Essentials of Screenwriting Q&A with Richard Walter

Like most other writers, I've read too many books on screenwriting. In fact, it's normally a problem - much like people with substance abuse problems, you just need to stop and move on with your life. In our cases, we just need to write. But recently I had the opportunity to read Richard Walter's book Essentials of Screenwriting. I had heard him speak at an event a couple years back and as he and his concepts were interesting enough for me to remember him out of all the people I've heard speak in the last almost-five years in LA, I decided to check it out.

And I'm glad I did. What I liked about it was that it wasn't trying to regurgitate the same How To rigmarole. Or inundate me with rules and special unlocked secrets of blah-blah-bullshit. Essentials of Screenwriting is, shockingly, for writers who actually write. It saves its pages for the basic building blocks of a writers day and trade. Writing schedules, character, the business of screenwriting, where one's story should actually begin, etc. It handles the tools of screenwriting with an intelligent and readable grace that I found refreshing. Without boring me or lecturing me on the emperor's new clothes of writing, it dealt with things I actually care about and helped me review the tools of our trade. It sharpened some of my pencils, so to speak.

I had the chance to ask Richard Walter some questions over email, and I'm going to share his responses in Q&A form here. Enjoy.

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: This books reads more like therapeutic entertainment than the usual Screenwriting For Dummies book. It assumes its intelligent readers have surpassed the need for IKEA-esque diagrams and might have the need for a book for actual writers, regardless of their professional status. Did you consciously write this book in this manner, or was this more of a byproduct of your writing this amid the horde of screenwriting books already crowding the market?

RICHARD WALTER: Yes. That is, I consciously wrote the book in this manner, hoping to make it readable and accessible, and also to take a stand against the horde of screenwriting books wallowing in diagrams and charts and all sorts of squiggly curvy lines. Screenwriting is accomplished through language. I endeavored to exploit language and language alone in order to articulate the essential principles that explain the phenomenal success of our UCLA-trained writers in making the transition to the professional community. This is very much in keeping with the style of my lectures, that is, I operate in a Power Point-free zone.

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: After reading your book, I kept coming back to two things: 1) Your statement that ideas are the most overrated component of a writer's arsenal, and 2) that in a query letter one should reveal as little as possible about their script. They're both liberating concepts, but I was also struck by the fact that you never mention loglines in your book. Loglines seem to be emblematic of an idea-obsessed industry. I've often been told that a query letter must contain a logline, and I've also had prospective representation ask for loglines and loglines only. What is your stance on loglines and do you believe the logline to also be overrated, or do you think they do more than present the mere idea of a screenplay?

RICHARD WALTER: Yes, the importance of loglines is overrated. That said, however, potential representatives and producers do from time to time insist upon them, and writers must therefore provide them. The trick is, again, to keep them short. They should be viewed not as a summary of the tale but as a tease, a seduction, a Preview of Coming Attractions designed to accomplish one goal: get the reader curious enough about the script to seek to read it. Much more important that what is included in a logline is what is left out.

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: In an episode of Laverne & Shirley, Squiggy once informed the girls that in terms of entertainment, you have to give the people what they want: violent sex, and sexy violence. You make the same point in all seriousness, but it's still the same message about the necessity of primal conflict in a screenplay. In fact I have a hard time thinking of a movie where sex and violence are not involved on some level in the conflict between characters -- be it sex, physical attraction, or physical or mental violence. It's interesting that it sounds like a incendiary remark, but it's really just a fundamental observation of the dramatic art form. Do you get a lot of guff on this point? Do you find that the blunt sound-bite quality of the message clouds the storytelling truth behind it?

RICHARD WALTER: Guff R Us! I love guff! I love to provoke the blue-haired and blue-nosed into a sense of outrage regarding movies. More than merely listing principles I embrace, I like to goad writers into thinking for themselves. I make it clear that while it's undeniable that the classics, from the Greeks through Shakespeare and beyond fairly marinate in bloodlust and perversion, all that's really necessary at the heart of dramatic narrative is conflict. Moreover, it has to be constant. It does not have to be armies looting and raping and murdering, even though in some of the best dramas it is precisely that. I cite Kramer Versus Kramer as superficially benign--no car chases; no shootings--but emotional very bloody indeed. What battle could be more dreadful than that of two people who must have loved each other at least briefly, at war with one another over the custody, the care, the proximity of their own flesh-and-blood offspring, the product of their love? I ask my UCLA students: "Where do you need conflict in a screenplay?" I tell them that I seek a one-word answer. That answer? "Everywhere!"

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: You also mention in your book that it's not coming up with an idea that is difficult, but wading through all of those ideas to pick the one worth spending countless hours crafting into a screenplay. What kind of advice or activities do you espouse in your classroom for finding the right idea? Is it a gut instinct? A matter of determining what is or isn't high concept? Is it a matter of pitching ideas verbally to see what grabs people?

