A few of my writing colleagues got in touch with me this week, each seeking input on a few assorted topics.
One was asking for my thoughts on their short script.
Another asked for my advice regarding how to approach some business and legal issues of working with a director.
I offered what guidance I could for both, and both expressed their gratitude.
Similarly, I met with another writer friend who offered up some great suggestions and guidance for potential ideas regarding other avenues for my scripts.
I’m definitely not the type to go around saying “Got a problem? I’ve got the perfect solution!”; maybe more “Don’t know how much I can help, but I’m certainly willing to give it a try.” Most of the time it works out, along with the occasional totally unexpected but still positive results.
A lot of this wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t taken the time to establish and maintain a professional relationship with each of these writers. It’s how I operate overall, and a practice I heartily recommend every writer do.
Although writing is primarily a solitary activity, that doesn’t mean you have to stay isolated. Connecting and interacting with other writers is beneficial on several levels. Any help or boost you can offer another writer is always appreciated.
Same thing for when the situation is reversed and I ask another writer for help. Got time to read my latest draft? Could you look over this query letter? You’ve worked with this person before – how did that go?
A hashtag I frequently use in social media is #WritingCommunity, because that’s exactly what it is. I may not be the most active or vocal member, and sometimes it takes me a little longer to respond than I like, but I take part or help out when possible.
I’ve enjoyed it, look forward to continuing to do so, and hope you do too.
-A friendly reminder that my book GO AHEAD AND ASK!, INTERVIEWS ABOUT SCREENWRITING (AND PIE) VOLUME ONE is now available in both print and ebook formats.
It contains 42 interviews with script consultants, and offers a wide variety of helpful advice that could benefit any screenwriter, no matter how much or how little experience they have, as well as each person’s contact info (where applicable), and of course, their favorite kind of pie.
And as the title indicates, this is the first volume. The second and third, featuring interviews with not only more consultants, but also screenwriters, filmmakers, and writers in other mediums, are slated for release in the late June/early July and mid-September timeframes, respectively.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll be interested enough in wanting to take a look at this one.
Thanks for reading, enjoy the book, and have a piece of pie with my compliments.
Despite what some may say, it’s actually kind of tough to get a gift for a screenwriter. Straight-up cash – for contests and consultants, of course – is always good, but Murray in the accounting department says Maximum Z’s budget only goes so far, so that’s not an option.
So I figured, how about the next best thing?
You guessed it. Guidance!
So in the spirit of the season, here are some helpful tips that can benefit any screenwriter. One size fits all, the color suits you to a T, and they never fade, run or tear.
WRITE SOMETHING YOU WOULD WANT TO SEE
You like comedies? Write one that could make you laugh out loud. Horror fan? Transfer the scares onto the page. Your taste runs towards small indies? Bet some aspect of your life would be a great foundation for a story like that.
When you go to the movies or sit down to watch something streaming at home, you want your money’s worth. It’s up to the script to deliver on that.
The writer’s love of the material should be evident on the page. The reader/audience will pick up on your enthusiasm for the material, so don’t hold back and have at it. You’re your own target for this, so what would you want to be included in your story?
WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE
You want the words on the page to really flow, to make the reader keep going and want to turn the page/see what happens next, right? Which do you think will do the job better? Two lines of tight, concise action, or five of excessive prose? I’ve seen both, and prefer the former by a substantial margin.
The subheading for this could be “the more white on the page, the better”. You want to make the absolute most out of that valuable real estate on the page, so why would you want to clutter it up with thick blocks of text? Grab that red pen, put on your editor’s hat, and jump in. Could this dialogue or action be trimmed down from four lines to three? Or two?
The more the writing flows, the faster the read, and the more likely you are to keep your reader’s interest. Try to use as few words as possible; the ones that make the biggest impact.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
You’d think this was a basic one, but I’ve seen a lot of scripts that include what a character is thinking, why they’re doing something, or what something really means.
In other words, “How do we know that?” Film is primarily a visual medium, so if you’re able to present information we can see that’s part of the story, do it!
Here’s an example I like to use:
“INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT
Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. His mind drifts to when he took Mary Lou to the prom, where she subsequently dumped him and then ran off with a plumber and now lives in Akron with four kids, a cat, and a mortgage.”
What would we see onscreen? A guy washing dishes. That backstory info needs to be presented visually, or as much as can be.
SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND
True story: I once read a script that included the now-immortal line “She sets a bag of frozen pees on the counter.” I had a lot of trouble focusing on the rest of the script after that. Couldn’t tell you for the life of me now what the story was, but I will remember that line until the very end.
When a writer asks me to look over their script, I’m not just doing story notes. I check punctuation, spelling, grammar, the whole shebang. Having a few goofs is pretty standard; anything more than that and it becomes a problem. Sloppy writing makes it look like the writer isn’t taking this as seriously as they should. Not a great speller, or tend to overdo it with the commas? No problem. I bet there’s a writer within your network who’d be happy to do a polish for you.
