Q & A with Richard Walter

Richard Walter is a novelist and author of best-selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, screenwriter, script consultant, lecturer and recently retired Professor and Associate and Interim Dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television where, for more than forty years, he chaired the graduate program in screenwriting. He has written scripts for the major studios and television networks, including the earliest drafts of AMERICAN GRAFFITI; lectured on screenwriting and storytelling and conducted master classes throughout North America as well as London, Paris, Jerusalem, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney and Hong Kong.

He is also a pop culture commentator, blogger and media pundit who has made numerous appearances on The Today Show, The O’Reilly Factor, Hardball with Chris Matthews, ABC Primetime, Scarborough Country and CBS News Nightwatch, among many other high-profile national television programs. More than a hundred newspaper and magazine articles have been published about him and the program he directed at UCLA.

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?

The new bio MIKE NICHOLS, A LIFE by Mark Harris.

How’d you get your start in the industry, and was that connected to you instructing at UCLA?

I came to California over fifty years ago for, I thought, three weeks, but fell into USC film school at the last minute, and never looked back. It was through faculty and classmates there that I learned screenwriting and made the earliest connections that led to professional assignments.

A little more than ten years later, at a glitzy showbiz party in Malibu, I was invited to join the faculty at UCLA. I was busy adapting my first book, the novel BARRY AND THE PERSUASIONS, for Warner Brothers, who had bought the film rights and hired me to write the screenplay. I was not seeking work. Still, as I would advise my children, you don’t have to eat the whole thing, but at least taste it. I tasted teaching and found that it was the perfect complement to writing.

As someone who actually teaches screenwriting, is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Yes and no. No one needs education to decide what scripts or movies they like. That said, there’s good evidence that studying the art and craft in a worthy program goes a long way toward launching and maintaining a career.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

First of all, story; that is, what the characters do and say. What they do and say also establishes who they are. Regarding the latter, that is, what the characters say, dialogue needs to be worth listening to all for itself, but it can’t be all for itself. It needs at the same time also to advance the story and advance the audience’s appreciation of the characters. Conflict, controversy, and confrontation are required throughout the narrative, and those are just the ‘cons.’

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

Overwriting. Too many pages. Too much dialogue. Too much description, especially regarding instructions to the actors regarding pauses and gestures and such. 

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m weary of superheroes and comic-book adaptations.

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

Less is more.

Successful writing is not about adding paraphernalia to a narrative but taking it away, revealing a story that’s somehow already there.

Don’t have one character tell another what you’ve already told the audience.

Movies must appear real, but in fact they are fake. Writers should be wary, therefore, of writing ‘the way it really happened’ and creating dialogue that captures the way people ‘really speak.’

What ‘really happens’ in life is, for the most part, boring. The way people ‘really speak’ is available in the streets for free, you don’t need to go to the movies for that. Also, and again, the way people ‘really speak’ is, for the most part, tedious. Know what I mean? Get what I’m saying? Understand my point?

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

Sure. The give-away is economy: few words that reveal a lot, instead of the other way around. Nothing is present for its own sake but exclusively for the advancement of the narrative. Fancy language that might be appropriate in literature will swamp a screenplay.

**AUTHOR’S NOTE – I’ve often said one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever heard was “Write as if ink costs $1000 an ounce”. Richard said that at a seminar of his I attended very early in my career. It really stuck with me, and I’ve used that as a guideline in my writing ever since.

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

There are some that are absolutely worthy.

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

Visit www.richardwalter.com. There’s info regarding my books, limited-enrollment online screenwriting webinars, whose enrollees’ scripts I’m willing to read, script consultation services, and more.

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

Pecan. And I don’t mind a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it.

Comfortable shoes will also help

One of the most common analogies regarding screenwriting is “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”.

Speaking from experience, it most certainly is.

For long-time followers of this blog, one of the things I enjoy doing when I’m not working on scripts is to go for a run. It’s good exercise, lets me catch up on my podcasts, and offers plenty of time to think about my writing projects.

