The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing.
In a time when “how-to” screenplay books look very similar despite the fact that they all see themselves as very different and unique, Richard Walter‘s Essentials of Screenwriting is a really distinct, daring, practical and demanding book.
Let’s have a look at some excerpts.
All Writers Hate to Write
It is not I alone who dreads the blank page, who struggles daily to drag himself to his desk, who dawdles and procrastinates and picks lint from the carpet to avoid applying fingers to keys. Those nasty habits belong, I realized, to all writers. Writers love having written, but we hate to write. This may appear cynical, but it is simply a statement of observed fact. To sit hour upon hour in an empty room, attempting to fill blank paper—or, these days, glowing LCD screens—with story, character, and dialogue worthy of the time, attention, and consideration of an audience is as lonely as life gets. Writing, like banging your head against the wall, feels terrific mainly when you stop.
The Film’s First Artist
After too many decades of auteurism, the alien notion falsely anointing the director as film’s first artist, screenwriters are coming into our own, at long last winning the recognition properly due movies’ authentic prime movers. The writer is film’s first artist if for no other reason than that she is just that: first. The vast, sprawling army of artists and craftspeople who gather to make a movie are lost, every one of them, without the writer. The fanciest state-of-the-art cameras, the latest high-tech editing suite, the finest actors, the most highly respected producers, the whole host of paraphernalia required for the production of a film are useless until a writer writes a plan. That plan is the screenplay.
The Capra Touch
Legendary director Frank Capra was asked in an interview to explain precisely how he achieved in his movies that legendary quality called “the Capra touch.” In the interview he rambles on about this technique and that one: clues he whispered to the actors, cues offered to the crew, wisdom shared with the editor. Nowhere in the article does he mention the name Robert Riskin, who had merely written all the referenced films. The afternoon the interview appeared in the press there arrived at Capra’s office a script-size envelope. Inside was a document very closely resembling a screenplay: a front cover, a back cover, and one hundred and ten pages. The cover and pages, however, were all blank. Clipped to the “script” was a note from Robert Riskin. It read: “Dear Frank, put ‘the Capra touch’ on this!”
The Integrated Screenplay
The integrated screenplay is one whose every aspect – every bit of action, every line of dialogue – accomplishes simultaneously the twin tasks of (1) advancing plot and (2) expanding character.
The Integrated Screenplay Integration is an essential, elusive quality informing all creative expression. Integration transcends mere parts: tale, character, dialogue, and all the rest. Instead, it embraces the whole picture. What precisely is integration? Integration is every bit as easy to understand as it is difficult to achieve.
As a screenwriting educator, I preach that scenes in restaurants, for example, are to be avoided. Turn on the TV right now, go to a movie theater, or slap a DVD in the player. Soon enough, indeed too soon, you’re likely to encounter actors sitting around tables in restaurants, not acting out the tale but narrating it as they engage in action that is not action at all: sawing away at their meal with silverware.
Lazy writers all too often have their characters narrate the tale while they engage in bogus “action wielding knives and forks, sipping water and wine, blotting lips with napkins, sprinkling pepper and salt, and, most regrettably, flapping their jaws. Still worse, such scenes inevitably begin too early, long before the true Aristotelian beginning, that is to say, the point before which nothing is needed.
In the rare instance that a writer absolutely must place a scene in a restaurant, he certainly does not need to start with the characters entering the establishment, being greeted by the greeter, seated by the seater, and introduced to the busboys and kitchen staff. One certainly need not have the waiter describe today’s specials; indeed, there’s no need whatever to have the folks order their food at all. A writer should cut directly to the meat of the scene.
Best of all, again, writers should avoid scenes in restaurants altogether. Unless they’re integrated.
The Language of Scripts
Screenplays should contain nothing besides clear, everyday language. It doesn’t hurt a bit, of course, for a writer to be a genius of invention and imagination. What he needs to know first of all, however, is English. Moreover, he needs to know it quite well, since language is the sole tool available for transporting a screen story from the writer’s head into the head of others.
Theme: The late playwright Arthur Miller reported that when he was approximately two-thirds of the way through a play its theme suddenly became clear to him. He then wrote the theme -a handful of words- on an index card and pinned to the wall above the typewriter. That guided the rest of his writing; it helped him determine what belonged in the play and what not.
Funnily enough, this same story is told in Robert McKee’s Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting but instead of starring Arthur Miller, the protagonist here is the renowned screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. I am not stating that one is apocryphal, as both distinguished authors may have reached, in their own time and coordinates, an identical conclusion, which we’ll make it only even more truthful. In his book, McKee mentions the author of Network as the source that told him
that when he finally discovered his story’s meaning, he would scratch it out on a scrap of paper and tape it to his typewriter, so that nothing going through the machine wouldn’t in one way or another express his central theme.
On Killing Your Darlings
As a footnote, something similar happens with the famous line “Kill Your Darlings” that seems to have multiple authors, all of them in full agreement, which is always good.
In case you are not familiar with the expression, Palmbeachcontentco.com describes the “Kill Your Darling” motto as follows:
Your darlings are those sentences, paragraphs, or phrases you’re most proud of. You’re destined to save them, regardless of whether they enhance the overall quality of your writing or not. Killing your darlings is the process of removing those lines that you love but don’t contribute to the finished piece. It can be painful and personal, but it’s an unfortunate requisite for effective, concise writing.
In movies, instead of sentences and paragraphs it applies to scenes, dialogue and characters.
According to Slate.com Variations on the “murder your darlings” saying, including “kill your darlings” and “kill your babies,” have been handed down in writing workshops and guides for decades, and almost every major 20th-century English author has been cited at one time or another. In addition to the common attribution to Faulkner—“In writing, you must kill all your darlings”—which seems to have been popularized in guides to screenwriting in the 1990s, the advice has also been attributed to Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G.K. Chesterton, “the great master Chekov,” and Stephen King, who wrote, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
But the earliest known example of the phrase is not from any of these writers, but rather Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who spread it in his widely reprinted 1913-1914 Cambridge lectures “On the Art of Writing.” In his 1914 lecture “On Style,” he said, while railing against “extraneous Ornament”:
If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.
Back to Richard Walter, 5 More Pearls
Screenwriting’s one unbreakable rule: Don’t be boring.
If action defines character, character defines action.
In life we kill time; in movies time kills us.
A screenwriter’s best friend is the delete key.
The most overrated part of the screenplay equation is the idea.
Lots and lots and lots of food for thought in this great book.
A favourite of mine is the section where Walter explains that
I have invented a homemade, freeze-dried shorthand, my own personal stenographic code. I have created this system not to be coy, cute, or cryptic, nor to befuddle, vex, or confuse writers, but simply because it helps me move more quickly. What follows is an inventory of the kinds of notes that I inscribe upon scripts. It catalogues the notes I write and, therefore, the sorts of weaknesses—and strengths—I most commonly encounter.
The “stenographic code” section is priceless! A must for every aspiring writer. When you read this part, you will understand why: clarifying, specific, clever, full of common sense… You don’t know what “HwK” stands for? Or “Ess. Det. Only or SIFYN”? Not even “Drekt/Akt”? Dive into the book and find out!
Recommended Books by Walter on Film Writing (Apart from his own)
Even more? Here below, a whole 90-minute interview with him!
Is screenwriting your thing? Then either type “Screenwriting” in the website searcher or check How Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot Was Written, How Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut Was Written, Best Screenwriting Books Ever: Edward Dmytryk’s On Screenwriting and Best Scriptwriting Books Ever: Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, amongst many other posts!