As the WGA says to new members in its welcome letter: “You are now a professional writer. You had about a five times better chance of hearing your name read at the Major League baseball draft this year than of getting this letter. Make sure your parents know that.”
This letter, however, makes no mention of the difficulty of becoming a writer from an underrepresented group.
In 2019, a UCLA study found that minority writers accounted for only 13.9% of the 140 top English-language films at the global box office per year. While Hollywood has had a monochromatic history when it comes to representation, both on and off-screen, audiences have been crying out to see a reflection of themselves for decades, specifically in relation to race, gender, and sexual identity.
Even though Hollywood has been slow to listen, there has been a shift towards seeking out diverse talent, emboldened by the rise of premium streaming services such as HBO, Netflix, and Hulu. In their recent programming, they have worked to elevate emerging diverse voices. The media attention around movements like #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite has shown Hollywood that diversity sells. Coupled with the success of films like Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Call Me by Your Name, diverse stories proved that they can break box office records and garner Academy Award nominations.
Even with such optimism for the future, one question remains: how does a diverse screenwriter break into such a selective industry?
Understanding Your Voice
With this question in mind, it is crucial to understand the specific ways in which the entertainment industry is attempting to embrace diversity. It is easy to think that your voice is simply your life experience. From my work, Hollywood isn’t necessarily interested in your life story exactly, but it is committed to using your voice to add a vital perspective to its stories. Your voice is not about what you say, but how you say it.
The artist striving for truth or sincerity had to guard his spontaneous vision against distortion or alteration by aesthetic conventions or preconceptions.
Georges Lucas has surely never experienced war in outer space, but in writing Star Wars, he imbues the imaginative plot with what many of us know on an emotional and fundamental level: what it’s like to be an outcast trying to find a place of belonging in this world.
The push towards inclusivity in Hollywood is not just about political correctness, but it is about offering a new layer of depth and realism to the stories that are being told.
A voice is not a writing style or a technique. It is a perspective and a point of view. It is your responsibility to tell your stories in the most authentic and genuine way. Your voice comes from the subjective and the intimate. You must build off your experiences in life and your understanding of religion, nationality, culture, ethnicity, philosophy, sexual identity, and gender to explore a universally relatable emotion. Informing your work with lived experience is at the heart of creating a story that resonates with audiences worldwide.
One of the most common pieces of writing advice is “Write What You Know”. The “what you know” part isn’t restricted to physical or tangible experiences alone, but it encompasses what you know emotionally and intellectually.
Developing Your Voice on Paper
You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury—everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hard-boiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years, where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew.
- READ. READ. READ.
Screenplays are aplenty on the web.
Every script you read is a learning experience as it exposes you to different approaches that will help inform and define your vision and your voice. By breaking down and highlighting what works and what doesn’t work for you, specifically in each script, you begin developing a sense of writing a scene that is explicitly your own.
During my journey to find my voice, I saw myself coming back to different screenplays for different reasons. I was inspired by the world-building of Lord of the Rings, the thematic development in Pan’s Labyrinth, and the character arcs developed in Kubo and the Two Strings.
Inspiration doesn’t only come in the form of a screenplay.
There are plenty of other mediums that can be equally powerful and enlightening such as video games, books, and the theatre.
- WRITE. WRITE. WRITE.
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” Virginia Woolf
Growing up in Beirut, Lebanon at the tail end of the civil war, I experienced a specific type of fear that stripped me from my sense of identity and belonging. During the first few years of my life, we lived in an underground shelter where we woke up and went to bed to the sounds of bombs raging outside. Beyond fear and survival, there was only loneliness.
I started my first feature script wanting to write about a boy who lives alone on a floating rock above the clouds. The idea filled my every waking moment. I didn’t know it at the time, but I felt myself being represented on an emotional level by that visual.
Moving through the second and third drafts of the script, I started finding myself writing about that specific type of loneliness, the one that comes from being born into fear, from surviving all your life without having lived a single day. Understanding why I wanted to write this story and figuring out the emotional undertones I was trying to express helped me give the narrative shape and meaning and provide it with depth and heart.
Six drafts later, I ended up with a story about a lonely boy who learns the value of love and friendship after he accidentally causes a war between the elemental Gods in Japan. During the time it took for me to go from draft one to draft six, I learned critical lessons about myself that were essential for me to hone, sharpen, and understand my voice as a writer and my identity as a human being.
Writing allows you to process what you’ve experienced in your life and what you’ve learned from doing all that research and apply it in a particular way that stands out as your own. Write specific scenes, write characters moments, free-write, explore, and play. Try your hand at fantasy, comedy, or horror; try writing for a mainstream audience, then try targeting the indie crowd. Nothing you write is wasted. You can find out a lot about your voice by simply writing everything that comes to mind.
Remember, developing your voice requires discipline.
Every story I’ve written after that has been an educational experience both on a personal and professional level.
It is essential to ask yourself the difficult questions and come face to face with your fears and passions because your voice as a writer begins with understanding who you are as a person and what you stand for.
Everyone has a different “Breaking In” story, and the reason behind that is there is no one way to do it.
My own personal success story comes from entering screenwriting competitions throughout the years, such as ScreenCraft, Nicholl, and Austin Film Festival, among others. Whether it’s through film school, personal connections, or screenwriting competitions, each of these mediums offers an opportunity for you to tell your story. There’s no breaking in without having done the work, so put your fears aside and use your voice.
Take risks, write from passion, and don’t corner yourself in what you think Hollywood wants to see. There’s already a Spielberg, a Lucas, and a Tarantino out there telling stories. But there’s no you yet, so you have to carve out that space for yourself.
Screenwriting competitions with mentorship components like Humanitas New Voices and studio Fellowships like the HBOACCESS Writing Fellowship have become one of the most effective ways to launch the careers of many new voices in Hollywood as they bring together top industry professionals and aspiring screenwriters worldwide.
However, understanding that rejection is part of the process is vital. Don’t let your failures deter you from chasing your goal, but instead, take the notes you are offered and apply them in your future work. I often felt discouraged and was constantly questioning whether I was heading in the right direction or not. But there is no right direction. I always went back to the work of those I admired and kept developing my voice on paper, knowing that it is up to me to tell the stories that I want to see on screen.
Storytelling is about understanding ourselves as people in relation to our communities; all people and all communities, no exclusions. With the right tools, discipline, and resources, your voice and stories can help build credibility around an authentic representation of our collective human experience. Context is key.
Your stories are essential, and your voice matters. Learn about yourself and commit to the work; the rest will follow. And remember, breaking through the noise is a challenge, not an obstacle. The odds don’t define you, your stories do.