RICHARD WALTER: Regarding pitching: it's not called screen talking; it's called screenwriting. Regarding high concepts: the one common trait shared by all high level executives is a feeble attention span. High concepts are crafted so that even the lame-brained numb-nuts head of a studio can understand it. If you look at the great movies, the ideas they appear to be based upon, their underlying concepts, are fairly lame. Citizen Kane is about a guy who has wealth and women and power but is unhappy. Does that sound like a great movie? Star Wars is a fairy tale in space where the bad guys capture the princess and the good guys rescue her. Who would want to see that? Writers should stop trying to find good ideas and instead let good ideas find them. Stephen King , prior to achieving fame, describes in On Writing how, as a high school teacher, he was curious to see what the girls' gym lockers looked like. One day, after the school was closed, he walked into the deserted girls' gym locker room. He discovered it was exactly like the boys' with two exceptions: instead of gang showers there were curtains separating the stalls; and there were vending machines mounted to the walls dispensing tampons. It may not sound like much but it inspired his breakthrough work: Carrie.

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: When searching for the proper beginning to a story, do you feel this is something that should be determined at the outset, or is it often better to discover the best starting point during revision after a draft has been completed and the script's world has been sketched out?

RICHARD WALTER: Again, yes, it should be determined at the outset or discovered during revision. Every script has to start somewhere. Occasionally, upon completing a script, a writer realizes that his script begins at precisely the proper place, that is, the point before which nothing is needed. Perhaps more often than not, however, he discovers upon revision that there is too much unnecessary lead-in and set-up. At UCLA we preach that audiences aren't stupid but smart. Over the years of channel surfing they've learned to be able to assimilate material much more quickly than when film was a younger medium up to, say, the middle of the past century. Upon completing a draft it is quite common for a writer to realize she can start quite a bit later than she thought necessary. The key is to stay open to the surprises. If a writer thought a script had a natural starting point and then discovers it is otherwise, drop the old start and embrace the later one.

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: Writing the middle or second act of a script can be so torturous. Many people have tried to provide a key for that process -- whether they call it Acts 2 & 3 of a four act structure, or the signpost approach of Blake Snyder's beat sheet from Save the Cat, for example. Do you agree with such approaches, or do you think they result in cookie cutter scripts? To what degree do middles have a formula? How do you counsel your students who have a good idea with a solid beginning and ending, but the middle of their script sags like an unsuspended bridge?

RICHARD WALTER: Middles are the biggest and most daunting parts of scripts. Aristotle never spoke of acts; he spoke of beginnings, middles, and ends. I'm all for outlining, but I also believe it is in the nature of outlines to evolve, and writers must evolve along with them. A major mistake is for a writer to try to drag a script that has run off the rails back to some previously intellectualized notion. Running of the rails is the name of the game. Again, the trick is to stay open to the surprises. I never knew of a writer who wasn't surprised by a twist or a turn in a story, or by a line of dialogue apparently invented by a character all by itself. Dramatic narratives do indeed to appear to have something of a life of their own, don't they? The key is always: integration. A script is integrated when every bit of action and every line of dialogue palpably, measurably, identifiably advance the story. To lose the sagging stomach of the middle writers need to treat that part as they treat the other parts: get rid of every sight and sound that doesn't move the story forward. Remember that the ideal narrative, with a quick beginning, big middle, and even a quicker end, is an idealized, romanticized model of a perfect human life: short childhood, big adulthood, quick and snappy and abrupt ending. Who wants at the end of his life to spend years on resuscitators and IVs? If there's any formula, that's it: the movie narrative has to be congruent with the life narrative.

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: Your Writing Habit section reminded me of two things I've heard many times over in this town: 1) You have to do whatever you can to prevent yourself from growing bitter and angry, and 2) much of this business is a waiting game as many people just aren't willing to tough out the struggle that is trying to make it as a writer in LA. Sometimes this makes good sense to me, and sometimes it seems akin to the saying that if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water it will jump out, but if you put it in tepid water and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will let itself be boiled alive. Do you agree that much of the battle is making it through the weeding process and keeping your spirits in tact?

RICHARD WALTER: Writers don't fail; they give up. The hardest part is the waiting. I never met a writer who was good at waiting. The key is to get busy working on your next project. When the agent finally calls with an offer for a previously written script, the writer should be a little ashamed to sell it, since she's become a far better writer in the interim and is capable of better work. Yes, in many ways the biggest part of the battle is making it through the weeding process and keeping your spirits high. As I argue in Essentials of Screenwriting, time is the substance of life. This means you have to give your life to writing. This does not mean giving up your day job. The day job is the writer's friend. It keeps him solvent and sane (two closely related qualities) and keeps him in touch with the source of his writing: the people around him. Who has a better day job than I? What better enterprise to give your life to besides creative expression? Writers get paid for what regular folks get scolded: daydreaming. We traffic in our own imagination, swap our fantasies for dollars. How cool is that? Isn't that something worth waiting for?

