Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing

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9780452296275: Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing

Hollywood's premier teacher of screenwriting shares the secrets of writing and selling successful screenplays

Anyone fortunate enough to win a seat in Professor Richard Walter's legendary class at UCLA film school can be confident their career has just taken a quantum leap forward. His students have written more than ten projects for Steven Spielberg alone, plus hundreds of other Hollywood blockbusters and prestigious indie productions, including two recent Oscar winners for best original screenplay-Milk (2008) and Sideways (2006).

In this updated edition, Walter integrates his highly coveted lessons and principles from Screenwriting with material from his companion text, The Whole Picture, and includes new advice on how to turn a raw idea into a great movie or TV script-and sell it. There is never a shortage of aspiring screenwriters, and this book is their bible.

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About the Author:

Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling educator, movie industry expert and longtime co-chairman of the graduate screenwriting program at UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television.

A screenwriter and widely published author, his books include the novels Escape from Film Schooland Barry and the Persuasions and the non-fiction works The Whole Picture: Strategies for Screenwriting Success in the New HollywoodScreenwriting: The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing and The Essentials of Screenwriting.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

RICHARD WALTER has been chairman of UCLA’s graduate screenwriting program for more than thirty years. A novelist and screenwriter himself, he lectures and offers master classes throughout the nation and the world.

“The prime broker for Hollywood’s hottest commodity: new writing talent.”

—Wall Street Journal

“The Jewish mother of screenwriting.”

Variety

Screenwriting is full of the expertise of someone who knows what makes movies worth writing, making, and seeing . . . [Richard Walter] instructs with wit, common sense, and love for his art and craft.”

—Steven Bach, author of Final Cut

“In the gold rush atmosphere of screenwriting, Richard Walter is a wise guide. A lively and provocative book.”

—Andrew Bergman, writer/director of The Freshman and Honeymoon in Vegas

“Richard Walter, a writer himself, is the only person teaching screenwriting who knows what the f*^% he’s talking about.”

—Joe Eszterhas, writer of Basic Instinct and Flashdance

www.RichardWalter.com

ESSENTIALS
of
SCREENWRITING

The Art, Craft, and Business
of Film and Television Writing

RICHARD WALTER

Professor and Screenwriting Chairman, UCLA

Acknowledgments

My experience editing hundreds upon hundreds of screenplays over the decades positions me uniquely well to appreciate the importance of editing and also the qualities characterizing a worthy editor. There is none worthier than Nadia Kashper, wise beyond her years, without whose support this book would constitute not much more than a catalogue of Richie’s Greatest Hits.

I salute also the attention and consideration afforded me by my earlier editors at Plume: Arnold Dolin, Gary Luke, and Peter K. Borland.

For my leonine agent, Peter Miller: roars.

Eternal gratitude to my longtime pal and partner in Westwood Professor Hal Ackerman and also to Lew Hunter and all our UCLA colleagues over many wonderful years.

My writing and teaching continues to be informed and expanded by the spirit of my own teacher, the late and legendary Irwin R. Blacker.

Finally, as always, with love to Pat, for reminding me daily just who I am and what it is that truly matters, and for providing me with more fun and inspiration than any mere movie.

When citing movies and television shows, the names of all credited writers are provided the first time the title appears in the book.

Introduction

The God Game

In the early 1970s, while I was still nominally a film student but had been writing professionally for a couple of years, the Writers Guild went on strike.

May I confess here and now that I loved the strike?

By that time I’d written half a dozen feature screenplays for the studios and had earned a steady, even a substantial living. At that precise moment, however, I was “between assignments”—Hollywood’s euphemism for out of work—and I did not, therefore, have to abandon any post.

The bright side of unemployment is that you cannot be fired.

It was springtime in Los Angeles and, notwithstanding my still-fresh New York chauvinism, I could not deny the season’s sweetness. I resided in a comfy, cozy cottage with a bright yard and plentiful fruit trees. There were birds, possums, raccoons, and skunks. I even liked the skunks. I noodled around in my head with a notion for a novel, but mainly, from my knotty-pine-paneled, north-light study, I stared serenely at the snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains.

Twice a week Guild members were required to present ourselves at a particular studio—my assignment was Paramount—and walk the picket line for three hours. I eagerly anticipated each round. It got me out of doors and into the sunshine, caused me ever so slightly to utilize my muscles. Best of all, for the first time in my life I met regularly with other writers.

Parading with my colleagues up and back before the studio’s Bronson Gate, conversation was endless. We talked sports. We talked weather. We talked cars. We talked Watergate.

