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Richard Walter on Screenwriting: Lessons, Five Years On

Some time ago I attended Richard Walter’s Public Lecture on Screenwriting held presented by AFTRS, Griffith Film School and Inscription.

Five years later I’m coming back to the lessons I took away. How do they hold up? Why in particular did this lessons land for me? How has my writing journey challenged them? And where to from here?

The lessons from back then

  1. Write a personal story;
  2. Write so that every sight and sound moves the story forward;
  3. Get as much conflict in your story as you can;
  4. Tell the best lie you can to find Emotional Truth;
  5. For a story to mean anything it needs to come from a Source, via a Message, and to a Receiver.

Five lessons written on the day in my notebook. Lessons that fit against my thinking.

The day was broken into two. The first part was a lecture where I captured the above in the second part the final lesson got a real work-over. He broke down a few screenplays to see how they could be improved. Every word, every mark on the page to help the reader find it that much easier. Every improvement to decrease the gap between the creation in the writer’s mind and the realisation of that in the reader.

I wrote in my journal:

Richard takes his own advice to heart.

Every anecdote, every little screenwriting gem – told and re-told through countless hours of teaching – each now refined and delivered just so to both entertain and inform.

It’s like the man doesn’t know how not to entertain. A good place to be if you want to get into a craft whose primary purpose is to do just that.

Lessons five years on

ONE: Write a personal story.

My impression was that Richard believes in the uniqueness of every person, that every writer has their unique voice and own story to tell. The advice is to write from a personal truth particular to how you are, to the time you are living in, to your place, because more often then not, when these truths are articulately written in story then they turn out to be universal in nature.

This another was of saying that the universal is reached through the particular, through clearly visualised specific moments. When you are writing a personal story then you are writing what you care about the most, tautologically so.

TWO: Write so that every sight and every sound moves the story forward.

His emphasis here was on precision. On knowing exactly what belongs in the story and what doesn’t. On what distracts and what takes us further in. For those of you familiar with The Art of Dramatic Writing you’ll see that Egri thinks similarly and suggests that the concept of a Premise – a simple statement that captures the Protagonist, their primary goal/obstacle, and the resolution – as tool to focus what belongs in a story and what is distraction.

THREE: Get as much conflict in your story as you can.

Conflict is something that we all feel often before we are consciously aware of its trajectory. In an art form as diverse as dramatic writing it is perhaps almost universally considered one of the essential requirements. And perhaps Richard’s deference to Conflict is simply to remind us that Screenwriting at its heart is primarily a dramatic mode of story telling.

However I suspect the point here is to say that a dramatic story when well told should be overfilling with conflict, overflowing with struggle. Conflict is after all the essential test through which we can tell if a scene is working. The simplest measure of character and struggle and action, when we feel the conflict we feel the orchestrated opposition of beliefs. Conflict means the characters haven’t just walked away, haven’t just given up, that they will see it through to the bitter/excruciating/joyous/brilliant/cathartic end. As an audience balanced conflict means we can trust was we are reading and watching.

FOUR: Tell the best lie you can to find Emotional Truth;

This I find fascinating and it is not obvious that it is something that should be considered a lesson or profundity. What is emotional truth anyway and how is it different to truth? Is is simple to say something that we feel is true?

I’ve been thinking about truth in fiction, that truth is in someway a overarching principle, however it is not clear to me that this is the case. Indeed, some fictions seem intended to deceive, which is to say, intended to create limited or unfounded expectations about the way world works. At some level all fictions are doing this all the time, because life is mostly not like a fiction, for example I can’t think of a single fiction where we watch someone sleep for eight hours, just so we can get to the next day.

Fiction is at some level, life with the boring bits cut out, and is consequentially propositional. Whether conforming to or challenging conventions and social rules, fictions are political. Perhaps the claim to Emotional Truth then is simply to make a bold claim, to take a stake in society, to care enough to take sides.

And lastly…

FIVE: For a story to mean anything it needs to come from a Source, via a Message, and to a Receiver.

Richard’s belief was that That the most important thing a writer can do is think about their Receiver/Reader/Audience at every moment, every word, every mark on the page. That the ultimate goal of the screenwriter (in particular) is to reach as many people as possible and the best way to do that is to keep them in mind every word, every day, every time you face the page.

Ultimately there is a philosophical question on the nature of Art. For Richard’s mind it is a cultural consequence of the interplay of humans, put through the lens of an artist and then delivered to an audience, a reader, a viewer. Art then is experiential. Existing within each new mental state, each translation from artist to artefact to audience and falls without all three.

More info on Richard Walter http://richardwalter.com/

On Starting Each Day

I once heard a writer – I forget who – comment that there is an endless possibility of success if we never finish a work, and – for my mind – this is doubly so if we never start. If we never start we never have to face our own inadequacies, our own deficiencies and desires.

If we never start, then we never have to fail.

