. It’s also very easy to assume that you’ve got nothing to contribute to your writing.
This mentality is another of the many obstacles every writer faces. Don’t allow it to make you complacent, as that’s a quick way to lose enthusiasm for your project and hit writer’s block. When writing a scene, think of the characters and the events that are taking place and how you can present familiar scenes using your unique sensibilities.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed and written by Celine Sciamma, earned the Best Screenplay Award at 2019’s Cannes Film Festival.
The story came with its fair share of creative challenges, as documented by Sciamma when she said the following in an interview:
“I thought about the kiss scene for many months – I had a list of different possibilities, I wondered, “How can I renew the choreography of a kiss?”… all of a sudden you have this idea of a kiss with the scarf or the veil and that in fact then guided a lot of what came before and after.”
The kiss scene has been a cinematic convention ever since Thomas Edison first captured it in 1896. Over a century and an unfathomable number of movies later, it would be easy to fall into the mindset that it would be impossible to frame a kiss scene in a new way. But even a simple change can provide context and novelty. You just have to figure out how.
Challenge yourself. Not only will you improve as a visual storyteller, but you’ll be one step closer to finding your own voice.
4) Shun convention, break taboo
Accompanying the doubt that typically affects first time writers is a sense of insecurity regarding their approach to certain subject matter and breaking conventions. This is perfectly normal. When you’re not comfortable, it’s easier to avoid certain topics or hold back on ideas that could potentially alienate audiences if not handled correctly.
While there is no right or wrong; you’re not doing yourself any favors by holding back. Part of the challenge of finding one’s voice is testing the boundaries and finding out how absurd and taboo-breaking one is willing to go.
Don’t be afraid to indulge your more out-of-left-field ideas. What might seem stupid or even offensive at first; with a little refinement, might just end up being what makes your story unique and eye-catching.A great example of this is the eclectic career of Daniel Scheinert, who has reveled in absurd comedy with both Swiss Army Man and follow-up The Death of Dick Long. Scheinert directed a script written by long-time-friend/first-time-writer Billy Chew, and he later discussed his interpretation of how the script was written in an interview with Take One Cinema.
“I think he [Chew] wanted something that was a challenge… just seeing what was the craziest movie he could write and to discover his voice as a writer. Getting to write something insane inspired him really, and rooting out the humanity in it…”
Remember; if your mind is going to absurd places during your whole creative process, it could be because that’s exactly what your story calls for. You’ll never know if you don’t try.
5) Remember; you’re an audience member too
When trying to find your voice, don’t just think of yourself as the writer. Try to reflect on yourself as an audience member as well. A great way of figuring out what kind of stories you want to tell is by identifying the stories that have most affected you. What storytelling sensibilities have you adopted from them? What differentiates you from those writers? What stylistic techniques have they adopted that you would rather avoid?
Ask yourself what you would want from your story if you weren’t the one writing it. Would you enjoy the hypothetical film that spawns from this story? If not, establish why and use it to inform your edits going forward. This is very important because if you’re not willing to sit down and engage in what you’re writing, why should anybody else?In a filmmaking climate where the big-budget blockbuster tentpole is king; filmmaker Rick Alverson prides himself on a body of work that confronts audiences by featuring unconventional narratives and dark subject matter, as seen in his latest film The Mountain.
“I never like as a viewer to feel that I’m being coddled. I love the act of discovery. The act of curiosity. The reason so many films are so boring to me is because it’s all laid out; there’s no place to maneuver in there. You’re supposed to be a passive subject that watches the thing live… because these movies aren’t giving your mind anything to do.”
All of your work is going to reflect on you as a writer, so take steps to ensure that it presents you accurately. If there are writing tropes and sensibilities that irk you, make sure you’re not accidentally recreating them in your own stories. Nothing is more detrimental to your growth than putting all of the time and effort into completing a script, only to realize that it’s something you’d never want to see.
6) Reject complacency
The journey of finding your own voice doesn’t stop when you sell your first script. In fact; one could argue that in a similar fashion to how a film itself is never really complete until it is seen by an audience, the journey never really stops.Writing professionally is a daunting process for many reasons. The temptation is to coast by on safe writing gigs that guarantee a paycheck and aren’t creatively demanding. If you find yourself having those kinds of thoughts, remember that writing a script is a time and energy-consuming process; from early preparations and research to writing that first draft to accepting feedback and then editing and rewriting several drafts and revisions later.
After finding success with The Babadook, director/writer Jennifer Kent found herself in a similar situation, being offered all kinds of franchise films for her follow up. Instead, in spite of all recommendations, she opted to make The Nightingale, a bleak and confronting revenge film that would be a difficult sell to mass audiences.
However, Kent was unphased by such a challenge, explaining that:
“I really have to feel very deeply about the theme and the thread of a story to want to go the whole distance with it… and often things looked appealing, but they didn’t have that central story that really pulled me in and gave me that devotion.”
In a profession where uncertainty is constant, a safety net sounds like something you’d be crazy to turn down. However, if it stunts your growth as a writer and offers no creative satisfaction, is it really worth the effort?
Remember; you’re not a word-processor, you’re a writer.
7) Embrace the collaborative process
Sometimes, the only thing holding back the formation of your creative voice is the lack of another person that can help you articulate it. It’s typical of a writer to be hesitant towards collaboration. After all; if a script is supposed to reflect the writer, does bringing on another writer confuse, or even compromise its validity?
The answer is that it doesn’t have to. Screenwriting is an extension of filmmaking, in which a large group of people is coming together for the sake of a single vision. Perspective is a valuable tool, and a great way to gain that is to share your screenwriting journey with somebody who shares your enthusiasm as well as your sensibilities. You’ll inevitably disagree with one another, but that’s how you learn which of your many ideas are worth fighting for.
Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails are creatives that have a long history of working together, and these collaborations can be attributed to the formation of their respective storytelling voices, as evidenced with their latest collaboration, The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
“We’ve been making movies since we were teens, and they always come from some kernel of truth, some real story that happened to him or I, and then they always sort of like get spun into whatever they become through our imagination collectively.”
Don’t let the fear of competition or creative compromise stop you from taking a truly formative step towards determining the kind of writer that you are.
Theo Sariklis is a screenwriter and producer currently in the process of making the jump from shorts to features. While he loves all kinds of movies, horror and sci-fi are the genres that truly speak to him.