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From the movie: Winter's Bone

Pamela Gray (credits as long as your arm with “twenty good scripts gathering dust in my garage,”) was honest and hilarious about writing stories told from a woman’s point of view, as well as seeing them through production. A bit of horror from the trenches launched the room into bursts of laughter over the difficulty in getting a female orgasm shown on the screen – if she’s over 40. Doesn’t matter if that’s the spine. But you had to be there. She shared keen insights on female mythology differing a bit within the classic Hero’s Journey.

Elizabeth Hunter (as in Director of Development for Universal-Apollo 13-Clockers-Crooklyn-Twelve MonkeysJumping The Broom and so very much more) was an elegant foil, with a lot on structure, plus lifting the skirt on writing and producing stories from the ethnic woman’s point of view.

Wish you were there for this powerful duo. Really. Hunter and Gray could take it on the road.

Pamela Gray

  •  The good news is, in 2008, four women were nominated for an Oscar for their original screenplays. That was big news for women. And it’s good to remind yourself of the positives. As often as possible.
  •  Forget all the reasons not to, and write female characters that the best actresses will want to play. (Jim Uhls also advised creating actor-attracting characters as a means to break into Hollywood. We see a pattern, here).

Elizabeth Hunter

  •  Everything starts with structure and story. If you don’t nail that, you’ll be called on it.
  • What stories should you tell? Pay attention to the stories you tell yourself over and over. Those are probably the stories you should tell. Just write the stories that you want to “tell to the world.” Movies told from a female perspectives are all “a story about a woman who…”

Conversation between Hunter & Gray

  • Unfortunate fact, but make sure your female protag, no matter what she’s dealing with or initiating, has a core that’s likable, as in a bad woman but a good mom. Both said if you don’t, you’ll get lots of notes to make your tortured fem “redeemable” and that as within a narrow confine of what execs might see as acceptable. (I guess that’s why, if she’s bad, she better be a hottie – if you want your film to be made).
  • TELEPLAY WRITERS: Take note. Television is friendlier towards a wider variety of interesting, female-driven stories than Hollywood is for film. (Note: If you’ve only written screenplays, you might want to do some reading on the 7-act structures required for accommodating the ad placements in network television. Grittier material would gravitate toward the cable market, without ads, so same 3-act structure as film applies for cable without ads).
  • Both panelists said they often return to reading favorite classic and contemporary feminine-perspective stories as those written by: Georgia Elliot, Emily Bronte, Jane Austin and Toni Morrison. (This is just what I wrote down, and does not reflect the full scope of all they cited as favorite authors).
  •  Structure holds everything together. Both panelists recommended “Writing Screenplays that Sell,” by Hal Ackerman, with Gray swearing by Ackerman’s Scene-o-gram for ensuring structure.

Pamela Gray

For those familiar with the archetypes in storytelling, understand that the Female Protagonist’s classic Hero’s Journey is a bit different than it is when using the same story arc for a male protagonist.

  •  In many aspects, the world itself is more repressing for a woman than it is for a man, so environment is often at least one of the female protag’s Antagonists or Threshold Guardians.
  • In the Call to Adventure, the female protag often says no to “the call” more than once before she finally succumbs and goes on her Journey. Her extra hesitation reads natural. The female protag is often more heavily invested in community and family than the male protag, so she has more at stake in leaving all that behind to pursue her Adventure.
  • The Mentor or Ally is different for women. Often more intimate and unexpected. It can be a friend who, without a clue, chirps in with bulls-eye honest insights. And who is capable of delivering the Betrayal 2nd Act Reversal from the Ally and/or Mentor, which occurs in both the classic Hero’s Journey story arc and in most good screenplay structure. (For the male protag, an example of that moment of betrayal/reversal might be “Obi Wan Kanobi dies without giving Luke the further training and help that he feels he desperately needs).
  • Threshold Guardian (can be antagonist): In a woman’s story, this can also come from intimate sources. It can often be her spouse who challenges her level of commitment (think Norma Rae). You rarely if ever find the spouse playing this role in the male Hero’s Journey.
  • Returning with The Prize and Sharing that with Community. This is the returning home conclusion in the Hero’s Journey story arc. A return home to share what she has learned and won is a very natural action for the Heroine’s Journey protagonist to take. It’s nearly a foregone conclusion.

The panel included an excited announcement about Hunter and Gray ganging up to offer a one-hour long series online entitled: Pitching: Making it Happen. Time on that TBD.

We wait with baited breath, and will share as soon as we know. Until then, may your female protagonists continue to push the envelope on what we expect from a buncha women.


As a writer, how do I give you more than just information? How do I break through this real and imagined ethereal wall that separates my mind and your own, here on the tangible page? How do I keep you engaged, oh precious reader? ANSWER: Through making conscious choices while crafting a “LIVING” tale that dares to touch you.

Letters and words are naught but symbols we’re in agreement on, at least within general parameters. Yet language is a living thing that adapts to the times as all else that lives. Language flows from one generation to the next, with each decade of teens and change in technology adding its “two cents.” Language is alive and malleable. It even has the rhythm of Breath and Pulse – and a Reason, when done right. Respect this living Being that you use to write your prose, but do let it be your friend. Put on your 3-D specs, then sit and breathe together. Hang out a little.

The magic of a story comes from the Art of Choice with the language practiced by the teller. There are countless ways to say things. What words will you use? Will you challenge yourself to say more? I think of a Joni Mitchell lyric that was so artful: “I met a woman, she had a mouth like yours, she knew your life, she knew the devil in your deeds.” So much better than “I met your mother.” Artful choices. How will your tale unfold and present itself? Yes, that’s structure. Is your tale so well-built that if you saw it walking down the street you would ask it on a date? Be careful now – writing fiction is Quixotic stuff, the Sorcerers Apprentice. You must both encourage exploration and keep a keen eye out for trouble!

Self-Editing Your Prose

Please, never send a first draft of anything you write to anyone other than a collaborator. Nobody’s that good. (The editor in me needed to get that out of the way. Thanks).

Your second and third drafts might still be about structure, which is absolutely foundational, so do whatever it takes to nail that. But if you’re on the draft where you’re scrutinizing your prose, this is the time to remember the rhythm, the pulse, the life and breath of your story like someone sitting at your table asking you to pass the salt. THAT is your narrator, the real teller of the tale. It might be your protagonist or other character, or perhaps a defined Aspect of your Omniscient orator. (Oh, yes; if God is telling your tale, you should know how it feels to hang out with the god of your making). If all-seeing eyes peer into your characters and read their very thoughts and feelings, and expose their souls, what sort of Omniscient being do you imagine that to be? Are They holy, ephemeral and wise, or disinterested and vengeful? Or do They appreciate the comedic side of human reality; with a big cigar and feet propped on a cloud? 3-D specs, remember. Approach your story as a living, breathing being. Do your sentences and the words you’ve chosen reflect that essence?

When it comes to debuting authors getting their fiction published, the competition is much more than fierce. Learning to become artful in your languaging and word choices is the deep level of self-editing that can turn aspiring writers into published authors. Plus, it’s how all storytellers develop the means to sneak through that “wall” in order to tap readers on the shoulder and nibble their ear.

Now, that didn’t hurt, did it?





July 2018
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