After years of half-marathons, I decided it was time to take on the next challenge – a full marathon. A whole 26.2 miles.

Despite all the training I did, of which there was A LOT, when I set out that morning, I was still nervous. Could I actually do this?

That’s when I reminded myself, and did so repeatedly over the next few hours:

It’s the distance, not the time.

Much as I wanted to finish with a respectable time and pace, I’d decided it was more important just to finish.

Long story short – I got to mile 20 and a twinge developed in my heels and ankles, which then turned into out-and-out pain, so I ended up walking the rest of the way. It took me longer to get there, and definitely wasn’t the way I’d hoped things would play out, but I kept going and crossed that finish line. All the hard work and effort had paid off.

What does this have to do with screenwriting? It’s the perfect metaphor!

Earlier this week on social media, I posted my standard question to the screenwriting community – how’s your latest project coming along?

Answers covered just about the entire spectrum. From “great!” to “almost done with it” to “working out a problem in the second act” to “slowly” to “not at all”.

I can certainly sympathize with those last two. Frustration about a lack of progress is common. Our creativeness just isn’t cooperating, which doesn’t help either.

It usually boils down to two choices: accept the frustration, dig in a little deeper and keep pushing forward, or give up.

For me, giving up just ain’t an option. I love the writing too much to even consider it. But like with the running, I may not get the results I want when I want them, but I’ll keep trying until I do. It might take longer than I want, which honestly would kind of suck, but if that’s what it takes, then so be it.

As writers, we put way too much pressure on ourselves to succeed, sometimes within a somewhat unrealistic timeframe. “If I don’t get the results I want, I’m a failure.”

NO.

This is NOT an easy thing we’re trying to do. At least give yourself credit for being willing to do the work. Some people don’t even get that far.

Everybody’s path to success is different, as are our individual finish lines. You know the route you need to take, and how challenging it’s going to be, so it’s up to you to decide how you want to take it on.

So to all the writers feeling disappointed or frustrated about how things are (or aren’t) going, remember that the road ahead may seem treacherous and insurmountable, but if you keep pushing forward and do your best to enjoy the journey, you’ll be that much closer to crossing that finish line.

Hang in there, chums. I may be running my own race, but I’m still on the sidelines, cheering you on.

Q & A with Tim Schildberger of Write LA

Tim Schildberger is an experienced writer, script coach, and co-founder/Head Judge of Write LA – an annual screenwriting competition that gives writers a chance to get read by managers, and hear their winning script read by professional actors in LA (and posted on YouTube). He cares far too much about helping writers improve their craft and get access to the industry. Tim is an expat Australian, a former TV journalist, writer on the globally popular soap opera NEIGHBOURS, newspaper columnist, creator of a comedy/reality series for the Travel Channel called LAWRENCE OF AMERICA, and one of the key members of the original BORAT team. He has stories.

In his spare time, Tim is a husband, parent, tennis player, road tripper, and he and his family foster kittens. Seriously. Twitter: @write_la Instagram: @writela

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?

I hate to be a cliche, but THE CROWN – sets the bar very high. Peter Morgan is a genius. His ability to tell story with and without words, and build tension in scenes that on the page might appear boring, is remarkable. THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT had similar skill, attaching us to an unconventional character quickly and effectively.  Feature films – I loved PALM SPRINGS – structurally, and characters/dialogue, and who doesn’t love a woman solving the problems using education and intellect!

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I was 22, living in Australia (where I’m from), working as a trainee TV News Producer. I had applied to newsrooms, and I’d called up various TV series, asking if they needed a writer. It was a simpler time. A nightly soap opera, NEIGHBOURS, let me do a writing submission, which they liked – and said they’d get back to me. In the meantime I got the job in TV news.

