Q & A with David Wappel

David Wappel is a screenwriter and story consultant. He recently wrote the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO MaxAmazon, and iTunes. Wappel worked in production and post-production for five years before turning to writing. His stories often feature themes of private courage, nostalgic longings, and contradictions.

He has consulted writers, producers, game developers, and others on their narrative work. In addition to screenwriting, you’ll find Wappel talking about Tolkien, Shakespeare, or sailing.

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

This is a tough one for me, because I watch or listen to at least one Shakespeare production a week, and it’s hard not to just answer with one of his plays.

So setting the Bard aside, the last thing I watched that was exceptionally well-written was an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine titled The Visitor. Written by Michael Taylor, it’s the second episode of season four of the series, and it’s deftly simple and incredibly human.

I also recently rewatched Dead Again, written by Scott Frank. I’ve already seen it a handful of times, but I wanted to share it with my parents. What I love most about the script is the way it continues to surprise throughout, with twists and turns both big and small. It’s like a rabbit hole that just keeps going down.

Oh, and if I’m not setting Shakespeare aside, the answer is The Globe’s 2015 production of The Merchant of Venice.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I actually first started out working in post-production in Atlanta. I was an editor for a small production company. Editing is just writing with an extremely limited vocabulary. As an editor, you can only storytell with what is provided, and it’s actually pretty amazing how much power you have to manipulate the moments by organizing shots in various arrangements.

So when I made the pivot into writing, I had already been looking at story as sequential bits of information, and it helped me understand how to build a moment, a scene, a sequence, or a story, piece by piece.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

I’m going to be a bit cheeky and say it doesn’t have to be taught or learned. We already know when something is good writing from our emotional reaction. Humans are designed to have stories act on us emotionally. So instead of looking at a text and deciding if it is good writing or not, all you actually need to do is read it and look at yourself. If you’re responding to it, it’s good writing.

What isn’t as apparent, but can be taught and learned is why something is good writing. One can study the patterns and structures, micro and macro, that seem to crop up again and again as effective ways to produce emotions in the audience. Writing, I believe, is both an art and a craft, and has tools and techniques like any other craft. How to employ those tools and techniques can be taught. Why to employ those tools and techniques is a little bit trickier, because it’s far more subjective. That’s what makes it art.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

When I’m reading, I’m looking for a few things. One thing I find myself sensitive to is honesty. Are the characters acting in ways that feel truthful. And that doesn’t mean it has to be grounded, but it has to be truthful to the established world.

I’m also looking for specificity. Whether it’s a feature or an episode of television, I value a script that is doing a “deep dive” into a specific aspect of the human condition. That may sound like it needs to be profound, but it doesn’t. It just needs to be specific. Mediocre scripts tend be about a general idea, but the great ones take a very specific idea, and explore it fully.

On a technical level, I value clarity. Not only do I want to visually understand what is happening, but particularly for the screen, I want to have a good sense of how I’m seeing it. For me, that’s the biggest thing that separates screenwriting from other forms of writing, even playwriting. It’s the explicit visual component, and the limitation of the lens. I don’t need every shot selected, but I want a sense of how this will unfold on a screen.

In my opinion, a major component of a good script is restraint. I’m looking for human behavior, and nothing else. I want to see what characters are saying and doing, and draw my own conclusions. When I read a screenplay that tries to tease out meaning in the action lines (or even in the dialogue sometimes) I find myself checking out. It feels a bit like someone grabbing a puzzle piece and fitting it into the slot for you. People don’t do puzzles just because they like how it looks when it’s complete, they enjoy the act of completing it.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

I think the most common screenwriting mistake I see is more of an artistic mistake than a craft mistake, and it’s basically not having a specific enough answer to the question, “What are you trying to say?”

Corollary to that question is this one: “Why do you want to say it?”

Those two answers can act as guideposts for a writer, and will help navigate story choices. Without some reflection on these, a technically proficient story will end up vague and dull.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Honestly, none of them. What I’m tired of seeing are tropes lazily explored. Tropes are simply common patterns that are emotionally effective. What often happens is that more than the underlying pattern gets repeated, and we get bored of seeing the same thing over and over again.

