Confident Writing is S-E-X-Y. Barri Evins tells all: what it is, why you need it, where to get it, who it turns-on and how to use it to excite the industry.
Confident Writing is the topic of the day. Because I love it. All readers love it. Agents love it. Managers love it. Contest readers love it. Like an ice-cold beverage on a scorching hot day, we thirst for confident writing.
Admittedly, confidence is not going to be a check box on coverage or contest feedback form. But it should be.
I’m chalking that up to the fact that, while confident writing seems abstract, it has some very concrete characteristics.
Discover why confident writing is essential, why readers long for it, and get my top tips to elevate your writing to this tip-top level.
Confident Writing – What It’s Not
Let me qualify this right off the bat: I’m not talking about confidence when in person or within a query letter.
Do not swagger over to an industry pro at a conference or networking event and say, “Hey baby, I gotta juicy screenplay in my pocket and it’s gonna rock your world.”
Do not send a query that includes, “My movie is going to launch sequels and prequels, TV series and comic books, and bring world peace.”
This is not the type confidence we are looking for. It is decidedly not sexy. In fact, it’s a turn-off, likely to do more harm than good. Read more on networking no-nos here. And find more Query Don’ts here.
I’ve written about the qualities of great writing that have made me a semi-crazy Screenwriting Fangrrl of a handful of writers over decades of reading.
However, confidence is the quality of great writing that has stood out in my mind lately. Actually, it has screamed out loud.
Often, we don’t fully realize how much something matters until we feel its absence. And in some of the reading I’ve done lately, I have found myself missing the warm embrace of confident writing.
Confident Writing – The Flip Flop Fail
In the olden days, we readers turned the pages of scripts. Forcing your reader to flip back the pages to re-read was a cardinal sin. Today we scroll through a PDF. Now your job is to insure that we never, ever have to scroll back.
If I have to “scroll back” it means I am confused about some significant aspect of the story. Could I have missed some important information?
Please believe me when I say, “It’s not me, it’s you.” I was built to be a reader. In 3rd grade reading circles, I was the one constantly getting into trouble. I was reading so much faster than the group that I had sneakily turned the page and was much further ahead. So, when I was called on, I didn’t know the place. I was already onto the next story.
I’m not just a fast reader; I have terrific comprehension and an elephant’s memory for story. I can open a script, and if I have read it at any point in my lengthy career – bingo – I can tell within a few pages.
Going backwards still makes me crazy. Forcing a reader to stop reading and scroll back is beyond frustrating. It's damaging.
It jeopardizes your story: It disrupts our reading flow, destroys our focus and pulls us out of the story when your goal is to keep us engaged.
It diminishes your credibility as a writer: It makes us question if you have mastered the fundamentals of craft. You appear less experienced. We think less of your overall writing ability.
it convinces us that you are still in the process of learning how to write a screenplay.
To be blunt: “If you’ve lost us, you lose.”
Confident Writing – Take My Hand
Confident writing engages us quickly and effectively.
From the opening image or sequence, your job is to grab our interest, draw us into your story and make us want to keep reading.
Heroes are one of the most powerful ways to draw a reader into your story. Complex, compelling and rootable protagonists take us by the hand and lead us into their world and the people who populate it.
Confident Writing – Hold Me
Confident writing keeps us in the story every step of the way. While writers obsess over page count, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but when the story is engrossing – keeping me engaged at every turn, intrigued by the characters, eager to know what happens next – I don’t really mind that it is 127 pages. The time flies by. Conversely, when a script’s execution is not strong, 87 pages feels like an eternity. Once in a great, great while, I find myself so enthralled by a story, I don't want it to end. Read more about does page count count here.
Confident Writing – Be In Charge
Confident writing is sexy for readers because it is clear that the writer is completely in charge. When we recognize that the writer knows what they are doing and is in control of the story they are telling, we can lean back, relax and enjoy. We can lose ourselves in the moment and fully experience the story.