And so, each day we wake, we prepare, we sit – and there we find ourselves at the precipice of a moment. Some days we are lucky and step forward without thinking, and we are off, stumbling forth as best we are able, as best as our craft allows. And then other days – at that edge – something else happens.

That conscious critic of mind clamours and cows, it knows every reason why we won’t ever be good enough. Why we need a break from it. Why the dishes need cleaning. Why all the music is wrong. Why a walk is a good idea. Why our friends seem to get all the opportunities. Why the untouched page is the best we can ever muster, why each helpless mark smears and stains, why we will only ever be a failure.

It is the blocks in our own minds, the ideas we have about ourselves that hold us back. Brought on by fear, the fear of not being enough – even to ourselves.

So we let way. We go do the dishes. We give way to the rash and rubble of our conscious minds. We pack our hearts away and leave it to tomorrow.

Unable to begin.

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Yet we all know – we all know from lived experience – that once we get going, once we have started we can do it. But even here there is uncertainty, the fear can grip us. We can feel an other-worldliness of doing overtake us so it doesn’t quite seem real, so it doesn’t quite seem us. This person feels as a stranger, as unfamiliar as magic, as they have taken us across the threshold to doing, to an impossible world. It is not us that has done it. And we worry. Our minds worry that something isn’t right. That something is out of our control, not to be trusted, not to be relied upon. It was a trick. And we worry that we will never get back to that place again. We worry because the fear of not being enough, that fear has us still.

We worry because the success in our heads is not the success in our hearts.

Our heads dream of economic success, of awards and applause, of having our photo taken, of deference and power. But our hearts quietly dream too. And to our heads, our hearts are the toughest critic, the hardest measure, because our hearts just want us to be ourselves.

Our hearts crave self-fulfilment.

To be honest with ourselves; to live up to our own hopes and aspirations; to ask ourselves – in the quiet night when all we can hear is the distance rumble of the 1 am passenger train carried on the wind – ‘what kind of life do I want to live anyway?’ And we’re struck by the overwhelming enormity of answering so instead we watch another episode of mind-numbing video and lie awake until exhaustion makes us sick, and then we lie awake a little longer.

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And if we do ask the hard questions we might also ask: Do we aspire to be the best versions of ourselves? And if we do, then why aren’t we?

Why haven’t we started yet?

Who are we anyway to want such things?

Who do we really think we are?

I think that each of us live in a mental narrative of our own devising. A narrative fully immersed within the social conventions and our personal beliefs that sculpt us.

But some of us a trapped. By social expectation. By circumstance. By choices made before we knew how.

We see ourselves as a character in a story we are not in control of: The disillusioned mother. The distant lover. The crooked lawyer. The struggling artist. The unwanted son. The ingenue with a dark secret. When we are in one of these narratives they set our dial to repeat our failures, filling each future moment with a predetermined tragic arc, closing down our heart’s desire, each moment selectively reassuring us that there is no hope.

Such narratives are born from where our ambitions meet our failings, and as such are reflections of our very real weaknesses.

Flamed by fear once they have control of us they draw out the worst in ourselves in a race to the bottom, in a race to illuminate the very worse aspects of our nature. We cast blame, we find someone else at fault, so that we never have to look inside, never ask: what beliefs are blocking us before we even start? They are self-fulfilling narratives of frustration and instead we enrage, we shove, we cry, we push the other guy down – just for a short while – just so we can, ever so briefly, lift the weight of self-expectation pressing down, suffocating us with fear.

And in doing so we have lost ourselves. We have lost the better part to our fears.

I have lost the better part of myself to my fears and I must change, I must struggle to be better.

And so I ask:

Can we re-sculpt our lives?

Can we grant ourselves the permission to be different, to surprise ourselves, to inspire ourselves, to nourish ourselves, to love ourselves?

Can we actually be the better versions of ourselves we claim we aspire to be? The intellectual mother, the bee-bop lover, the crying lawyer, the unimagined artist, the serendipitous son, the ingenue with a pleasant secret.

What if?

What if we can change? And in so doing give hope to our hearts desires? Give hope to our dreams? And for a moment be ourselves at our best.

Let us listen to the carefree laugh, let us hear the heartbeat of a loved one, let us smile to see unconscious love, let us laugh, and smile, and laugh, as tension slips from our backs, as our shoulders feel free, as our throats feel less sore, let our face relax, and our mind wonder, what if?

I know, the struggle to start is very real.

But that is our old selves – that is the old story.

We can have a new story.

What if I can start? What if I’m that kind of person? What if that’s my story? What if I love that about me? What if, I’m awake at 1am listening to the last passenger train and I ask myself, ‘what kind of life do I want to life anyway?’ and the answer fills my heart with joy, that I fall asleep with dreams and fancy and when I awake my mind and heart are ready to be my true and nurturing me.

What if this new narrative of which we’re apart can bring us closers to ourselves? Closer to others, what if we find, we are loved, and that we can matter, and that we do love, and that others matter too. That we lift up those who are struggling, that we care when someone’s in pain, especially ourselves, and that we love to create seriously and joyously.

