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BREAKING IN: Don't Write "Like a Girl!"

Having trouble getting your spec screenplay optioned or sold? Here's the industry's best-kept secret: The problem may be that you write like a girl!

Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and "pitch coach" for screenwriters at all levels of experience. Her new photo-illustrated book is the long-awaited autobiography of the Yankees' famous Double-A affiliate (Trenton Thunder) Bat Dog: DERBY! My Bodacious Life in Baseball. Staton is available for script reading/analysis and consultations and can be reached at Follow Staton on Twitter @StatonRabin.

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BREAKING IN: Don't Write Like a Girl! by Staton Rabin | Script Magazine

Back when I was a freelance story analyst for Warner Bros. Pictures, I had an encounter I never forgot. I arrived at the Story Department to pick up the latest screenplay or book for evaluation, and bumped into one of the executives I hadn’t met before. My boss, the Story Editor, introduced me to her.

You’reStaton Rabin?” the executive said, staring at me. “Yep,” I replied. “Well,” she said. “I’ve read your reports. You don’t write like a girl!”

Conflicted about how to respond, I probably hesitated and then said: “Thanks!”

But I really did know exactly what she meant. And despite my misgivings about the implied insult to other women writers, I took what she said as a compliment. I gathered she was saying I wrote with strength and decisiveness.

Apparently, like all the honchos in Development at Warner Bros., that particular executive had been reading my book and screenplay coverage for a long time. But with a name like mine, unless you’d met me or seen my photo you’d never have known I was female. And, apparently, there’s nothing in the way I write that told her I am.

What does it mean to “write like a girl”?

All I can tell you is that if you’re a story analyst in the movie business as I am, you know it when you see it. And it’s not intended as a compliment.

Writing in general— and screenwriting in particular-- is a muscular art form. It requires a strong point of view, powerful conflicts between characters, and leading your readers to feel whatever you want them to feel. You have to know who you are, who your characters are, what you want to communicate, and do it quickly and efficiently—without a lot of chatter. Keeping things moving is important. Whether you’re writing “coverage” for a movie studio, or a movie script of your own, you really can’t be wishy-washy or unassertive in the way you express yourself in written form. And there’s no time for “feminine” flourishes or preoccupations with nuance. There’s a lot of nuance and ambivalence in life, but it’s hard to convey it in movies, which instead are all about clear goals and sharp conflicts. “Nuance” is for actors and directors, not screenwriters.

Nowadays, I evaluate screenplays for writers, directors/producers, and screenplay competitions. The scripts I read for contests don’t have the authors’ names on them-- so in theory I have no idea whether a male or a female wrote any script I’m evaluating. Ideally, I shouldn’t be able to tell. Sometimes I can.

Later, after the contest is over, the writers’ names are revealed, so I find out whether a man or woman wrote the winning script. Naturally, I don’t care if a man or woman wrote it, I only care if it’s great. But it’s fun to be surprised and find out that a script that I loved and assumed (because of its style, genre, sensibility, etc.) was probably written by a man, was actually written by a woman. Or, conversely, that a great and moving romantic drama with a convincing female protagonist, was written by a man.

As a woman, of course I’m always pleased if it turns out there’s a good balance between men and women writers among a contest’s finalists and winners. But as a story analyst, all that matters to me is finding great scripts. That’s true for every story analyst in the business.

Too often, if a script is written by a woman, I can tell right away-- and, generally speaking, that’s not good. And it’s not just the subject matter that gives this away. Both men and women can write terrific romantic comedies, for example-- and women are just as capable of writing great action and war movies as men are.

But in women’s spec scripts, I often find that the confrontations are muted, the plot meanders, and action lines sometimes waste precious space describing what kind of food characters are preparing or eating, what the characters are wearing, the pictures on the wall, and room furnishings. Hardly ever would any of that information advance plot or character and be important to mention in a script, where every word counts.

Admittedly, I can often spot men’s scripts when they tell us exactly what make and model of car each of the characters is driving-- which, unless they’re writing a script about the Indy 500 or the British royal family, is just as irrelevant.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about the fact that female film directors are discriminated against when it comes to who gets hired to make movies in Hollywood. I have no doubt that this is true. And when there’s an open assignment for a screenwriter, I would guess that, unfairly, female screenwriters have a lower chance of getting hired for the job than male writers do— especially if the story is in a genre traditionally considered “male.” That kind of discrimination has got to stop.

But when it comes to selling spec screenplays or winning screenwriting contests, I truly don’t believe there’s any discrimination against female screenwriters.

I’ve been a story analyst in the movie business for over three decades, and am a judge for many screenwriting contests as well. I’ve worked for major film studios and film agencies. Believe me, if you’ve written a spec script that is a sure bet to make money for an agent or film studio, they don’t care who you are, they’ll want to option or buy it. They don’t care if you’re male or female, what race or age you are, how famous you are--or aren’t-- or anything else about you except whether (in their opinion) you've written a great script that will make them money. And, as I mentioned, if it’s a screenwriting competition, your name probably isn’t even on the script when it’s being judged.

But whatever you do-- and whether you’re male or female-- don’t “write like a girl”. This does not mean that you have to write action movies, violent films, or focus on subject matter that is considered traditionally “male.” It just means that you have to write assertively. Your script must have strong conflicts (emotional, physical, or both), and not shy away from them. Screenplays are all about drama and strong conflicts and confrontations. You must be concise and efficient in your storytelling. There should be no irrelevant digressions to describe the Louis XIV furniture, the flowered wallpaper, or the fact that mom is preparing “a hearty breakfast.”

