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.