For me, the key to keeping tropes fresh is to understand why they are tropes in the first place. What is the pattern beneath it? There’s clearly a satisfying story element there, and going in the opposite direction to avoid a trope may be going in the opposite direction of that satisfying story element. You want to understand how it’s working so that you can approach it, then zig-zag away in a specific way. You’ll get all the benefit of a story pattern, without it feeling stale.

All that said, I’m completely over the “wife killed, husband wants revenge” trope.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

This is in no way meant to be comprehensive or authoritative, but these are some guidelines I try to go by when writing.

-Writing is 90% thinking and feeling, and 10% typing.

-Melodramatic writing is not fixed on the page it occurs. It is fixed in all the pages preceding it, and then on the page it occurs.

-A character’s voice and a character’s worldview are two different things.

-People are different versions of themselves depending on who else is in the room. Characters should be the same.

-Adjectives and adverbs may point to opportunities for stronger nouns and verbs.

-Always be reading.

-Wardrobe, makeup, props, and production design all provide storytelling tools. Make sure you’re using them.

-Turn off the critic for your first draft. After that, question every word.

-When approaching a problem, see if it can be solved first by removing lines, rather than adding lines.

-Understanding how your characters interact with the world outside of the story of your script can provide insight for how they interact with the world within it.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

Plenty of times, and while I’m sure it’s different for everybody, for me  the answer is in showing simple, specific moments of humanity. When I feel like a writer lasers in on something small, and then continues to explore each facet of it through a sort of narrative microscope, then I feel like I’m in good hands.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

You can check out my website, davidwappel.com, and while I have a page on there about my services, it’s also about me as a writer. The best way is probably to connect with me on Twitter.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Apple, by a mile.

It is most definitely NOT a sprint

I haven’t written about it in a while, but one of my other interests is running. It’s inexpensive, good exercise, and I’m fortunate to live in a place well-suited for it.

Added bonus – plenty of time to think about whatever script I’m working on at the time.

However, the passage of time and some good old wear-and-tear are starting to take their toll. My pace is a little slower than it used to be, but I don’t mind.

I especially enjoy half-marathons. 13.1 miles is a good, solid distance. In the Before Times, I’d run about 6-8 a year.

This year, kinda-sorta. All but one of the races I’d signed up to do this year were cancelled. Race organizers, however, were undeterred. Runners were given the option of doing the races virtually, as in “you run the same distance, but on the route of your choosing, then send us your time and a map tracking your route, and we’ll send you your shirt and medal.”

With all of this going on, one of the things I’d always wanted to attempt was running a full marathon. 26.2 miles. Running a half wasn’t too hard, but taking on a full seemed much more formidable.

But the biggest challenge was I wanted to see if I could do it.

So I trained. A lot.

This is also where that part about wear-and-tear really started to make itself known – primarily in my heels and ankles.

But I kept at it, always trying to push myself a little more each time. I was confident, but still plenty nervous.

As the days wound down to Race Day, my anxiety levels were growing. The biggest question on my mind was “COULD I DO THIS?” My family were as supportive and encouraging as possible, but in the end, it was all me.

So I started out. The app in my phone announced at the onset that “tracking would continue for 26.2 miles”, which is quite intimidating during those first few steps.

“It’s the distance, not the time,” I reminded myself.

Off I went through the pre-dawn streets. Sunrise was still about 80 minutes away, and save for some hills and a bridge colored international orange, it was a pretty flat route.

The miles ticked away. I got to the halfway point, feeling pretty confident the second half might not be as challenging as expected.

Mile 19. So far, so good. At this pace, maybe an hour fifteen to go.

Mile 20. The wear-and-tear decides to kick in. For my heels and ankles. Steps got a little bit tougher to take. Then a stabbing pain at the base of my left shin. That doesn’t seem good.

I wanted to keep going, but was more concerned about inflicting further damage, so I chose the safest option: I stopped running, and walked. Not what I wanted, but at least I was still moving.

It’s the distance, not the time, remember?

I got to Mile 24 and thought “maybe I can run these last 2.2 miles” and ran for about 4 steps. Nope. The walk continued.