Nothing is more frustrating when reading a script than having to pause and scroll back, because the writer has left us confused. The old journalism rule, “5 W’s and an H,” applies here:
- Who What Where When Why How
This calls to mind an old fashioned newsroom where writers are banging out stories on manual typewriters, rushing to make the deadline before the presses start rolling. They were expected to cover those six fundamentals in their lead sentence.
The problems that most frequently force me to scroll back are not knowing the answers to those fundamental questions.
Who is that? “Who” is almost always our first question; the very first thing we want to know in story. Whose story is it? While protagonists tend to get a lot of attention from writers, supporting characters can get short shrift when they have the potential to add depth and complexity by supporting the theme and enhancing the conflict.
This is always more challenging in ensembles, especially of similar characters. Often, they are introduced in rapid succession, with not all of them coming clearly into focus.
If we have to ask “who,” chances are you blew the character introduction. If you fall short of making the character distinctive from the outset and fail to support that in their behavior and dialogue as the story advances, you force us to scroll back to figure out who’s who.
Where are we? Top cause: The script cuts to a new location and all the information the reader is given is in the slugline.
I know I might not have been popular in the past for saying that those of us who read for a living tend to stop reading sluglines, especially as we get acquainted with the main settings. And as the story becomes more engrossing, I think we are even more likely to skip sluglines. They aren’t that interesting. And they shouldn’t be.
You may be working hard on your sluglines, as I’ve noticed writers agonizing over this in online groups. I acknowledge that there are plenty of intricacies, but they’re best left to a formatting guru. However, it might be helpful to understand the original and primary purpose of sluglines.
The slugline is there to enable someone to breakdown a script into an efficient shooting schedule and determine the budget. Rarely are scripts shot from beginning to end, sequentially. They are broken down into scenes that are then grouped together to create an efficient shooting schedule. It makes financial sense. Every added day on a film is hugely expensive.
Which is why sluglines are formatted the way they are:
INT. BAR – NIGHT
INT: Interior and exterior may indicate whether the scene is shot on location or in a soundstage.
BAR: All scenes that take place in the same location get shot at the same time. Otherwise you’re literally moving your cast, crew and equipment from location to location and back again. It takes time and it costs money.
NIGHT: Daytime scenes and nighttime scenes are grouped together. Switching your cast and crew back and forth from shooting nights to shooting days will leave them sleep deprived, and can incur costly union penalties for not giving the crew adequate turn around time – the amount of hours they must have off between call times.
A scene’s location it should be described – cinematically – in the first or, at latest, the second line of the description. The strongest scene descriptions not only reveal the important details of the setting, but also convey the atmosphere – what it feels like to be there.
Work from the outside in to direct our eye without directing the camera – exterior establishing shot, interior, general setting, with some significant specifics. This is your chance to bring the setting to life with a few juicy details.
Find my favorite slugline versus description example here.
What is going on here? The action is not fully visualized. It may be clearer in the mind of the writer than it is on the page.
Rapid-paced action writing is challenging. And if there is a lot of action in a script, then chances are it’s inherent in the genre, and is only going to increase in pace and intensity as the story progresses.
What I’m longing for is action that is cinematic and followable. While “followable” may not truly be a word, the meaning is clear. I never want to get lost. Keep it crisp and clean. The reader needs to be able to readily track the action from one beat to the next, with enough detail to visualize it in their mind’s eye.
When is this happening? While not all scripts are linear, we still need a sense of where we are in the timeline of your story, as well as a sense of the passage of time.
Flash forward opening? No problem. Any combination of multiple nonlinear moments grows difficult. And putting one inside the other – such as a dream inside a flashback – and you’re seriously challenging the reader. Formatting helps, but these choices had better be for a good reason in terms of serving your story.
The biggest offender for me is not knowing if we are in the past or the present of the story. Is this is a flashback, a hallucination, a dream, a memory? While this might be more obvious on the screen where there are many visual tools to clarify, your script won’t get to that point if you can’t first make it clear on the page.
