We've Got Hollywood Covered

Screenwriters Need to Learn How to Lie Through Their Teeth

Guest blog: Not only dialogue but other aspects of scripts are suffocated by this foolish devotion to some sort of factual, historical honesty


Art, Picasso tells us, is the lie that tells the greater truth.

Screenwriters need to learn how to lie through their teeth.

As a screenwriting educator and script doctor I have seen more scripts brought down by a writer’s wrongheaded devotion to some idealized, romanticized, self-conscious, narcissistic, pie-in-the-sky notion of The Truth.

During tutorial sessions with writers in UCLA’s Master of Fine Arts screenwriting program, I often find myself asking something like, “Why is this character hemming and hawing, starting and stopping, meandering, beating around the bush?”

The answer I often get is, “That’s the way people really talk.”

What’s wrong with the way people really talk? Two things. First, the way people really talk is available for free in the street. Nobody has to hire a babysitter, drive to a theater and poke around (and pay) for a parking place, not to mention buying a ticket.

Worse still, the way people really talk is boring. “Hi, how you doing?” “Pretty good. You?” “Not too bad.” “That’s nice.” “Is it hot enough for you today?” “I sure hope this heat wave quits soon.” “I’ve got to get over to the market for a quart of milk.” “My mother went to New Jersey yesterday.”

The greatest crime any artist can commit is to be boring. 

Not only dialogue but other aspects of scripts are suffocated by this foolish devotion to some sort of factual, historical honesty. Remember, history can be read as high-story or his-story.

At the most recent Oscar presentations there was some controversy regarding the fudging of historical facts in Tony Kushner‘s screenplay for "Linocln." Specifically, the filmakers fudged on the votes regarding the Emancipation Proclamation among the Connecticut congressional delegation.

Likewise, the script for Best Picture winner "Argo" took liberties with the actual events surrounding the rescue of the American hostages during the Iranian revolution of 1979. The movie depicts a last-minute chase down the runway as the escape plane takes off.

I was asked to write an op-ed piece regarding this issue for USA Today. I argued that when I’m hungry and crave a tuna sandwich, I don’t go to the hardware store. Likewise, when I seek a lesson in history, I don’t go to the movie theater. I’ll get rotten history and a lousy movie.

To believe that objective Truth even merely exists represents the height of arrogance. 

In a splendid, accessible, lay approach to understanding the theory of relativity, a book called "Einstein for Beginners" asks the reader to imagine an empty boxcar of a train with a table at dead center on which there sits a lamp with twin lenses, one aimed at the rear of the car, the other at the front.

The front and back doors are controlled by photolytic switches, that is, when a light shines upon them, they open.

Outside the train, from the perspective of an embankment alongside the track, an observer sees something quite different from what is seen by another observer riding inside the car. From the point of view of the observer in the car, when the lamp is lit, the front and rear doors open simultaneously.

From the point of the observer on the embankment, however, the doors open not simultaneously but sequentially. With the front door running away from the beam of light, and the rear door racing toward it, the back door is seen to open sooner than the one at the front.

In a certain sense, the difference is, of course, miniscule. The front door starts to open just slightly after the rear door. In another sense, the difference is huge. Simultaneity is, after all, not merely different from but the opposite of sequentiality. Things happening one after the other are the opposite of things happening at the same time. Aren’t opposites the greatest kinds of differences we have?

The important point is that this is not a metaphor, not an optical illusion or some sort of trick. It could be verified with ultra-high speed cameras, which actually exist; they are used by the military to analyze ballistics.

The question arises, therefore, what’s happening here? Are the doors opening simultaneously or are they opening sequentially?

The answer is: Yes. The doors open simultaneously or they are open sequentially depending upon who’s looking and from where.

Reactionary talk-show radio hosts will cite me as one more pointy-headed college professor claiming that everybody has his own truth and that there are no timeless principles, no eternal verities we can believe in. Everyone can just make it up as they go along.

Is there nothing we can agree upon? There is, for example, substantial disagreement regarding the assassination of President Kennedy. The official government version holds that a lone gunman was the culprit. Others argue there was a conspiracy ordered by Fidel Castro and carried out by Cuban secret agents. Still others say it was an American security entity such as the CIA.

Can we not at the very least agree, however, that JFK was murdered on Sept. 22, 1963?

Some years ago an article in the New Yorker examined this notion. Sept, as in September, means seven. Oct, as in October, means eight. November stems from nine; December (think decimal, decade) is 10. Yet these are not the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th months of the year but the ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th.

How did that come to be? Some suck-up to Caesar 2,000 years ago convinced him that there should be two months honoring him. That is where July (Julio, or Julius) comes from and August is for august, that is: Caesar Augustus.

And what about 1963? Jews and Mayans and Chinese and other cultures have different numbers for that year.

This means that merely the seemingly benign stating of a date integrates issues that are political, cultural, religious, and ideological.

Movies are fake. In many ways they are the most false enterprise in all of creation. What is more manipulated, arranged, rearranged, shuffled, reshuffled, juggled and re-juggled than a movie? What plays faster and looser with time and space and reality than a motion picture? Movies don’t even move. Everyone knows that a movie is really a hundred thousand or so still images projected in rapid succession.

But there is something that is entirely true about movies, and that is the emotion, the feeling experienced by the audience. If one is frightened in a scary movie, one is truly frightened. If one grieves at a tear jerker, the tears are real, as is the grief. The circumstances are fake but the emotion is one hundred percent authentic.

That is the kind of authenticity, and the manner of truth, screenwriters should seek.


Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert and longtime chairman of UCLA’s legendary graduate program in screenwriting who lectures throughout  the world and serves as a court-authorized expert in intellectual property litigation. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, "Essentials of Screenwriting," is available in stores now and through www.richardwalter.com, if you would like to subscribe to his monthly screenwriting-tips newsletter. In June 2013, he offers his annual summer session UCLA screenwriting workshop, open to both non-UCLA and UCLA students alike -- more information on the course is available here.