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A Lit Agent’s Advice: 4 Ways To Develop Your Screenwriting Voice

Screenwriting Voice Advice from Michael Chung

The following is a recap from Launch Pad Insider Series interview with Verve agent Michael Chung:

Hollywood needs new voices and unique perspectives.

That’s pretty good news for all of the writers out there, right? Hollywood is looking for people who do what you do. All the time.

There are innumerable ways your script can get into industry hands. From contests to personal connections. From film festivals to fellowships.

But, whatever that script’s path, when it lands at the desk of an agent, manager, producer, executive, assistant or whoever, what are they looking for? What separates your script from the pile of others?

“It’s got to be the best version of the story you want to tell… And it’s got to be something that really leaves an impression that is lasting, no matter what genre it is or what format it is… It’s got to be your voice.”

As part of the Launch Pad‘s recent Insider Series Q&A, I had the opportunity to talk with Michael Chung, a literary agent at Verve (which is also where I’m repped, full disclosure). One topic we kept finding our way back to was the importance of a writer’s voice.

But, what does “voice” even mean? What is your voice and how do you hone it?

1. Embrace Your Uniqueness

Who cares about this story? Why am I even bothering to write this?

Does that sound like a question you’ve asked yourself while in the weeds of your latest script?

Why would anyone care?

Maybe your story is personal. Maybe it’s about a topic or community you’re part of, but one that you’ve never seen represented on-screen before. Does that mean you should put that story aside and try to write something more mainstream?

“[A script] can be about something that’s completely unrelatable to me. It can be about people in Papua New Guinea. Or it could be a female experience I have no idea about. But, it’s got to be something that translates in a universal way to the human experience.”

Voice is about telling a universal story in a way that only you can tell it. Voice is the combination of your unique perspective and sensibilities.

And, your unique story is part of your voice. Since becoming an agent, Michael has seen a shift and trend toward more diversity and inclusion. First on the talent and creator side, and more recently, among reps, producers, and studio execs.

“There is a real emphasis and sincere effort by a lot of companies to try to elevate the diverse voices and the underrepresented groups.”

2. Write What You Love

Having said that, Michael says writers from diverse backgrounds shouldn’t feel as though they’re forced to write only stories from that perspective.

“I’ve experienced with a lot of new and up-and-coming writers, where they feel like they have to lean into their strengths. And that’s definitely something you should do. You should exploit any card in your deck. But, don’t feel that that’s all that you have to write about.”

It all comes down to telling the stories you’re most passionate about. To flexing your creative muscles and simply writing the movie you’d want to see.

“Just because you are Asian doesn’t mean you can only write Asian Marvel movies. You should be able to write any type of Marvel movie if you qualify and you have the skill and the passion for it.”

Worrying about being pigeon-holed as one thing creatively is a fear among many writers, and according to Michael, the power is in your hands to tell any story you’re excited to tell.

“It also helps to show your range and the themes and stories that you’re interested in. To not restrict yourself.”

You don’t have to restrain yourself to your life experiences. To one type of story. Or even to a single genre.

“You shouldn’t be so defined by the genres you’re interested in… Try to be a genre-agnostic. That sometimes results in a better final product because you’re not trying to obey the rules, and you’re trying to tell the most compelling story no matter what it is.”

3. Find Community

We all know writing can be a lonely past time. Unless you have a writing partner, it can be a solitary process from beginning to end.

But, it doesn’t have to be.

“There is a community out there. Start getting plugged in there.”

Getting involved in a writers’ group is a great way to share your work with other writers, get helpful feedback, and continue to improve your writing. And, if you don’t have a community of writers around you, Michael has noticed a trend of writers supporting each other online.

“Start sliding into people’s DMs and adding people. They seem to have more time than ever to be responding and engaging other, newer, younger writers that want to get in the business.”

What’s the best way to approach other writers online?

“I think the angle that works the best is asking for advice rather than asking you to read me… An eagerness to learn, wanting to be better, and figuring out how to navigate the whole system.”

For writers from underrepresented groups, there are organizations dedicated to creating community and advancing their members within the industry. Groups like the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, as well as contests and fellowships at many studios and networks.

Being a part of a writer’s group or a larger organization is a great way to get eyes on your script from writers who are active in the industry and involved with helping new writers break in.

“They’re trying to be responsible to their community, give good reads, provide feedback, and recommend them.”

And a recommendation from an established writer can go a long way.

“One of our favorite things is when a client refers to us a client… If this person who meets our standards believes this person is also up to snuff, that’s another way to get a script read.”

4. Keep Writing

Getting representation or that first sale can be a life-altering experience, but there are going to be plenty of no’s on your way to that big yes.

“Don’t take one assistant’s pass as the end of the road. If you are a writer, that is what you are going to do and you should keep writing.”

No’s suck. They do. But, take them for what they are. One no is not a reflection of your ability or the opinion of the industry as a whole. You should be open to notes and feedback, but a single pass doesn’t have to be the end of the line.

“It’s a subjective thing. Don’t get down on yourself from negative feedback. It’s something that you should be using to improve upon your writing.”

Potential representatives are more interested in the career than one script, one sale, one payday. A career in screenwriting is a marathon, not a sprint.

“When we get into business with a writer, it’s not about this piece of writing as business… It’s about developing a relationship that’s going to last multiple years. Is the writing on the page something that we believe in and are passionate about, that we will still be passionate about years from now?”

Much of honing your voice is about perseverance. Writers write. And, the more you write, the more your voice will emerge and strengthen.

“If you want to be somebody who has a career in writing for multiple years or the rest of your life, you have to be somebody that’s committed to the craft… You’re not going to write one thing that’s going to lead to decades of jobs without having to work at it again.”

If you continue to hone your voice and put yourself and your work out there in contests, fellowships, writing communities, and more, who knows what could happen?

“It’s a cliche, right? You hear about some Deadline blast about some big splashy sale from this breakout new writer. And then it turns out that new writer, this is literally the 20th spec that they’ve written.”

“It’s really competitive out there. You have to be competitive.”

You can watch the full interview here:

 

Related blog post: Screenwriters: 4 Strategies for Getting Hollywood’s Attention Fast


Brian T. Arnold is a screenwriter repped by Verve Talent Agency and Romark Entertainment. He won the Launch Pad Feature Screenplay Competition and was featured on the Hit List and the Young & Hungry List. Arnold also studied improv and sketch comedy at Upright Citizens Brigade and The Groundlings, wrote for a sketch team at iO West (R.I.P.), and wrote for the CBS Diversity Comedy Showcase.