One day, six months later,  I got a call in the newsroom, it was NEIGHBOURS, asking if I’d like to write an episode. I said yes, obviously. They mailed me the scene breakdowns, I typed my script on a typewriter, and ten days later mailed it back. All after working a full day in the newsroom. I did that 5 more times before it all got far too overwhelming. I was the youngest writer they’d ever had, and that experience made it clear to me that writing, in all its forms, was my future.

What was the inspiration for creating the Write LA competition?

We wanted to create a competition we’d want to enter. I’ve been writing for a long time – and I’ve entered competitions large and small. I’ve won a few, placed in a bunch, and it became clear that many of the writing comps out there don’t really do much when it comes to attracting attention, gaining industry access, or launching careers. And pretty much none put any kind of focus on helping writers improve their command of craft. So our goal was to build a competition that somehow combined both goals – to help with the craft, and to help with the access.

What makes Write LA unique compared to other screenwriting competitions?

Two things I think separate us. First, we are a competition run by actual writers. So we are able to deliver a certain degree of respect and admiration for the act of actually finishing a script and entering it – that many competitions lack. We know how it all feels.

Second, we stand proudly in front of the competition. Everyone knows I’m the co-founder and Head Judge. When you email a question, it comes to me. I do an enormous amount of reading, and I’m supervising every aspect of the competition. We try hard not to be a faceless comp where sometimes it can feel like you’re sending your script into a void, and then hoping something emerges. It matters to us that the entrants feel ’seen’.

A big concern for writers entering a screenwriting competition is the quality/experience level of its readers. How does Write LA address that?

I hear that. And I’ve experienced it first hand. A script will make the Nicholl semifinals, and won’t make it out of the first round somewhere else. And then you get ‘feedback’ that feels like it was written by someone who never actually read the script, they just strung a few buzzwords together.

So to address that – I’m heavily involved in the reading process. I’ve handpicked our small team, I do a ton of reading personally, and I set pretty clear parameters when it comes to what I’m looking for when it comes to command of craft. Every script that makes it into our top 15 semi finalists will have been read by at least three different people, including me.

We give every script, whatever the genre, or whether it’s a TV pilot or feature, full respect and attention. And all the additional feedback (offered at an extra fee), is done by me personally. So there is a consistency of the feedback, and a name attached to it (mine). I’m not interested in telling anyone what I would do, I’m focused entirely on maximizing the opportunities presented by the writer and doing my best to empower them to bring the most out of their idea, and their skills. 

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Gosh – this isn’t easy to answer quickly, but I’ll try. For me, a good script needs fleshed out characters, who face clear challenges – no matter how big or small. Because no matter how detailed the world, or ‘big’ the story, if we don’t care about the characters, it’s all a waste of time.

Also, an understanding of the audience experience is awesome. A writer who is aware of audience expectations, and is able to manipulate those expectations is exciting. And finally, a clear sense of where the story is heading. Not a lot of extra clutter. Just a solid story, competently and confidently told.

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

Misuse of Scene Description is HUGE. Using it to reveal character details an audience couldn’t possibly know. Using it to show off a writer’s literary command – with all sorts of flowery descriptions that waste time, rather than establish ‘mood’.

Not writing an outline. I’m confident I can pick within 5 pages if a writer has an outline, and a firm idea of who this story is about, and where it is going. And taking too long to dive into story. Spending page after page building a complicated world, and then finally starting some sort of story – is a big mistake. Even STAR WARS had a brief title explanation, and then we were into Darth Vader storming Leia’s ship. The rest we figure out as we go.

Lastly, I have to add too many spelling errors. A sloppy script does not inspire confidence.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

A character waking up, turning off their alarm, and getting into the shower as the first thing we see. Happens WAY more often than you would expect, and is not only dull, but unwise. What viewer who sits in a darkened movie theatre wants to see a feature film start that way?

I’m also not a fan of drawn out action sequences. It’s great that you see the car chase in your head, but all a reader cares about is ‘does someone important die?’