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: I know you have your "Seven Naughty Words" section of this book, but I thought the Crazy Art chapter was the most scandalous and revelatory section of the book. Specifically, the section on magic seems to fly in the face of the massive industry of writing books, seminars and gurus. I can't decide if it's wonderful honesty or shooting yourself in the foot. As a teacher and a writer of book on screenwriting yourself, do you often find yourself, in fact, telling your students or people at events for this book this dirty little secret, that no books or stratagems can replace the spark that hopefully follows keeping one's ass in the chair and fingers to the keys?

RICHARD WALTER: Isn't it all part of the mix? The problem with working with writers at a world center of higher leaning such as UCLA is that there's a sense that everything can be learned, everything can be mastered. It's my privilege to know zillions of vastly experienced, successful writers. I don't know one among them who feels he or she has it down pat, knows just how to proceed. Each one sweats and frets over every script. That is the nature of creative expression. Socrates says the true wisdom is knowing that you never really know. The problem with sparks and asses in chairs is that too many writers get it in reverse. They think if they only get the spark they can put the ass in the chair, the hands on the keys, and the story will flow. In fact they have to get the ass in the chair and the hands on the keys and only then will the spark appear. I sold a Twilight Zone story years ago in which a creatively stuck song writer discovers that his muse has not deserted him but that he has deserted her.

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: There was an article in the LA Times earlier this month, which discussed the dwindling amount of work for screenwriters post-strike and during this double-dip recession. Among other things it discusses the current trend of pitting up to a dozen writers against each other to pitch for a single assignment and being asked to write beat sheets without compensation, or the occurrence of one-step deals with no fees offered for subsequent drafts. Do you offer any different encouragement to your students entering this market, or is this just another example of the cyclical nature of the industry and your main advice is still to focus on their writing and produce the best script possible?

RICHARD WALTER: Being asked to write free beat sheets, being pitted against lots of other writers pitching a particular assignment has gone on throughout my forty years in Hollywood. Writers should remember that without exception every well established writer was once totally unknown. The writers hired to script chapters of franchises earned the right to do so by establishing their reputation through the writing of spec scripts. That's why the spec script that does not sell is not the end but the beginning. Additionally, the most exciting work is not at the studios but on TV, particularly cable. The last two episodes of Season 3 of Mad Men were, in my opinion, worthier than any movie I've seen in at least ten years. One of the principles in my book is that screenwriting is not about the business but that the business is about screenwriting. Even distracted fruit-fly-attention-span producers understand more and more that it's about the script and that good scripts tell good stories.

OUR MAN IN LOS ANGELES: I hear a lot of rumbling about the benefit of MFA programs in screenwriting. Connected schools like UCLA and USC may certainly be the exception, but MFA's come to LA well behind those who came straight from their undergraduate studies to enter the workforce as agent assistants or PA's to cultivate experience and relationships during the years that MFA's are still in school -- more often in cities far from LA and the connective tissue of this business. What counter argument or advice would you give to students considering getting an MFA in screenwriting?

RICHARD WALTER: Film schools used to be a dead end in terms of getting into the industry, unless you sought a job as an usher. Today it's the total reverse. Film school is the premier avenue into the biz. Sure, it's better to go to a prestige school such as UCLA or my alma mater across town, but successful writers are emerging from Chapman, Loyola, Long Beach, Northridge and other campuses. What matters is not the degree but the script that is written. Among the many hoaxes and myths about Hollywood is that it's all about relationships and schmoozing the right people at the right parties. This is bunk. I know oodles of extremely well connected people who cannot get arrested in Hollywood. And I see wholly unknown writers break through every day purely on the basis of their writing. Believe it or not, the movie biz is a meritocracy, a wretchedly democratic institution.

There are several reasons our own students in Westwood have won two screenplay Oscars in three years, and written at least ten projects for Spielberg, but it has more to do with the talent and discipline they bring to the table than to any special formula we keep secret in a safe in a dark room. People ask me of UCLA, "What's your secret?" I tell them there's no secret. We have worthy instructors, all of whom bring professional experience to the table, supervising workshops in which preposterously talented, disciplined artists feel safe to reach and stretch and take chances and fall on their faces and pick themselves up and keep on trying.


About the Author: Richard Walter

Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert, and longtime chairman of UCLA’s legendary graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, is available in stores now. Professor Walter lectures throughout North America and the world and serves as a court authorized expert in intellectual property litigation. For more information and to order the new Essentials of Screenwriting, visit www.richardwalter.com.

Professor Walter will also be offering a free screenwriting workshop and seminar that is open to the public at Video Journeys Movie Rental Store, 2730 Griffith Park Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90027. The event will take place on Monday, August 9th at 7PM.

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