Is there ever a good reason not to clarify “when”? Yes. If it truly serves a narrative purpose.
We both agreed that the most interesting approach to his concept by far was to tell the story from the first person point of view, putting the audience or reader right into the mind of the protagonist. My solution to that, which took a while to come up with, was to tell the story backwards so that it denied the audience the information that the protagonist is denied.
Memento intentionally mixes memories and reality, even repeating variations on the same scene – all in service of creating a visceral experience for the audience and supporting the theme about memory, examining truth versus perception.
Why now? Why are the events of this story unfolding at this point in time? Either having no reason or having a forced or contrived reason drives me bananas. Inciting incidents should not be random. Without a solid “why now,” it feels like the driving force of the story is strictly because the writer wants it to happen.
I feel as if I’ve written a thousand loglines that began, “When hero’s estranged father/mother/best friend from high school dies, they must go back to their small hometown and…” confront something from their past. While there is drama inherent in the set up, this contrived “why now” is beyond cliché; it’s simply worn out. Speaking of old sayings, I seem to recall this one, “Plot is what the writer wants to have happen. Good plot is what the character wants.”
Often a “why now” issue indicates a lack of an internal logic to the story. After ten years of marriage, why did she kill him today and not yesterday? Even in horror or fantasy, I’m always hoping there will ultimately be an answer to “why now.” A monster, a ghost, a serial killer, can all have something that motivates them, that sparked the action of the story.
Strong inciting incidents are tied into both plot and character, ultimately leaving no question as to why now.
How does it feel? Films are a visceral medium. That’s why we consider movie-going an experience. On the screen, there will be actors, lighting, costuming, camera angles, a musical score and more to convey the feeling of the moment. Confident writing conveys this on the page. Not by bombarding us with detail, but with a deft touch. It is purposeful. It focuses on that which is significant to the story and adds meaning.
Your job is use words to plant the seeds that make thoughts, feelings and images spring to life in our mind.
The most powerful way to communicate how it feels is through showing, not telling. A few well-chosen words can speak volumes and allow the actor, director, cinematographer, costume designer and many other talented people to interpret meaning and do their jobs to the very best of their ability.
On the page, give us the flavor, not the minutia. Something about a character’s appearance that is meaningful, but not down to the tiny specifics. Show us how a character reacts, their behavior, their expression, their body language. This conveys emotion and externalizes internal conflict. Confident writers create strong description that can make your story rich with subtext.
Conveying “How does it feel” is a way to truly elevate your writing and create an emotionally vivid and resonant reading experience.
Confident Writing – Is This Script Hot?
Does your writing possess this s-e-x-y characteristic?
Chances are, you can’t tell from gazing in the mirror.
Certainly, take a polish pass focusing on insuring your script is a smooth, engaging and cinematic. But you will still be looking at your own reflection.
You need fresh eyes to get true perspective.
First, because you know your story inside out. Your characters are very familiar to you. You can see the action play out in your mind. And your brain will automatically fill in any missing information. That’s part of their job to ensure our survival, so you can’t turn it off.
However, for readers, it will be their first time. All they have is what you have put on the page. And that is precisely who you are writing for. Being successful here is the hurdle your script will inevitably encounter and must overcome.
Begin with fellow writers whose work you admire, progress to contest feedback, then seriously consider a professional consultant to get objective, constructive feedback from an industry perspective. Consider all the notes you receive, incorporate the ones that support and strengthen your story, and search for the true meaning behind those that might not seem immediately clear to you.
Will you run into conflicting notes? Quite probably. Learn how to handle conflicting notes here and get pointers for when you receive real world notes.
Confident writing is well worth the work. It is one of the crucial elements to master as you develop your own distinctive writer’s voice and the s-e-x-iest characteristic of all. It puts you on the path to exciting readers. That’s how your work begins advancing in contests, gleaning industry interest and getting the attention you crave from executives and agents and managers.