MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #7
For dancers and actors it’s obvious their bodies are their instruments. It’s a little less clear, but nonetheless true also for writers. Writing is not as much from the brain as from the heart, the belly, the groin. Writing is sedentary to be sure, which is all the more reason scribes need regularly to get off their butts and work at keeping their instrument in good working order. Among the greatest lessons I’ve learned as a writer and writing educator occurred during one of the eleven thousand miles I’ve swum in the Donald K. Park Pool at UCLA’s incomparable Sunset Canyon Recreation Center in the hilly, wooded northwest corner of our campus. What does swimming possibly have to do with writing? Read on.
(GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY)
In addition to whatever else I may be I am also an obsessive, compulsive, addicted swimmer. Outdoors, rain or shine, I swim 1700 meters seven days a week year-round. (That’s a mile and a sixteenth, in case anyone is keeping score.) This means that since arriving at UCLA in the fall of 1977 I have swum more than eleven thousand miles in the Donald K. Park Pool at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center in the northwest corner of our campus.
Why a mile and sixteenth?
When I started, I set my sights on a mile. In our fifty-meter pool, however, that would leave me in my final length about ten yards shy of the far deck, so I figured I might as well finish the lap and return to where I began. Over the decades those sweet little sixteenths all by themselves add up to quite some several hundred miles.
Writers, that is to say people who work in their heads, need to remember that their heads are part of their bodies, and if they don’t exercise, not only will their muscles go soft but also their minds. Nothing clears the cobwebs like a vigorous swim (or other form of aerobic workout: running, speed walking, rowing, cycling, or rhythmic dance).
That is not, however, the reason I tell you about swimming.
In 1988, the Olympic Games were held in Seoul. Six weeks before the competition, the American women’s swim team coach gathered all the swimmers in Los Angeles to train for two weeks. Not surprisingly, the women were from Florida, Texas, and California.
The scheme was to train for two weeks in the Pacific Time zone, then move on to Hawaii for two more weeks, and then to Seoul two weeks in advance of the Games. In this manner, by the time of the competition, the swimmers would be truly and fully acclimated to the time change. If this resulted in improved swim times of even just a few hundredths of a second, this could spell the difference between gold and no medal at all.
The university accommodated the team’s request, setting aside a number of lanes in the pool for the Olympians. For a couple of weeks I swam in a lane next to the likes of world champions on the order of Janet Evans.
Janet Evans did everything wrong. Her stroke was graceless and choppy; there was entirely too much splash. She rode all at once too high in the water and also too low. There was a herky-jerky quality to her movements that seemed to mitigate her progress through the water. When she swam it appeared that oodles of energy were wasted.
There was only one thing Janet Evans did right: she swam fast. Notwithstanding all the broken rules, Janet Evans could make the water boil around her. I’m telling you that steam rose from the surface of the pool as she tore up her lane.
There was plenty of press hanging around the pool, observing and interviewing the swimmers and assorted Olympic team personnel. On one occasion I eavesdropped on the coach being interviewed by a reporter. He was asked about Janet Evans’s stroke. Why didn’t he encourage her to smooth out her stroke and achieve a more classical configuration that would enable her to move through the water with greater efficiency?
His reply struck me as worthy advice not only for coaches training athletes but also for parents raising children and, here for our own purposes, teachers teaching artists.
The coach said: “Half of my job, is showing the way. The other half is getting out of the way.”
Arts educators, writing instructors among them, have to distinguish between providing a certain amount of guidance, and allowing artists to discover their own paths. As many writers as there are, that’s how many styles and methodologies and personalities there are. Our success training writers at UCLA has a lot to do with providing a safe and secure environment, creating a community where artists feel free to reach and stretch and take risks and from time to time to fall on their faces.
Like athletic coaches, writing teachers have to get out of their students’ way.
More to the point, however, writers also have to get out of their own way.