Have I ever encountered scripts written by men who “write like a girl”? Absolutely! Often, these are guys who fear confrontations in life-- and it shows in their movie characters. “Writing like a girl” is just as counterproductive for men as it is for women. Sometimes, when I evaluate a man’s script I can tell he’s had way too much “marriage therapy.” The married couple in his story fights much too “nice” for those scenes to work in a movie. To give a hypothetical example: He: Honey, when you make fun of my baldness, this makes me feel sad and insecure. She: I’m sorry, dear. Let me feed that back to you to make sure I understand your feelings. When I say your scalp looks like the beach at Malibu, you feel unhappy and emasculated. Have I got that right?

If you’re a woman, you don’t have to change yourself into somebody you’re not in order to be a successful screenwriter. Women have unique qualities and experiences that they can bring to the art of screenwriting. Their sensibilities and perspective on life are an asset in their work as writers, not a liability. But they must always remember that strong conflicts, concision, and a sense of forward momentum, are essential in screenplays. If you are not that kind of writer-- whether you’re male or female— and you're more interested in the power of language than in plot-making, then perhaps writing literary novels instead might be the best course for you.

Nothing in life is black-and-white. So I’m not suggesting that there’s no sexism at all in Hollywood when it comes to selling spec scripts. Since women do tend to write more scripts on traditionally “female” subjects-- some of which (such as romantic drama or “costume pictures”) tend to be in categories that Hollywood typically shies away from because they believe (rightly or wrongly) that these kinds of films rarely make a profit— this can be one factor in why women screenwriters may have more trouble selling even a great script than male writers do.

And as I mentioned, if there’s an open screenwriting or directing assignment— especially in the “action” genres— discrimination certainly plays a role in why women don’t get hired for it more often than they do.

But I am saying that the main reason that female screenwriters have more trouble selling their spec scripts, and winning Oscars, than men do has little or nothing to do with any of those factors. The true explanation is that they are “writing like a girl.” There is no affirmative action program that is going to fix that particular problem. Having more female executives at movie studios in Hollywood is not necessarily going to fix it either.

If female aspiring writers of spec scripts want to get their screenplays optioned or sold and win major awards, they need to keep in mind that writing concisely, forcefully, dramatically, and assertively, with strong suspense and confrontations and a tight focus, is not just for male writers. It’s simply what the art of screenwriting demands.

This doesn’t mean that female screenwriters need to change their genre or subject matter (though I advise all writers to at least consider how difficult it is to sell a drama or a “costume picture” before embarking on that kind of project) or their unique way of seeing the world.

But it does mean that, when writing scripts, most women may have to remind themselves to compensate for some of their natural instincts to “make peace” and avoid confrontations in life, or notice and admire a pretty dress or a well-prepared meal. Writers should never assume that the film audience can “read faces” and notice “nuance” the way many women can in real life.

It's also important to note that when writing stories about traditionally "female" subjects such as family conflicts (e.g., long-estranged sisters have to return home to take care of ailing mom), a woman's quest for love, or women's self-actualization tales, which tend to be highly personal and "internal" in nature, it's hard to make them fresh and interesting for movie audiences. Externalizing the main character's emotions by giving her something interesting to do that advances the plot, and adding a fresh twist to a familiar story template, can help make these kinds of scripts more appealing to buyers-- and to film audiences. Amy Schumer did a great job of this with her muscular script for Trainwreck. She added a fairly fresh twist-- it's the female lead character who's the one with the commitment problem-- to an otherwise traditional romantic comedy formula. The fact that the movie was a well-written and directed comedy, rather than a drama, and had good performances (including one by Schumer herself) and plenty of "heart," also helped.

For years, I’ve been hesitant to say publicly what I often say privately about why I believe women (and some men) have trouble selling their spec scripts and winning Oscars for writing. I know that discrimination against women in Hollywood is real-- but it applies much more to female directors or writers seeking assignments than to female spec screenplay writers.

I’m aware that what I’ve said here may provoke indignation or even outrage on the part of some women-- even though I’m a female screenwriter myself-- and that what I’m saying may be misunderstood. To be clear: I’m not claiming that all female writers of spec scripts describe food and furniture in their action lines, avoid powerful confrontations in their screenplays, write characters who talk too much (instead of allowing images to advance the plot), or expect the film audience to “guess” what their characters are feeling instead of showing us in clear action and behavior. Nor am I saying that women aren’t just as capable of writing great screenplays as men are. In fact, I’ve “recommended” many scripts written by women, and they’re some of the best ones I’ve ever read and evaluated. And I also find that some men have exactly the same problems in their spec scripts that women do.

But I do know that I’d be doing a disservice to other screenwriters if I didn’t help them sell their scripts, by telling the truth in this column, as I see it. And the truth is: if you want to succeed as a screenwriter, you may need to put more “oomph” into your work, even if that approach scares you and doesn’t come to you naturally. You may need to be braver and more assertive in your screenplay than you are in your own life.

One other thing to keep in mind: even if you’re female and sexism is the real reason your scripts aren’t getting optioned and produced, there is nothing you can do about this. It won’t help to have a meeting with other women filmmakers or writers to complain about it, or lobby for more female executives in Hollywood (which may not help anyway).

Your job, whether you’re male or female, is to write ten times better than anybody else, never give up, and learn how to market your script effectively.

After all, it’s always possible that the real reason you haven’t sold your script yet is that it’s simply not good enough-- at least not yet. So why focus on something else (such as sexism) that you can’t do anything about anyway?

You should be devoting your energies to working and getting better as a screenwriter, and getting an outside, objective professional opinion on your script or the one you’re planning to write next-- not to complaining about factors that you can’t control.

And also, it never hurts to remember: Don’t write like a girl.

Keep pitching. See you next time.

Get tips on writing powerful females in Christine Conradt's webinar,
Creating Strong Female Characters