Oh, and a shot of ‘overdue bills’ on the kitchen table. Anything but that please. I see a lot of stereotypes with the characters too – which usually tells me a writer is basing a character on another character they’ve seen in a movie or on TV – rather than an actual, flawed, complex human being.

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

What you are doing is more about hard work than flashes of inspiration. It’s less about talent than it is about grind.

Accept that re-writing is inevitable. Your first draft will not be a work of art. It’s a starting point.

Learn to receive notes as comments on the words on a page, not a personal attack, or a statement on your writing ability.

Characters are more important than story nowadays. Put the extra effort into figuring out who they are, and their emotional journey through your story.

What you are doing is brave, and awesome, and you should feel very proud of yourself every time you finish anything. Every time. Plenty of people talk about writing something. You went and did it. That’s huge and should never be ignored.

There is no work of art in the history of human beings that has ever been loved by 100% of the people. Accept that your work will not be universally loved – because humans are humans.

Details matter. Every scene matters. Every line of dialogue matters. Everything you do is conveying a message to an audience. Understand and embrace that.

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

I read many scripts like that! I read hundreds of scripts a year, so I regularly find writers who are very skilled. As for reasons, I would say the absolute, clear number one is making me feel something. I’m not alone in this. I tell anyone who’ll listen if you can make a reader feel a genuine human emotion, that is FAR more important and impactful than any set piece, world, intricate story or cute scene description. It isn’t even close.

Also, it’s fun to read scripts by writers who think about the audience, and work hard to provide us with a rich, enjoyable experience. I know the expression “write what you know” is popular. My version is “write what you know, but make it accessible to strangers.”

And while I’m here, let me add that writing what you know really refers to your emotional experience and authenticity. Not your time in middle school. If you can dig into your emotional space, which is uniquely yours, and share that on the page – that authenticity connects you with a reader/audience, and goes a long way to establishing what the industry likes to call your “voice”. I’d like to say it was easy to do. It’s not. But it’s important.

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

I have to say I’m a big fan of custard. There’s a custard tart in my homeland Australia – a mini pie – which is very much my favorite. But as that doesn’t really exist here – I’m going to say I like banana cream, apple, peach, and I’m a big fan of all the cobblers and crumbles too. I don’t think I’d refuse any pie that came my way.

Doing the best I can

2021 is just a smidge past the halfway point. How’s it been for you, writing-wise?

Have you been as productive as you’d hoped back when the calendar switched from December to January?

Mine’s been okay. I got a few first drafts done, and have been splitting time among a few rewrites. Some of them have been proving to be quite challenging, but I keep chipping away. A little bit of progress a day is better than none, right?

And maybe some of you remember back to earlier this year when I read A TON of scripts. Glad I did it, but no plans to repeat that. Probably ever.

There’s also a big project that’s been stewing for quite some time, and that took up a lot of time – especially during May and June. Hoping to put the finishing touches on it over the next few weeks, with the intention of revealing more later in the year.

I’ve also seen a lot of positive news from many of my trusted colleagues within the writing community; representation, contracts, options, production(!). I’m more than thrilled for each of them, and hope to eventually be able to include myself among that select group.

A big part of this year for me has also been a whole lot of self-reflection and evaluation. Do I feel any closer to achieving the goals I’ve set for myself? Is that light at the end of the tunnel the growing glimmer of hope, or an oncoming train?

Like a lot of us, I’ve had my fair share of days where things seem extremely gloomy and I wonder if I still have a chance at making this work. Maybe. Maybe not. But I do enjoy coming up with all these stories.

So I’ll keep at it, doing my best to stay positive and trying to do better with each draft, while also taking the time to not overstress about working my through the whole process and just try to have a good time with it. This plays a much bigger role than you’d expect, and can make quite a difference.

Who knows? Maybe it’ll all pay off in the end. In the meantime, I humbly refer you back to the title of today’s post.