Thursday, August 10, 2023

Screenwriting Questions and Answers. . .


Wendall -- every other Thursday


My husband James and I are in the middle of a move where I’ve learned the hard way that carrying an armoire at 64 is a bit different from carrying it at 47.


So, rather than blathering on about all that, I thought I’d give you all a taste of my “day job,” which is as a lecturer and instructor for the UCLA Graduate Film and Television Program.


My boss recently informed me that I am now the senior lecturer in the Professional Program in Screenwriting. As John Huston’s Noah Cross says in Chinatown, “Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”


One of my favorite teaching venues, the old Power Station in Brisbane, now an arts center.

And, as senior lecturer, he asked if I’d do a Q&A for new screenwriting students. Doing it was bittersweet, in the middle of a writers’ strike, but here it is. See you in two weeks, when, I hope, we will have internet.


What are your words of advice for any writers who are just getting ready to begin one of our programs?


First, take a deep breath. You’ve been brave enough to commit your money, time, and energy to becoming a professional film or television writer. Just by this act, you’ve jumped ahead of thousands of aspiring writers. The lessons you’ll learn, the feedback you’ll receive, and the relationships you’ll make here will serve you for your whole career. This is a big step. Enjoy it.


Second, keep an open mind. The UCLA faculty has a breadth and depth of experience and each of us has our own “take” on writing. There is not just one way to do this job, and different approaches work for different writers. So, use what you learn from your workshop instructors and lecturers as a way to start to develop your own, unique understanding of how screen stories work and what you can bring to them.


Third, I would start keeping a “writing journal.” Nothing fancy, but this is the best possible time to start to understand who you are as a writer, to start a “vault” of ideas that you can keep in one place, and to figure out what situations and habits bring out the best in your work. Do you work best from outlines or writing by the seat of your pants? Are you best in the morning or late at night? What blocks you? What unblocks you? Most importantly, what inspires you?


The industry is constantly evolving, what are three things new writers should currently do if they want to break in? 


Especially now, flexibility is crucial. You need to be able to pivot with the market—to consider your feature as a limited series or vice versa, to consider changing up elements or characters in your stories, to consider collaborating with another writer, etc. The more you can see change or rewriting as an exciting challenge and an opportunity, the happier you will be as a working writer.


Second, do your homework. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years, it’s that everything is cyclical. Indies are in, then they’re out, rom coms are in, rom coms are out, conspiracy-theory films repeat about every twenty years, etc. So, watch everything. Familiarize yourself with both what’s current and what’s come before in your genre or format. Be as diverse in your viewing as possible. Watching well-written pieces is the best way to have the rhythms of structure and character arc seep into your DNA and help you create well-crafted stories naturally.


The first year that I was asked to be a TA in a film program, I watched 400 films. It was the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing career. Although many films and shows are now dated in ways that can make them difficult to watch, I still think it’s important to have a perspective on what’s come before to start to develop a knowledge of the “language” of film and television.


Encouraging students to watch a range of films in my LIVING ROOM LECTURE series.

Third, do the work and take deadlines seriously. This is the basis of all professional writing. The real writer is the one who stays in the chair and finishes their script. Producers, executives, and show runners all have deadlines they have to meet and cast and crew they are responsible to, and no one wants to work with someone they can’t count on to deliver. Reliability is essential when it comes to all aspects of production and also to creating long term relationships in the business.


What are the five most important elements of an original screenplay?


A killer first page. I can’t emphasize how important this is. Rightly or wrongly, many readers make up their minds about a script based on the first page or two. If they aren’t engaged then, you may never get them back, or worse, they may not finish the read. Spend real time making the opening as unique and riveting as you can. The first image, the first line, really count.


A distinctive writing voice. Your voice as a writer can really help separate you from the pack. I don’t mean writing asides to the reader, I’m talking about creating distinct, unique voices in the dialogue and paying attention to the word choice and rhythm in the descriptive passages. Try to use language that reinforces and illuminates, or even challenges, your genre.


Structural logic from scene to scene and sequence to sequence. Many early writers jump from scene to scene abruptly, without preparing the reader for the switch. This can make for a choppy and confusing read. Work on having either believable cause and effect between scenes, or using strong, deliberate transitions to create a logic and a bridge from scene to scene.


Giving your characters flaws and obstacles. Ironically, it’s usually the flaws in people we love the most, that makes them the most distinctive. I find in a lot of early scripts, writers love their characters so much, they’re afraid if they give them flaws, we won’t love them, too. But putting characters in situations where they have to use their strengths, but also overcome their flaws, is what gives  drama, tension, and comedy to a story. They need to be human so that we can connect to them, but making them perfect can be a mistake.


Professionalism. Readers can only recommend a tiny percentage of the projects they are given, and so are always looking for a reason to say no. Don’t give them one by neglecting to proofread, or not checking the correct formatting, etc. Pay attention to detail so your story can  shine without the distraction errors can create.


Among other things, begging students to proofread.

If you have a bunch of ideas for movies, how do you know which idea to write first? 


This is perhaps the toughest question of all, at least for me. Right now, almost 30 years into my career, I am struggling with that very issue this week, as I’ve just turned something in and need to start my next project.


Often I will take a bit of time to “beat” out all the ideas, see what the plot points might be, and then see if one of the potential scripts either falls together naturally, or starts giving me tons of ideas. That’s usually the one I go with.


What rookie mistakes can make a screenplay fail?


Having a first page with long paragraphs of description and no dialogue.

Including too much backstory or set-up.

Not having a clear Inciting Incident that starts the story, or having one that is not related directly to the Climax.

Talking about how your characters feel or what they’re thinking, rather than externalizing their feelings in dialogue or behavior—i.e. telling not showing.

Overwriting, treating a script like a piece of fiction.

As above, not proofreading or not using recognizable formatting.


Teaching at the Santa Fe Screenwriting Conference in 2011.

What are your words of advice for our alumni? 

Never give up on a good idea. You may need to reconceive or re-package it, but ideas are our currency and good ones are invaluable. Just because a script didn’t get attention at some point, doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. So much of this business is luck and timing. So hang onto the good stuff, keep it updated, pitch it again.



  1. Thanks, Wendall. There are lots of good tips there whatever you are writing and in whatever genre.

    1. Thank you, Michael. I kind of hate to give writing advice, as nothing works for everyone, but I guess there are a few basic principles across the board. Hope you are well!

  2. You may "hate" to give writing advice, Wendall, but I simply love and look forward to receiving it from your posts! I always learn something new. Thanks.--Jeff