But I kept going, and eventually did cross the virtual finish line, with a time of 5:11:33.

Not the results I was hoping for, and despite some unexpected problems to deal with, the important thing was I DID IT.

One of the most apt metaphors about screenwriting is “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” It takes a REALLY long time to be able to do it, especially properly, so you need to keep working at it, constantly trying to do better.

The journey to finishing a script, let alone establishing a career as a screenwriter, might not be the one you anticipated. Everybody moves at their own pace, so don’t be discouraged if it seems like everybody but you is moving forward by leaps and bounds.

The important thing is to focus on becoming a better writer and making your script better. Work on crossing the finish line that’s waiting for you, and you alone.

Giving yourself a medal, however, is totally optional.

The path through is around here somewhere

The actual writing-of-pages for the current project may be underway, but wow did it take several attempts to get there.

A lot of it involved figuring out how to best set up the world in which the story takes place. I’d considered starting it one way, then thought “how about if…?”, which resulted in another way, naturally followed by “then again, I could try…”

At the time, I’d settled on the one I thought worked best. Feeling confident about the state of the outline, I started on pages.

Progress was slow, but steady. After a couple of days, I was already up to page 20.

Which of course was MUCH MORE than it should have been.

Not that I strictly adhere to the “THIS happens on Page ____”, but there was just too much going on, which was slowing things down a lot more than I’d intended.

What to do, what to do?

One option was to keep pushing forward and then go back and edit like crazy, but at the rate I was going, I’d end up with a script approximately 150 pages in length. Not an option.

Or I could go back to an earlier version of the outline that only includes part of what’s already there.

Yet another option was to go all the way back to how I initially envisioned the whole thing starting.

Quick side note – you know how they say the first page really sets the tone for the rest of the story? This is a guideline I’ve always tried to work with, especially in this case.

The first pass didn’t cut it, nor did the second one. Something needed to be done.

So I went through my extensive notes, hoping to find a solution.

And I found it. And it was the original idea. It had exactly what I needed, and I’ve seen variations of it in other scripts and films, so there was no reason I couldn’t make it work for my story.

I got to work reorganizing it and streamlining it to help things move along faster. This including having to jettison a majority of material I was very sorry to see go, but it was necessary. No reason some of those details couldn’t be implemented later on.

Oh, and another small detail I forgot to mention – my computer’s OS updated, which my screenwriting software hasn’t been adjusted for yet, so working with that became quite a pain. Luckily, some recent contest success resulted in me receiving another screenwriting program. After a quick installation and a few “how to” videos about using it, I was on my way yet again.

All of one page so far. But I like it better than the previous versions, and it’s significantly better than having no pages at all.

Let the pushing forward commence.

Q & A with Michael Lipoma

Michael Lipoma is a WGA writer and a producer whose scripts have placed in the semifinals or higher in every major screenwriting competition, including winning Best Feature and Grand Prize at SLAMDANCE last year. With experience writing on assignment for features and television since 2010, Michael enjoys backing his characters into corners, forcing them to fight their way out or die trying.

He has developed multiple producers’ original ideas into commercially viable screenplays and pilots. He is co-creator and co-writer of a new television series currently in development in New Zealand. He is the lead producer on a feature film project currently in partnership with an A-List actor’s production company. Before writing and producing full time, Michael was Vice President of a $150M company. He also finds writing in the third person a little weird.

What’s the last thing you read or watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

I have been binge watching The West Wing, and am dazzled by the dialogue–but it’s more than that. Sorkin doesn’t just write great dialogue–it’s the situations he places the characters in that give great dialogue even greater depth. And the dialogue wouldn’t be as meaningful if he hadn’t made these characters people we care about.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I wrote spec scripts. Bad ones. Then I went to school and learned the craft. Then I just kept writing. While working on a script with a partner, we met a producer at AFM, and within 24 hours, we had a handshake deal to write a feature based on her original idea. That script was The Fall, and last October, it won Slamdance Grand Prize and Best Feature. But that makes it sound too easy. That journey started seven years ago. We attached another producer, have been through more page-one rewrites I can imagine, and have gotten–and incorporated–notes from many, many people.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

I believe recognizing good writing can be taught and learned–and you don’t need a teacher. The way to recognize good writing is to read ALL writing. I’ve learned more from giving really deep notes to scripts that were in terrible shape, than reading great scripts. Read every script you can, and when you read something good, you’ll feel it. It’ll sing to you from the center of your chest. But read all of it. After a while, you’ll internalize what’s good and what to stay away from. You’ll feel when a story turn is necessary. And you’ll realize that when watching a movie. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hit pause on a movie, checked the timer, and said, “Yep. That’s midpoint.”

