Great rockstars get noticed; they know how to own the spotlight.
Great screenplays are the same.
Unfortunately, writing a rockstar screenplay involves more than cladding yourself in a pair of skintight leather pants.
What if I told you of a screenwriting technique which can dazzle a studio reader like a pyrotechnic-studded show at Madison Square Garden?
Sounds intriguing. Perhaps expensive and complicated too.
But I promise you, this screenwriting trick is free and simple.
You don’t have to spend thousand of dollars at a writing retreat in France to learn it. It’s so simple, you can use it right away, even if you’ve never completed a screenplay.
And you don’t have to have a lick of musical talent or a hint of rockstar glamor either.
So, what is this magical technique?
It’s called the Bechdel test. It’s been around for awhile, but I first heard of it recently, through John August’s podcast. To pass this very free, very simple test, a movie:
- must have two named female characters in it
- who talk to each other
- about a topic other than a man
It’s hardly earth-shattering or glamorous stuff, but you’d be surprised by how few Hollywood movies pass this test. If you use it, the Bechdel test potentially can:
- unleash your creative giant
- help your script stand out (and not in the slutty way)
- make your female characters as intriguing as MJ’s Billie Jean
- win over the women in your life (romantically and platonically)
In short, it can turn you into a screenwriting rockstar.
How can something so straightforward accomplish so much?
Before I get into that, let me make one caveat: the Bechdel test isn’t about male-bashing. Guys, you make the world a better place, so please take this article in the vein in which it is intended–to make anyone a better writer, whether you’re male or female.
Whew, *rubs brow*, now that we’ve got that sorted, let’s see how the Bechdel test can help you write like a rockstar…
Unleash your creative giant
Rockstars have a rep for pushing the envelope. But they can be just as creative when they’re following the rules, rather than breaking them.
Take the Indian composer Naushad (who’s a rockstar in the metaphorical sense). When he was working on the classic film Mughal-E-Azam, he rejected the lyrics to a song which was supposed to be recorded that very day.
According to The Indian Express, he redid the song, without pausing to eat, in a “marathon brainstorming session from four in the evening to daybreak the following day.”
But his troubles weren’t over yet. The song he created required a reverb effect, for which the technology wasn’t available. So Naushad asked the singer to record the song in a studio bathroom decorated with glazed tiles, which achieved the desired effect.
Naushad faced two major restrictions: time and technology. But they didn’t impede his creativity. Instead, his creativity blossomed.
Incidentally, Mughal-E-Azam became the highest grossing film in Indian history (adjusted for inflation). You can check out the song, Pyar Kiya, here.
Like Naushad, if you add a “restriction” to your screenwriting regime–like the Bechdel test–your creativity may unfurl like a kite on a summer’s day.
Think about the times that you didn’t know what to write about, so you took a look at a writing prompt, like a Scene Stealer from Write to Done.
Suddenly, your mind explodes with possibilities. Instead of feeling stymied by the vastness of the blank page, your imagination generates scenarios which meet the requirements of the prompt. In other words…
Creativity doesn’t shirk from boundaries. Instead it rises to the challenge. [Click to tweet]
Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent years studying what he calls “flow,” or optimum experience. His research shows that humans overwhelmingly experience enjoyment when they are engaged in “sequences of activities that are goal-directed and bounded by rules.”
The rule-bounded part is where the Bechdel test comes into play. Counter-intuitively, by adding this requirement, your writing experience should be more enjoyable and productive. (Even mowing the lawn can be enjoyable, according to Csikszentmihalyi, “provided one restructures the activity by providing goals and rules.”)
It’s important to note that your skill level is a factor too. If you’re a novice screenwriter, tossing yet another rule like the Bechdel test into the mix, can hinder rather than help.
Make sure you have a solid grasp of screenplay craft before taking your script to task with the Bechdel test.
Want to learn more about flow, “the secret to happiness?” Check out Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk:
Stand out, the classy way
Rockstars often reinvent themselves to stay fresh–and within the media spotlight. Sometimes they push the envelope too far, bringing themselves shame…instead of acclaim.
Screenwriters do this too. But to stand out, they don’t garb themselves in provocative outfits. Instead, they try to reinvent the rules of screenplay format.
But that’s a big mistake. You’ll stand out, but like a scantily clad starlet, you’ll attract the wrong kind of attention.
Freshen up your story, not format.
