Ask the Expert: Beyond the Chick Flick

Question: What are the top ten things to remember when writing a female-driven screenplay?


1. Turn The Tables on Female Stereotypes

Don’t ignore negative perceptions about women; challenge them by turning negative labels into positive traits for your character. “Gossipy” becomes well informed. “Catty” becomes competitive. And don’t forget that positive stereotypes are still stereotypes. Humanize the perfect model of a woman by showing the darker side.

2. Heighten Your Female Character’s Goals

The unappreciated temp doesn’t want to be noticed; she wants to be boss. The neglected wife doesn’t want to find out about her husband’s infidelity, she wants to get even. Scripts that think big sell!

3. Give Your Female Character More Traditionally “Masculine” Activity

Are you undermining your character just because she’s a woman? Ask yourself “what would a guy do?” Perhaps then your character will build the house she wants, instead of just dreaming about it. Perhaps she’ll wait in the dark with a weapon for the burglar, rather than just calling the cops.

4. But Don’t Forget She’s A Woman

The female experience can bring its own activity and entertainment to a scene. In Kill Bill two female assassins suddenly hide their knives as a school bus pulls up and a child comes home. It’s a funny, revealing moment that we normally wouldn’t expect from a kung-fu action pic.

5. Create Sharp Act Breaks

Even if your script falls into coming-of-age, dramedy, or stage-of-life category, we should still get a strong sense of what the goals are for the characters at each act break. Don’t force the reader or audience to have to analyze or interpret a murky script. Define those high and low points.

6. Bring Edge to Your Tone

Don’t give the reader a chance to write off your female-driven screenplay as soft. Watch the dreamy voice-over, sepia-toned southern settings, and mother/daughter bonding moments. Kick it up a notch. Have a sense of humor. Don’t write a movie for your mom!

7. Use “Macho” Format

Flowery descriptions and over-choreographed scene direction only weighs down a script and, again, makes it feel soft. If the genre allows for it, hit hard with your words. Be lean and mean in your description. And move purposely down the page.

8. Put a Spin on Familiar Male-Driven Templates

It’s Rocky … but with a woman. Sound familiar?

9. Put a Spin on Familiar Female-Driven Templates

There’s a reason we’ve seen so many modern-day princess stories. It’s fun to spin the familiar. Modernize or come from a different point of view with a fairy-tale or classic story and you could find yourself with a pitch-friendly, high-concept project.

10. What’s Her Story?

Remember the girl in the “guy movie:” the helpless girlfriend, the supportive wife, the stoic mom. What’s her movie? What would she do if she were the lead character? Isn’t it time to tell her story?

Pilar Alessandra is the director of the popular writing program On the Page. As a consultant, she’s helped thousands of writers create, refine and sell their screenplays. Her students and clients have sold to Disney, DreamWorks, Warner Brothers and Sony and have won prestigious competitions such as the Austin Film Festival, Open Door Competition, Fade-In Competition and Nicholl Fellowship.  In the interest of expanding access to her teaching tools, Pilar has created two popular titles: On the Page DVD, and The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes at a Time.



2 thoughts on “Ask the Expert: Beyond the Chick Flick

  1. Dawn McElligott

    Thanks for the tips, Pilar. It reminds me of the steps fellow screenwriters took when they set out to portray women as more highly developed characters in a horror script. Their story is below:

    In 2010, budding screenwriter, Joe Randazzo, won “First Place” in four screenwriting contests, including the Terror Film Festival in Philadelphia. With so many wins, Randazzo was offered and accepted a six-figure option for “Ripper,” a contemporary tale of “Jack The Ripper” in Gotham. When he collaborated with fellow filmmaker, Steven Gladstone, the pair felt confident about future contest wins and similar offers. Their resulting horror script, “The Resurrection of Blake House” may have fallen victim to the Hollywood conundrum: How do you write a fresh, new, original script without scaring off producers who want bankable, time-tested ideas?
    Gladstone, owner of Gladstone Films, had been trying to improve his house with certain contractors and had been suffering the types of problems that inspired Angie’s List. In Gladstone’s case, grievances against contractors compelled him to write a horror script where the homeowner turns the table on the workmen. The table is already turned on the reader because the main focus is on terrorizing men rather than women.
    In “The Resurrection …” a man is murdered on the first page, but the second murder happened too far into the script to please certain screenwriting judges. The intervening pages were filled with character exposition. To the writing team, getting to know the characters upfront would produce a greater emotional payoff as they face their fates throughout the story, yielding a winning script. Most judges disagreed. Although Gladstone and Randazzo were awarded “First Place” in the 2011 Fright Night competition, the screenplay came in a disappointing second at the 2011 Terror Film Festival and failed to place in six additional contests.
    Part of the character exposition is to examine “the cyclical nature of violence” toward both men and women. By visiting the website for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Gladstone and Randazzo discovered the intricacies of women’s situations when they are victimized in abusive relationships. While some light is shed on women’s suffering in abusive relationships, the violence against them is not shown but implied through background noise and so forth, whereas certain male characters explicitly get their due.
    The aggregate effect of abuse is symbolized as a decaying house isolated in the woods, known as “Blake House.” The arrival of men to “repair” the home kicks off the conflict, setting the plot into motion. With this established setting, the two writers were able to pursue their main artistic goals for horror films. For Randazzo, it was “to leave people thinking at the end, to question their ideals and values, to put my own subversive thoughts in their heads.”
    Gladstone aimed for a more visceral response. His goal was “to have the audience so emotionally invested that they’re exhausted to the point where they can’t move. They have to sit through the credits to regain enough energy to leave the theater.” Although “Fright Night” awarded Gladstone and Randazzo the blue ribbon, this singular triumph did not attract as much industry attention as “Ripper.” Randazzo theorized that part of “Ripper’s” success is due to the enduring fascination with its protagonist, “Jack the Ripper,” and the fact that it’s done in a “wonderful style that people are very used to.” As of this writing, “The Resurrection of Blake House” was still searching for a producer.