Academic Book Review: Essentials of Screenwriting by Richard Walter

One of the forms of writing often overlooked in pre-collegiate curricula, when it comes to both literature and creative writing classes, is that of the screenplay. High school students will study plays by Shakespeare and Arthur Miller, but rarely will they read even a single screenplay, let alone write one. This is a curious omission when one considers how much more prevalent TV and movies are in the average person’s media consumption than plays are. Opening up screenplays as a potential avenue of interest to students has the potential to expose them to a form they may ultimately find more relevant and accessible to them than plays written for live theater. A good starting point to explore the art of writing a screenplay is Richard Walter’s Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing.

As might be apparent from the title, not everything in Essentials of Screenwriting is going to be immediately applicable to burgeoning screenwriters, particularly the parts about the business aspect of the craft. While a secondary school teacher might have the incredible luck to find a child prodigy with a Hollywood-ready script in their class, most students will need to focus on the fundamentals of writing a screenplay, such as formatting, pacing, etc. Thankfully, Walters covers those essentials more in depth than he does navigating the Hollywood studio system.

Each chapter of Essentials of Screenwriting covers a different topic, making it easy for a creative writing teacher to split up into discrete lessons. Chapter 7, for instance, covers story construction, chapter 8 covers how to develop characters, and chapter 9 covers how to write effective dialogue. Each would make a good starting point for a lesson on those respective topics in a larger unit on screenwriting. The business-related topics are left for part III of the book, which could probably be skipped entirely at the pre-collegiate level.

Walters teaches screenwriting at UCLA, a university not far from the spiritual hub of the screenwriting industry, and his writing has the insight and humor one would expect from someone who has extensive experience keeping lecture halls full of students engaged with the content of his lessons. Chapter 5, for instance, is titled “Conflict: Violence and Sex,” which is sure to raise eyebrows among some readers. The chapter is not about how to write good sex and violence, though; rather, Walters discusses the history of sex and violence in popular culture all the way back to Oedipus and makes the case that even a movie as “kid-friendly” as Disney’s Bambi is propelled by an act of violence at the core of its story. He also makes the argument that violence does not necessarily need to be physical, but can be emotional as well, and when considered more broadly in those terms is an essential part of compelling drama.

Chapter 13 of the book, “The Writing Habit,” is applicable not only to screenwriting but creative writing in general, and thus has that holy grail of learning: transferability. Walter discusses topics such as overcoming writer’s block, outlining, and rewriting, which are all things students would be able to apply to almost any form of creative writing. About developing a writing routine, he writes the following:

“Writers need to permit themselves to achieve in whatever manner serves. Some work slowly, steadily, all day, day after day. Others dawdle hour after hour until, with hardly any time left at the end of each day, they leap suddenly into an orgy of finger-flailing productivity.”

Many books on writing talk about developing a routine, but few are so open and reassuring about the fact that what may work for one person may seem like textbook procrastination to another. That’s a message that would no doubt resonate with some students who have otherwise been told that the way they are going about their own creative processes is wrong.

It is Walter’s candor and wit that ultimately make the book an easy recommendation for the classroom. This is not a dry textbook about How to Correctly Write a Screenplay; rather, it is the collected insights of someone who has had a long career of teaching this specific craft and has some strong opinions about it. Students probably will not get all the references Walter makes—Kramer vs. Kramer, for instance, is hardly standard viewing for Gen Z—but they will likely appreciate his unpretentious, no-nonsense approach to the subject matter.

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