The Bechdel test can help you achieve rockstar status without resorting to desperate measures. Few movies actually meet all three criteria of the test. So if yours does pass the test, it will stand out in a subtle, semi-subliminal way. A studio reader may not even be able to pinpoint why your script seems fresher than the others which have crossed his coffee-stained desk.
For example’s sake, let’s pretend you’re writing a buddy cop action comedy. And you’re struggling. Everything you’ve written just seems to be a rehash of the classics which have preceded yours.
Enter the Bechdel test. To make your story fulfill all three criteria, you change the gender of one your cops.
Whoa, that seems different…dare I say…fresh?
Brimming with excitement, you decide to take it one step further. You make both cops female. This is probably not the way Katie Dippold came up with the concept for The Heat, but it could’ve been.
So the next time you’re tempted to take desperate measures to stand out, curb your urge, and apply the Bechdel test to your script instead.
Multidimensional heroines in a heartbeat
Like great screenwriters, great musicians make fictional people come to life.
Even though they’re only three minutes (most of which is repeated content in the chorus), great songs give us a window into the soul of the person put under the lyrical microscope.
You’ve never met Billie Jean, but you know exactly what she’s like.
The young girl receiving advice in Trace Adkins’s “You’re Going to Miss This,”…she could be your next-door neighbor.
Love her or hate her, pretty much any Taylor Swift song details feelings and thoughts found in the diary of your average female teen in America.
When you’re in the midst of writing your screenplay, it’s easy to see your characters, whether male or female, only though the lens of their story function. You forget that your characters need to have as much–if not more–dimension than the fictional girl in a chart-topping tune.
That’s the beauty of the Bechdel test. It gently reminds you not to box your female characters into their story role.
Take the 2010 reboot of Star Trek. A scene which passes the Bechdel test appears about 30 minutes into the movie. Uhura tells her roommate, Gaila, about her night in the long-range sensor lab. She was tracking solar systems and picked up an emergency transmission from a Klingon prison planet.
This scene conveys some critical exposition, which sets up later story events. But it does more than that. It enables the audience to witness Uhura’s passion for linguistics, to see her as a being in her own right–and not just a bit of token estrogen which melts Spock’s icy intellectualism. (Well, at least in does in the script. The effect is somewhat undercut in the produced film due to the way the scene was actually shot.)
If the female love interest in your script seems as flat as the cardboard which contained the boxed LOTR set you bought from Amazon, try using the Bechdel test to give her extra dimensionality.
This would’ve definitely improved Iron Man 2 (which completely ruined my desire to see Iron Man 3). Both the Black Widow and Pepper Potts lacked personality, as if they had simply been written through a vortex of lust.
Imagine if the movie had included a scene which passed the Bechdel test. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the Black Widow and Pepper argued with each other because of a longstanding rivalry–which had nothing to do with Tony?
Even cooler, what if they had been friends?
That’s not to say that movies which pass the Bechdel test are necessarily good. By the same token, movies which fail the Bechdel test aren’t automatically bad.
A Few Good Men, Braveheart, and When Harry Met Sally are all classics. Tinkering with them to toss in a Bechdel scene would likely do more harm than good.
But if your gut is telling you that your female characters are coming across like token bits of estrogen, take the Bechdel test for a spin. Even if, for whatever reason, you end up discarding the Bechdel scene, it could lead you to an intriguing backstory which adds depth and dimension to your script.
Impress the women in your life
Being able to say, “I’m in a band,” is one of the best ways to impress anyone, whether you’re interested in them romantically or platonically.
But what if you can’t croon like Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba? What if you can’t tame a guitar like Chris Cornell?
What do you then? How can you impress your sister, daughter, or wife?
You could write a movie which recognizes that their heart’s desire consists of more than finding romantic love (although that’s important too).
Sure, that might not be as cool as claiming that you once co-wrote a song with Johnny Cash (because nothing’s cooler than Johnny Cash).
But it’s just as precious as a cherry red Gibson guitar, don’t ya think?
Q & A: Query and Action
Query: Do you think the Bechdel test is helpful or full of hooey? Why or why not?
Scribe Action Step: Review an old script of yours and evaluate it according to the rules of the Bechdel test. If it fails, write a scene which meets all three criteria of the test. If it passes, choose a different script. Alternately, select a movie which fails the test and write a Bechdel scene for it.
Share your response to the query, or your experience with the action step, (or both), in the comments section below!
*To be fair to rockstars, success involves talent and charisma, not just leather pants
Guitar Hero by Jason Rogers