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The obvious, of course: structure, dialogue, making every syllable mean something. A story that turns, and delivers on the promise the writer made in the premise or opening. Also, a great opening. A killer first page. I’ve been working as a producer for the past five years, and I know within a page whether the script I’m reading has a chance at getting me interested. I do read all the way through, but I’ve always been able to tell within a page or two how it’s going to go. Haven’t been wrong about that yet.

There’s one more component, and it’s just as important to me as any of the other factors that make a good script, and that’s what people are calling today, “voice.” I read a lot of scripts, and many deliver what a script should deliver: Compelling characters, solid structure, serviceable dialogue. All good stuff. But when I read a script with an original voice, that delights me, and makes me want more, more, more!

I’ve also found that writers with a unique voice are fun people to hang with. And when you option a script, you’re going to be hanging with the writer for a few years, and hopefully you’ll end up friends for life. Also, I recognize I’ve strayed a bit from the original question about components of a good script. I do that. I stray.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

Big blocks of action with no white space. My job as a producer is to read a script all the way through–but when I see solid pages of text, I take a breath, because I know it’s going to be a slog to get through. That’s not to say the script might not be great, but if I can offer advice to writers, make hitting the return key one of your best friends. Your reader will love it.

Another mistake is having dialogue move the story forward. In these cases characters usually tell each other what’s happening or how they’re feeling. That means everything’s on the surface.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Movies starting at funerals–ugh. Seen it too many times. Watching a big, surprising reversal or twist and discovering it was a dream (that happens more in TV, but still). Also, movie shorthand: a woman throwing up = she’s pregnant. You see a woman SPRINT to the bathroom and barf. Next scene: she’s pregnant.

Another trope that’s actually harmful in my view is when you see scars on someone that indicates they’ve been “cutting” (non-suicidal self-injury), and it’s just “movie shorthand” for a “troubled” teen, or a violent character about to shoot up a crowd. That easy-way-out character development is not only lazy, it stigmatizes people with mental health issues. It needs to stop.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

1. If you want to write what speaks to your heart, you should absolutely do so. You get to write whatever you want. But…if you want to sell, or make writing your career, you should understand what the marketplace wants. And I’m not talking about chasing trends. I’m talking about a script with a recognizable structure (I believe humans are hard-wired to respond to structure), a story that makes us want to know what happens next, and a satisfying ending. Oh, crap. I strayed again.

2. Spend as much time on your concept as you possibly can before putting a single word to the script. You’re going to spend the next few months writing this script–make sure the concept is firing on all cylinders before you commit to it. If you do this, you will discover a lovely surprise: people will probably love your script.

3. Sort of a continuation of 2: before I dig into a new spec script (whether TV or feature), I test the concept. I tell it to people and watch them react. Then, I refine it. What’s nice is at this stage, I’m not invested in any great scenes–it’s just a few sentences, so nothing’s precious. Once I get a concept, and I’m satisfied it’s working and marketable, I write the pitch. Straight from concept to pitch–before writing one word of the script. This does a couple things: it helps me discover cool, hooky moments (that only seem to show up when I’m writing a pitch) and it helps me know where I’m going when I start outlining. I think this solves the problem I faced for so many years: writing loglines and pitches after the script is written.

4. This may not work for everybody, but most successful writers I know do this: outline. Outline, outline, outline! You can start at the end, middle, or wherever, but do yourself the favor of writing a solid outline for your script. This is one of the most freeing things a screenwriter can do. It also keeps you from getting blocked or stuck because you always know where you’re going. My analogy for outlining is this: it’s like an actor getting off-book with their dialogue. Once they’ve memorized the dialogue, and it flows through them, only then can they bring the real bits of themselves to their performance. Same with outlining. Once you do the hard story work and get that outline done, your story is there, and it’s working–then, you put in all the cool stuff that delights readers.