DON’T BE BORING
Easier said than done, right? It’s a challenge to make any story interesting enough to hold onto the reader/audience’s attention, but it all starts with what’s on the page. Is the writing flat, or does it really pop? Does the writer have a handful of verbs they use over and over, or have they given their thesaurus a real workout?
Which sounds more visual and intriguing?
He walks into the room.
He struts into the room.
Hint: it’s not the first one. Doesn’t imagining somebody strutting into a room feel stronger, more cinematic, than somebody simply walking in?
The script is your way to paint a picture in our minds using words, and words alone. It’s up to you to do that in as entertaining a way as possible, using the words that pack the most punch.
Does the writing in your script do that?
BE NICE TO PEOPLE/PLAY NICE WITH OTHERS
Another one you’d think would go without saying, but manners do count – especially when it comes to meeting people who could potentially have an impact on you establishing a career.
Which would you rather be – the congenial person who’s interested in what the other person has to say, is open to ideas and suggestions, celebrates somebody else’s accomplishments, and wants to help out, or the bitter, self-important person who constantly whines/complains about how they’re not getting the recognition they deserve, badmouths other writers, won’t change anything in their script because “it’s perfect the way it is”, and just makes it all about them?
This is an extremely tough business to break into, let alone thrive in, so wouldn’t you want as much support as you can get? And every other writer needs as much support as you do, so you should try to help them just as much. Plus, nice people are nicer to be around.
Also important – be honest. Don’t present yourself as something you’re not. If you weren’t telling the truth about one thing, why should anybody believe you about anything else? Sometimes all you have is your reputation, and you don’t want to have it work against you.
Those within the industry would much rather work with somebody who presents themselves as a team player, and not a diva. Cliched as it sounds, you really do only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure that yours puts you in the best possible light, then you do what you can to keep yourself there.
And that’s it. Hope you get some use out of these, and feel to re-gift as needed.
Wishing you all the best for a happy holiday season that involves a slice of your favorite pie and at least a little bit of writing.
Brooks Elms is a screenwriter and independent filmmaker. His specialty is grounded personal characters and writing stomach-churning story tension.
He’s written 30+ screenplays, a dozen of them on assignment, and sold several scripts, including one this year with Brad Peyton as Executive Producer. Brooks was recently hired to rewrite a screenplay started by an Oscar-winning writer. Brooks began his career writing, directing, and producing two indie features (personal dramas) that he screened all over the world.
Here’s an interview with Brooks from last year. He also loves coaching fellow writers who have a burning ambition to deeply serve their audiences, and has two new programs available to give them a helping hand.
You started your new mentorship program ANSWER THE CALL in late 2020 and the online course UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER in early 2021. There are a lot of similar screenwriting courses and programs out there. What is it about yours that sets it apart from the rest?
Depth. I go ALL IN on the success of my writers. Most consultants give you their best for an hour or two, or maybe for the month you take their online course. And they play the numbers game. But since I only work with a few writers at a time, I’m better positioned to move the needle for you in a BIG way. I fully invest in writers: giving my time, my contacts, my everything – for life. I love helping them succeed as much as I love serving my audience with my own screenplays.
Is this a course more applicable for screenwriters just starting out, those with a few scripts under their belts, or both?
I enjoy new writers, but the best way I can help them is through my free tips found here https://www.brookselms.com/new/. I’m on the planet to serve my own audiences, and to help talented intermediate-level writers turn pro ASAP, and to keep them working at their highest levels – for life. And by intermediate, I mean they’ve written a couple scripts OR they’re a working professional in an adjacent creative field: copywriting, journalism, novels, acting, producing, directing, etc…
Do you consult with writers regarding which program would be the best for them?
The website helps writers with that. But the summary is that if you want a working WGA screenwriter to uplevel every facet of your game, consider the in-depth 1:1 story development program – ANSWER THE CALL. If you want help getting your script to people in Hollywood to launch your career forward, consider the outreach course & community – UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER.
What was the inspiration for calling the programs ANSWER THE CALL and UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER?
ANSWER THE CALL is from Joseph Campbell’s work about the mythic CALL that begins every great story. Too often, writers Refuse The Call to get the support they need to move to their next level – and they remain stuck in Act 1 in agony and cynicism. My program is for writers ready for the emotional risk to ANSWER THE CALL. UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER is just a fun way to think about branding and outreach, because that side of the game, more than any other, needs a playful approach to be GREAT at it.
One of the aspects of your ANSWER THE CALL program is that you work with several writers as a group, as opposed to just keeping it one-on-one. Do you find that more beneficial, and why?
The group coaching calls add dimension to learning the system. Sometimes, I’ll show you a craft adjustment 1:1, and you kinda get it, but then in the group call you see me coaching a different writer on that same principle and it will now totally click for you. And the writers I select are super-creative so our group calls are an amazing sounding board for getting quick collective reactions. Plus, having a circle of peers that are ambitious, team-oriented and active in the business – keeps you inspired. Because when one of us win, all of us win.