How many times do I read scripts with brilliance obscured by over-writing? How often do I read lines where one character delivers information that has already been reported to the audience? How many times does a character offer a principle in a speech that is overlong and overbearing so that the otherwise exquisite point is buried in a blizzard of words that suffocates otherwise splendid expression?
In ESSENTIALS OF SCREENWRITING the longest chapter is Notes on Notes. It represents a compendium of notes I have accumulated over the decades analyzing scripts for writers in the film industry and also for writers on campus in our screenwriting Master of Fine Arts program.
“Fmpmt!,” for example, stands for “find and make your point, and move your tale.” “$?” asks: Is this line of dialogue worth paying money to hear? Is it peppy and perky and punchy and provocative? Does it move the story forward and expand the audience’s appreciation of the characters?
The substance of this Notes on Notes chapter evolved over the years as I worked as a script doctor, and it continues to grow. Since publication of the book in July of 2010, I continue to evaluate screenplays and, in doing so, still new codes emerge.
One such new term is expressed “gooyow!” which, by now, you know urges writers: “Get out of your own way.”
Oscar Race: Is The Social Network Vs. The King’s Speech a Repeat of Gandhi Vs. E.T. for Best Picture?
In the Boston Globe article “The Sweet Sound of Success,” Judy Abel writes:
In one corner we have a lofty British film about a stammering monarch who struggles to communicate and reluctantly opens himself to friendship and trust. In the other, we have a brassy American movie about a generation that “friends’’ indiscriminately and gives voice to virtually every thought and opinion.
So if, as many are predicting, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has to choose between “The King’s Speech,’’ which opens Friday, and “The Social Network’’ for the best picture award, it just might give the nod to the British film because it will make the voters feel like they’re taking the high road, according to experts.
In researching the story, Abel interviewed UCLA’s Richard Walter:
On the other hand, sometimes a fancy accent goes a long way in wooing Oscar voters, says Richard Walter, chairman of UCLA’s graduate program in screenwriting and author of “Essentials of Screenwriting.’’
“I think there is a sense of the Academy wanting to reward pictures that are viewed as more important,’’ says Walter during a telephone interview. “Unfortunately, a subject might be unfairly rewarded by well-intentioned people, even though the artistry might not be as exceptional. The other thing is, when a lot of people hear a British accent, they think that’s real acting.’’
English films have enjoyed a number of Oscar victories over the years, including the 1981 award for “Chariots of Fire’’ over “On Golden Pond’’ and “Reds,’’ and the 1966 victory for “A Man for All Seasons,’’ which beat out “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.’’ And, perhaps most glaring, according to Walter, is when “Gandhi’’ bested Steven Spielberg’s “E.T — The Extra-Terrestrial.’’
Both “Gandhi’’ and “E.T’’ depict small healers. One is prone to fasting and the other prone to eating Reese’s Pieces. But ultimately, Walter says, “E.T.’’ was the more powerful film and was shortchanged simply because nobody wanted to mess with Gandhi.
“I think they’re both great movies, but I think ‘E.T’ is vastly superior,’’ he says. “Perhaps because of [the movie’s] British roots, and perhaps because it treated the subject of Gandhi, which people thought was important, they didn’t choose ‘E.T.’ which I believe is really, truly a timeless and eternal classic. My prediction is that hundreds of years from now people will be looking at both those pictures, but more ‘E.T.’ than ‘Gandhi.’ ’’
Read the full story here.
Catch Richard If You Can!
Up and coming workshops and seminars this month:
February 16, 2011 - Masters Screenwriting Class, Teleseminar for Scripped.com
February 18-20, 2011 - San Francisco Writers Conference, San Francisco, CA
March 2011 (Date TBD) - Masters Screenwriting Class, Teleseminar for Scripped.com
March 9-20, 2011 - Pitchfest - Brisbane; Master Screenwriting Class - Sydney; Hosted by Screen Queensland and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School
For Richard’s full calendar of appearances please visit http://richardwalter.com/attend-a-seminar/.