Ever read something and know immediately who wrote it?
Most of us have a clear voice in our casual writing. Our blog posts and e-mails tend to reflect our speaking style. And yet when it comes to creative writing, many find it a struggle to develop a unique voice.
I've been using the internet since the very earliest days, before it was the WWW. Back then, we all knew each other. No, I'm serious.
It was Usenet, in 1989 or 90. I learned how distinct my voice was in my casual writing in the early days of online interaction when I tried to post anonymously to a group. I was trying to be anonymous (did I mention we all knew each other?,) and consciously changed my capitalization and punctuation style to hide who I was...and said a couple of snarky things about an acquaintance. When he confronted me, it was clear he didn't even realize I'd been trying to hide. This made me wonder what it was that constituted my voice.
(note: I've also since come to realize that our casual writing voice and our creative voice is not the same thing - the former comes more naturally, while the latter takes time to nurture)
Stephen King says that a writer must pen a million words before they develop their voice. (I always wonder - do re-writes count?) When I started asking people about my "voice" as a writer, several said that I had a strong one as a poet. Of course, poetry is distilled writing. Like greek yogurt, the watery stuff drained out and intensified. (Yes, it's a goofy metaphor, but it fits and I didn't sleep well last night.) Perhaps writing in that form honed my voice earlier. Then again, most critics consider a poet under 40 to be young. Of course, I'd been writing poetry regularly for about ten years, so maybe I had hit my million words.
Reading voraciously helped. Having read nearly all the works of Shakespeare (plays and sonnets) before I was 17. Most of the work of the Romantics, plus ee cummings and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Not to mention fantasy novels. Scary stories. Mysteries. And by the time I was doing this investigation into voice (at age 19 or 20,) a great deal of postmodern literature and criticism. In fact, at that point I was so into Derrida and Foucault and Hakim Bey that I'm sure their influence came out even in my most casual writing.
That year, my third year of college, I was in a poetry workshop. Some of the young writers disdained reading other poets, for fear they would dilute or corrupt their own voice. One week, an outspoken champions of this idea objected to the reading assignments and passed around his work prefaced by a speech on the subject. I read his poem. Then I asked him if he'd read any novels lately. He said, of course. I then asked whether that might be Bret Easton Ellis he was reading. He seemed surprised - but his work sounded like a bad imitation of Ellis, broken into verse on the page.
What we read influences us. What we hear and see. There's no way around it. On Star Trek, when Data is trying to learn to play the violin, he struggles to find his voice as a musician. He consciously makes the choices we all make subconsciously - assembling his performance out of pieces of the masters' performances. Someone points out to him that this assemblage is his voice. That the particular combination in his knowledge base, and his choices about how to combine them became something new and unique. The best choice to make is to seek out an array of influences. To bombard ourselves with so many voices that no single one stands out when we sit to write.
So, other than reading a lot and writing a lot - what else can we do to develop and strengthen our voice? Some suggestions:
Trust your instincts. Your internal voice will come out in your creative writing, if you let it. (If it doesn't work, that's what rewrites are for.)
Enjoy what you're doing. If you allow your imagination to play with language, you will make more creative choices.
Know the rules. Having a strong grasp of the basics of grammar and storytelling will free you to stop thinking about those things, and focus your attention on the story, and the telling of it.
Go ahead and borrow. One of my favorite exercises for a developing writer, and one I still use when I'm studying someone, is to consciously imitate them. Try writing 5 pages in the style of Minghella, or Shane Black - and it will make you think about the choices they made, and what makes their style distinctive.
Listen. Your influences are all around you. Your family, friends and neighbors contribute to your voice as much as who you read and try to emulate.
Get rid of your favorite tricks. Like "murder your darlings," this points out the difference between what we think works for us and what does. If you have any consciously adopted stylistic tricks or flourishes, try writing without them. You may find (as I did with my anonymous Usenet post) that your voice shines through even more clearly.
Finally - after you've done all that: stop trying. Ultimately, your voice is you. How hard can that be to express?
Now, this is (primarily) a screenwriting blog. Screenplays are minimalist, blueprints. They're about story and character, not style. So is there even a place for voice in them? I'd say, yes. Absolutely. If you have any doubt - go back and read the work of three of your favorite screenwriters.