Thursday, July 08, 2010

Stumbling and Bumbling Your Way To Success - by Richard Walter

Today we have a special treat for readers of the Screenwriters League - a guest post by Richard Walter, the chairman of UCLA’s graduate program in screenwriting. Richard has a new book hitting shelves - Essentials of Screenwriting - and he has generously offered to provide a little bonus insight to League readers. 

Stumbling and Bumbling Your Way To Success 
by Richard Walter

Neil Simon guest-lectured in my UCLA screenwriting class. One of the students asked him, “Do you laugh at your own jokes?”

His reply: “Yes, I do, the first time I hear them.”

I love this notion that Mr. Simon ‘hears’ his jokes, as if the characters create them on their own. I’ve never known a writer who wasn’t surprised by lines his characters seemed to create by themselves, by twists and turns in the plots that seem to evolve without serious planning by the writer.

I argue in my book Essentials of Screenwriting and elsewhere that creating a dramatic narrative is not so much an act of construction as it is of discovery. The tale and its inhabitants are dis-covered, that is, the cover is withdrawn and they are thereby revealed, as if they were always there just waiting to be found.

Stories and characters and dialogue arise often without calculation. I am, myself, a strong advocate for outlining, but this does not mean that writers shouldn’t stay open to the surprises. Indeed, to do otherwise, to over-plan, is to rob a script of its spark and sparkle and sense of spontaneity.

This is true also for life narratives.

Who has a better job than I? I write and I teach writing. In the former instance, I get paid for what others are scolded for: letting my mind wander. Like all writers, I traffic in my own imagination; I swap my dreams for dollars.

In the latter instance, I work with the best and brightest new writers, who butt heads with me and my colleagues, compete with us and keep us fresh. Our students help us to avoid the ruts and routines into which freelance writers too easily fall. I never planned for an academic career. My position fell into my lap at a Hollywood party (actually it was in Malibu). I arrived at the party and was introduced to the then-head of the UCLA screenwriting program who promptly invited me to join the faculty.

The lesson: You can’t find a job like mine; the job has to find you.

Likewise, often you cannot find your story but have to let it find you.

Planning, calculating, designing are activities that are in their nature left-brain oriented, that is, they are intellectual and analytical. They are about the brain, the mind. Art, however, is not about thinking but feeling. It’s not about the brain so much as the heart, the belly, the groin.

One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is to try and haul back to some preordained notion a script that has run off the rails. Rails are, after all, constricting, limiting. Sometimes it’s a good thing to let a story run off the rails.

Years ago I was deep into an assignment writing a feature length script for Warner Brothers. I had gotten fairly well stuck about two thirds of the way through the story and became thoroughly distressed. The last thing I wanted was to go on vacation, but I had promised my wife we would head up to the High Sierra come August. All I wanted to do was stay at my desk and struggle with the story issues that vexed and befuddled me. How under such circumstances could I enjoy any kind of vacation?

Grumpily, I got in the car and we hit the road. Within about a half hour, once we were beyond the urban scene, I suddenly relaxed. I told myself that once we were settled in our mountain cabin, I would set my mind to working on the script. As the week unfolded, however, I gave not a thought to the script. I enjoyed the pine-scented outdoors, the glorious mountains and lakes and sky.

On our last day before heading home I suddenly realized that I’d forgotten about the script. I set my mind to calculating how I could finish the tale, and promptly became depressed. I couldn’t come up with even merely a fragment of a thought that would help me with the script. Instead of hurling myself from a cliff, I resolved to stop thinking about the screenplay and simply enjoy the little bit of vacation that remained. I told myself that the following day I would give myself over to the enjoyment of the drive through the Central Valley, and the day after that I would plunk myself down at my station before my desk and struggle once again with my creative issues.

At that very moment, precisely the moment I totally stopped thinking about the script, the end of the story revealed itself to me as if a tunnel had opened, leading me precisely to that place where I needed to go.

When I settled into the chair before my desk two days later, I knew just exactly what I had to do to finish the script.

Because writers work with language, and because language is first of all a left-brain enterprise, it is all too easy to try to think our way though our stories. In truth, based upon my own experience and also upon that of hundreds of writers with whom I have worked closely in Westwood and elsewhere, writers’ best bet may very well be to stop over-thinking their tales, suppress their planning, and stumble and bumble around blindly. They might just find that among the things they bump into will be precisely the character, the line of dialogue, the narrative they’re seeking.

About the Author: Richard Walter

Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert, and longtime chairman of UCLA’s legendary graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, is available in stores July 2010. Professor Walter lectures throughout North America and the world and serves as a court authorized expert in intellectual property litigation.  For more information and to order the new Essentials of Screenwriting, visit

Is your screenplay ready to sell? Enter the Richard Walter Online Review Program to win a chance to find out!

Richard Walter asserts that one of the biggest mistakes writers make is to market their scripts before they’re truly ready. If you read Richard’s new book, Essentials of Screenwriting, and post an online review of it on, your own blog, Facebook page or favorite user review site (and send the full review and the link to where it appears online to ), you will be entered into a weekly drawing to win a free read of your script by Richard. If he deems it ready, he’ll refer it to a potential representative or directly to a production company. If he feels it is not ready, he’ll send you a letter in which he cites its essential strengths and identifies those issues that in his view require further consideration.

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