How extensive is your work with writers for ANSWER THE CALL? Do you help them develop a script from beginning to end, or should they come in with one already written?
We go the full distance. So you can repeat the process, for life. We’ll take a deep dive into your favorite films & shows and why you love them. Then discuss an idea for a new story, or it could be re-writing a previous story you couldn’t crack.
I take you through every step in my simple, proven professional process, to be sure you’re squeezing ALL the creative juice from your story idea. I help you answer all your audiences questions that you didn’t think to ask yourself. I am your first and best audience member that’s rooting you on every step of the way.
And even when you get several drafts into the screenplay, I’m still with you and tapping into all my personal contacts to get this project set up, get you representation, and get you all the other success you want.
I can’t guarantee WHEN this will happen for you, but I do guarantee you WILL cross significant career milestones with this system if you keep using it.
And I haven’t found a more comprehensive and effective system for success as a screenwriter anywhere — because of the in-depth 1:1 attention, and the inspired community I cultivate.
Part of the ANSWER THE CALL program is that you select 5 out of all applicants to participate. How do you determine who makes the cut, and what if somebody applies and doesn’t get selected?
I help everybody that applies. Some writers will be the best match for me, and I work with those 5 people myself. And because I’m getting so many serious writers applying, I’ve also brought in 2 guest mentors (with better credits than mine!) to support others I can’t work with myself. IF the writer and that other mentor hit it off, they’re still in my program with my community and group coaching calls, and they just get their 1:1 support from an even more fitting working writer than me.
For the writers that aren’t the best fit for my program, I still make an introduction to another amazing mentor colleague who works hourly, which allows them to still get custom support.
The qualities I look for in the writers that are a match for this program are:
– ambition while being open to earn how to fulfill that ambition
– team player
– talented – I don’t have to love their genre, but I have to love their creative approach and POV on life
– demonstrated commitment to the craft (written several screenplays, or created something else at the professional level and are ready to write screenplays)
– willing to go to the deepest places in themselves, so they can move their audiences in the deepest way
But most of all, I get a feeling when I do the first free coaching session that tells me “Hell yeah I want to help this person succeed myself AND they’re ready” or “I love that this person applied and I’m excited to help them a different way.”
It’s a soft landing for you either way, and just filling out the free (and fast) application will get you leaning forward in your career anyway. Easy!
While ANSWER THE CALL covers the actual writing of the script, UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER is more about what a writer can do once the script is ready to go. Is this a topic that’s challenging to a lot of writers?
Oh yeah. Writers tend to create a lot of drama in the outreach process, and that’s the single biggest factor that’s slowing down your career. Whatever level of talent you have, the speed of your success hinges upon the quality of your outreach game. Lean into your outreach game, and you’ll move into the fast-track of your success.
Follow-up – how would you work with a writer who at the very start says “I’m a complete mess when it comes to pitching”?
I welcome that! We all are on the journey. Myself included. So we just practice, and then we become a little less of a mess, and practice some more — so we become “okay.” And we practice some more until we get good… and even great. And what’s most important is we enjoy that journey of developing our game, and to not take ourselves too seriously as we’re learning. It’s lots of fun.
A lot of writers say lack of access to the industry is one of the biggest obstacles to establishing a screenwriting career. What are your thoughts on that, and how do you help writers with it?
When writers say their problem is “lack of access,” I see the real problem is “lack of a good habit” to face their fears of socializing.
News flash: over half of Hollywood is online posting about all sorts of things. Go to them directly! Get into genuinely engaging conversations with YOUR people – for the sheer fun of it.
Some of those online conversations will escalate into deeper colleague connections and even attachments to your projects – IF and only if – you’ve got the goods. So… the only thing stopping writers from their own amazing outreach game is their habit of wallflowering. But since they chose that habit, they can choose a new one. With practice. Totally in their control and power.
Say a writer completed a script in ANSWER THE CALL that you felt was of above-average quality. What would your next steps be? Pass it along to an agent, manager, or producer? Recommend they enroll in UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER?
Once I make sure their script is as great as it can be, I map out a sales strategy for them and introduce them to my own contacts. I got one of my mentees signed to my own manager. Everybody in the core development program ANSWER THE CALL is automatically enrolled in UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER as part of me helping them succeed.
Are there any success stories regarding former students you can share?
There sure are. In the very first year of the program, writers have already been advancing in contests, got an 8 on the Black List, gotten a handful of paid writing assignments, got producer attachments, and a former client won a Nicholl Fellowship last year (top 5 out of 7200 scripts).
Did I mention it was the first year of the program?
Success begets success, and this snowballing has just begun.
How can somebody interested in either or both of these courses get in touch with you?
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?
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.