5. Make me want to care about your characters. Many scripts I read from emerging writers use their characters as tools to move their story along. People go to the movies and watch TV and immediately try to relate to the character on the screen. There’s a moment when people ask themselves (sometimes unconsciously–but they feel it) “Would I ever do that?” or “Oh, no, what would I do if that happened to me?” The writer needs to make their characters human, relatable, and empathetic. Not necessarily likeable, but relatable. It’s a thing of beauty when an antagonist makes a reader/viewer see a dark side of themselves reflected in the antagonist. So do the character work up front, know who they are and how they’d respond in any situation.

There’s an exercise I’ve asked people to do: take a line of dialogue, and rewrite it as if the character were at gunpoint. Now rewrite it if they were trying to seduce someone. Now try it if they’re terrified. Exact same meaning, but different situations. This exercise can seem absurd, but if you lean into it, it’s actually a lot of fun, and it will reinforce the need to really understand how your character would react in any situation. Once you really understand this about your characters, the audience will respond to them, readers will lean forward when reading them.

6. Make sure your lead is the most interesting.

This has happened to me. My supporting character was way more interesting than my lead. It took a bit of rewriting and really killing some darlings, but once I did that, my lead really sparked off the page. No actor is going to attach themselves to a project if the supporting character has a better part.

Have you ever read a spec script that you immediately thought “this writer gets it?” If so, what were the reasons why?

Absolutely. And I’ve only read two that did that. It started with character. These characters were not only real and full of life, their dialogue was crisp, clear, and every character had a unique voice. Most of the actual meaning was delivered through subtext–and that’s not just for dialogue, it was for the action too. Characters took action that delivered on who they are, or what they needed, or what their wound was that’s been holding them back. Also: there was a lot of white space on the page, which made it a fast read, and allowed me to forget I was reading a screenplay.

How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

I know there’s a lot of debate about this right now. For me: they’re worth it–but you have to realize the goal, and I think there are two: 1) you want feedback, and 2) you want wins/credibility. For feedback: You’re sending your material out to sets of eyes who have no stake in your success. If you can afford it, get the notes/coverage, too. Look, we all have people who love us, read our stuff, and tell us it’s great. And that feels wonderful, but not really helpful if your goal is to improve your writing and yourself as a writer. There’s nothing more sobering than not placing in a contest, and looking at the 375 names who did, and think: “Damn, every one of those scripts is better than mine–what do I need to change in my script or my writing to get me in that group next time.”

If you can afford the coverage, it’s great to see what a neutral set of eyes thinks about your material. And sure, sometimes the notes are spotty, but there’s ALWAYS something in there that can help if you’re open to it. And being in lots of contests can help you open up to that. For credibility, contest placements/wins in the major competitions can truly open doors. All of that said, be wary. There are some contests that just feel like money mills. Do a little research, and maybe don’t submit to “Jimmy Joe’s Upstairs Screenwriting Bonanza.” Look into competitions. Who are the sponsors, how many years have they been running, what kind of press do they get?

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

The best way to learn more about what I do is to contact me directly through my gmail account and not through the production company email or website because those get filtered before I see them. Email: mlipoma@gmail.com.

Right now, I write on assignment for television and features, and provide TV and feature script development, consultation, and rewrite services for projects that have been optioned or have a significant element attached. Since I’m a WGA writer, any writing I do must be with a signatory, but for non-signatories I can provide script consultation and development services, and work with the writer and producer to help the production reach its goals. I tailor my services based on the needs of the project: from a dialogue punch-up to extensive restructuring and rewriting. One of my recent efforts was a page-one rewrite of an action script. 

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

You and I are kindred spirits! Pie is one of my favorite things on the planet! Picking one is kinda like deciding which of my kids I love most, but if forced, I’d have to say cherry. Or a really deep apple. Or pumpkin. Ok, sorry…

Cherry.

There. I said it.