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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.

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