What if in this new story we love to start! We can’t wait to get started!

In this new story we love that we have started.

We love that about ourselves.

We love that we are about to start.

We love that we will start again tomorrow, and the next day. And every other day we are lucky enough to have.

But just today.

Just right now.

We love the idea of a new start.

We love the feeling it gives us.

Right now.

We trust ourselves to breathe.

We hug our hearts and our minds.

We elevate our heart’s true self.

We tell our mind it is going to love it.

That we are going to love it.

Now.

Begin.

I Literally Dislike this Word

Literally, adverb. The primary or intended meaning of a verb.

This word plagues common speech. In part it helps us solve the dilemma of how to describe uncommon events in a public speech overwrought with the embossing and adornment of hyperbole, however it is fraught with risk.

Let us consider the case for usage.

An Uncommon Case for Usage

To use ‘literally’ is to signify an uncommon occurrence. Moreover it is used to imply the honest retelling of events.

So ‘literally’ maybe used to call attention to the verb it adjoins and signal it’s actual meaning, the seriousness in which the author ascribes that meaning, and the lack of exaggeration in the now expected extraordinary claim to follow.

  1. Superman literally lifts a car on the cover of the first Superman comic.
  2. I literally wrote out The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and now I can quote it at will.
  3. She literally sculled two litres of milk, and then, just as swift, threw them back up again in a torrent of white.

We can see that in no way does using ‘literally’ increase the veracity of a claim. The reader is left no better off than had the word not been used at all.

Consider instead:

  1. Superman lifts a car on the cover of the first Superman comic.
  2. I wrote out The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and now I can quote it at will.
  3. She sculled two litres of milk, and then, just as swift, threw them back up again in a torrent of white.

Veracity or otherwise is established in context.

Using ‘literally’ makes the reader ask, why now? Why is it so important that I believe you now? And, in turn, has the unintended consequence of making it more likely that you’re claim will be doubted.

Not recommended for use.

The Non-Existent Case for Emphasis

There is no case for emphasis, however, its usage is on the rise.

In each case below we see an unintended comic effect as ‘literally’ creates a visual image at odds with meaning of the sentence.

  1. I literally caught her eye, and now we’re going out this Friday.
  2. She literally had an alien child that wont do what it’s told.
  3. I literally shot the Prime Minister on my sweet new handy-cam.

In all these examples we note the comic effect sits in contrast to the intended seriousness.

Not recommended for use.

A Comedic Case (with a hidden compartment)

All of the above turns on its head when the intended aim is comedy.

  1. I literally caught her eye, so I gave it back to her.
  2. She literally gave birth to an alien, kill it, no trap it.
  3. I literally shot the Prime Minister, it is a magic trick we’ve been working on.

None of this of course is actually that funny, and so the case literally falls apart – no matter how many times we put it back together again.

Not recommended for use.

An Unreliable Joy

In fiction we might attempt to use ‘literally’ to create a serious/comic incongruity, a metaphorical oxymoron. Such a well constructed sentence, within context, can surprise us, drawing us into the whimsy.

Such writing is joyfully unclear:

  1. And with a simple miss-step Jonathan Safran Foer literally fell from off the Ends of the World, and there he remains – plummeting through space – waiting for us to find him.
  2. Henry did not gather the strings of his mind to a single purpose, he literally laid them bare on the tabletop and counted them up so the sum was no greater than its parts.

Not recommended for the every day user or philologist alike.

Correct Usage

This one is to satisfy the philogists only.

When asking the actual meaning of a word. When asking someone to use the actual meaning of a word

  1. What does abdicate mean literally? Use instead, what is the literal meaning of abdicate? or simply, what does abdicate mean?
  2. Can you translate this literally? Use in this case if you mean a precise word for word translation.

What it tells us

In life it is better to strive for appropriateness, originality and precision least you run the risk of being thought an unreliable narrator to your own existence, which is to say, a fraud or a fool.

Use verbs appropriately because you owe it to yourself and those who are reading: Did you catch the bus or did you ride it? Did you die a little or did you suffer? Did you loose your mind or were you merely furious.

  1. Be original in your use of hyperbole and metaphor so your speech sparkles and the listener is rewarded for their time: I slept as a giant pink marshmallow in a bed of clouds; We went to work as a robot army ready to please our masters.
  2. Be precise with quantities so trust is earned and people listen: There are one thousand million stars in the galaxy and each one will eventually die.
  3. Over and under exaggerate for comic effect to bring joy to a dull moment: I ate an elephant before I got here so I might need a little sit down.

Establishing credibility takes times. It is an investment in accurately describing the world, in appropriate exaggeration, in the aptness of metaphor.

This way when describing uncommon events in a serious way there is no need to literally call attention to the fact. Your credibility is already assured.

References

Merriam-Webster. (2016). literally - definition from Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literally
Oxford Dictionary. (2016). literally - definition of literally in English | Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries | English. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/literally