Mainly we talked writing; not the profound, penetrating issues regarding beauty and truth but the hard-bitten nuts/bolts considerations, working writers’ shoptalk: hand-cranked versus electric pencil sharpeners, standard versus legal-size ruled yellow pads, felt-tipped markers versus ballpoint pens, liquid Wite-Out versus cut-rate bulk generic correction fluid available by the half gallon at an office supply outlet on Lake just north of Colorado in Pasadena.

Spoiled brats that we were, as all writers are and have been since the invention of writing in ancient Sumer five thousand years ago, we inventoried the injustices visited upon us by our oppressors: agents, actors, executives, the pal-of-the-producer hack who had rewritten and wrecked our latest draft, the director who had botched and butchered our otherwise flawless triumph, the literary manager who had refused to take or return our calls, the spouse, offspring, parent, pal, pet, or potted plant who had neglected to pay ample homage to our timeless and eternal genius.

Walking that line, talking with my fellows, amid all of the showbiz gossip I discovered a startling, liberating precept. I present it here as the first among many essential principles we’ll underscore from time to time throughout this volume.

Principle 1: All writers hate to write.

It is not I alone who dreads the blank page, who struggles daily to drag himself to his desk, who dawdles and procrastinates and picks lint from the carpet to avoid applying fingers to keys. Those nasty habits belong, I realized, to all writers.

Writers love having written, but we hate to write.

This may appear cynical, but it is simply a statement of observed fact. To sit hour upon hour in an empty room, attempting to fill blank paper—or, these days, glowing LCD screens—with story, character, and dialogue worthy of the time, attention, and consideration of an audience is as lonely as life gets. Writing, like banging your head against the wall, feels terrific mainly when you stop.

On the picket line, putting one foot in front of the other along Melrose, turning the corner at Van Ness, we inventoried the clever and elaborate methods by which the lot of us evade our task. One writer described a technique he had developed whereby he gazed blankly from his window at traffic; as soon as the fourteenth car bearing Nebraska plates drove past, he started writing. Another claimed he would put cool, quiet jazz on the stereo in the background, sharpen all his pencils, lay out neat, fresh stacks of heavy-gauge rag-content bond, test his typewriter ribbon, and then, at long last . . . defrost his refrigerator.

This is not to deny that there are soaring, triumphant moments attendant to writing. Professional screenwriters are paid, after all, for the very same activity that earns civilians reprimand: daydreaming.

To write, however, is far more than merely to dream.

Principle 2: To write is to play God.

As God created the universe, writers create the universe of our screenplays. If we want it to rain, it rains. If we are weary of rain and covet sunshine, out comes the sun. If we get mad at somebody and want to kill him—who has never wanted to kill somebody?—a screenwriter kills him. Afterward, should he experience remorse, with the click of a mouse he can bring him back to life.

After too many decades of auteurism, the alien notion falsely anointing the director as film’s first artist, screenwriters are coming into our own, at long last winning the recognition properly due movies’ authentic prime movers. The writer is film’s first artist if for no other reason than that she is just that: first. The vast, sprawling army of artists and craftspeople who gather to make a movie are lost, every one of them, without the writer. The fanciest state-of-the-art cameras, the latest high-tech editing suite, the finest actors, the most highly respected producers, the whole host of paraphernalia required for the production of a film are useless until a writer writes a plan.

That plan is the screenplay.

Legendary director Frank Capra was asked in an interview to explain precisely how he achieved in his movies that legendary quality called “the Capra touch.” In the interview he rambles on about this technique and that one: clues he whispered to the actors, cues offered to the crew, wisdom shared with the editor. Nowhere in the article does he mention the name Robert Riskin, who had merely written all the referenced films.

The afternoon the interview appeared in the press there arrived at Capra’s office a script-size envelope. Inside was a document very closely resembling a screenplay: a front cover, a back cover, and one hundred and ten pages. The cover and pages, however, were all blank. Clipped to the “script” was a note from Robert Riskin. It read: “Dear Frank, put ‘the Capra touch’ on this!”

Writing, like all creative expression, for all its struggle represents ultimately structured, organized, orchestrated dreaming. That’s why writers’ most basic task—before tale, before character and dialogue—is to learn how to let ourselves dream in a free yet orderly fashion.

Can people really be taught how to dream?

As a screenwriting educator I am frequently asked the twin questions: Can writing be taught at all? Can formal instruction help a writer compete in the film and television industry?

The second answer first. Yes.

There is one strategy—the only strategy—for writers seeking success in film, television, and digital media: good writing. To that end, any support that helps writers structure their narratives, focus their characters, render their dialogue palpable and provocative, any clue that helps writers create screenplays worthy of audiences, ought to help bridge the chasm between amateur and professional.

Can writers be taught to write well?

Again, yes.

Nobody expects an unschooled clarinetist to go into the closet and emerge a professional. No one expects a composer to master musical theory and notation by means of a miraculous religious vision. Even Mozart had a teacher. Likewise, many new painters have mentors, just as experienced painters have protégés.

Like all creative expression, writing depends not upon talent alone but also discipline. Each is rare all by itself. The two in tandem, however, are exponentially rarer still. Copious talent and paltry discipline will not carry a writer nearly so far as the converse combination. Naturally, no teacher or book can provide talent; at UCLA’s Master of Fine Arts program writers are required to supply their own. Neither can writers have inspiration unwillingly thrust upon them; they must discover motivation within themselves. Happily, however, if teachers cannot provide talent, neither can they take talent away. While no book can supply a freeze-dried formula for concocting the perfect screenplay, there are challenges both narrow and broad that can be usefully addressed.

An Overview of the Present Volume

As underscored in chapter 7, “Story: Tale Assembly,” there is a vast difference between assembling a child’s tricycle fresh from the shipping crate and constructing an integrated screen story. Notably, the latter requires a considerable measure of magic.

There is so much more to screenwriting than knowing how far to indent dialogue. Readers seeking to learn proper screenplay format can turn to chapter 11. Format aside, screenwriting’s central challenge remains, as always, finding the writer’s unique voice.

Chapter 13, “The Writing Habit,” deals with writers’ attitudes regarding the daily struggle to structure their dreams into coherent dramatic narratives meriting the time, attention, and consideration of audiences.

And since the movie not produced, the film not released and not viewed by audiences has precisely the same effect as the movie not written in the first place, chapter 17, “Script Sales Strategies,” addresses issues pertinent to integrating screenplays into the professional community—agents, managers, producers, actors, directors, lawyers, the complete cast of craftspeople and collaborators.

Too often these latter items preoccupy the attention of inexperienced writers. For writers to begin writing from the standpoint of marketing is a self-defeating prophesy. There is no marketing of material that has yet to be written. It’s useless for writers to concern themselves about sales before they have something to sell.

Principle 3: Finding an agent is easy; what is hard is writing a screenplay worthy of an agent’s representation.

Finally, having fractured screenwriting into shreds and shards and fragments, we need at the same time to remain mindful of “the Whole Picture”; part 4 of the book puts all those fragments back together again. In the end, screenwriting, notwithstanding its inevitable agonies, and for all its loneliness, is seen also to be a most delicious addiction.

Principle 4: Writing is schizophrenic.

Writing requires its practitioners temporarily to shatter themselves into a widely varying cast of characters, each possessing unique traits. They need also simultaneously to accomplish assorted sets of tasks that endlessly contradict one another.

They must deal with seemingly separate items—story, character, dialogue, and so many others—that are not separate at all but exist only in combination with one another. Writers must wander freely among scattered, chaotic details even as their narratives proclaim a clear, logical, inevitable order. They must write films that are fantastic even as they are plausible. Like all artists, even as they lie through their teeth they must tell nothing but the truth.

Principle 5: Art is the lie that tells the bigger truth.

Chaim Potok, in his timeless novel The Chosen, describes a rabbi in conversation with his son. The Hebrew word for God, the rabbi explains, is mel, which means also “king” and “head.” The reverse, lem, means precisely the opposite: “fool.” Lem also has another meaning: “heart.”

If you want to live as a king, the rabbi advises, if you want to emulate God, you must be ruled not by the heart but the head. That is sage advice for a rabbi’s son, but not for a writer.

Writing is a heart-oriented enterprise, more a creation of hands, of belly, of groin, than of intellect. Writing for the screen is from top to bottom a wondrously silly endeavor, a sweetly ridiculous way for grown women and men to ply their trade and live their lives.

If you want to be God or a king, therefore, let your head guide you. Should you wish to write for the screen, however, live by your heart: Seize the courage to be something of a fool.

PART I

Art

Chapter 1

Seven Naughty Words

As longtime Screenwriting chairman and cochairman of UCLA’s Department of Film, Television and Digital Media I possess the authority to compel legions of students to purchase screenwriting books. Not surprisingly, publishers send me every title touching even remotely upon the subjec...

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