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Hawaiian Punch Line

UCLA screenwriting professor Richard Walter recalls his time at the Maui Writers Conference when he learned one of the writers' most important lessons... less is more.

Among the many perks I have enjoyed over several decades as a UCLA screenwriting professor, few compete with the visits I made throughout the ‘90s to the Maui Writers Conference (now known as the Hawai'i Writers Conference). If the venue had been a Motel 6 that would have been okay; it’s still Maui. The events were held, however, at the five-diamond nosebleed-luxury Grand Wailea Hotel, Spa, and Resort, all expenses paid for me and my family.


Among writing conferences, Maui represented a rare fusion of film and print. The presenters were world class practitioners and educators, authors, biographers, historians, screenwriters, and powerful executives from movie studios and major league publishers. There were parallel events going on every hour, sometimes ten or twelve or even more at the same time: panels, lectures, workshops, seminars, and master classes offered by first-rate educators and practitioners.

On one occasion, I was particularly interested in attending a panel addressing the script development process in Hollywood. On the panel were the heads of the story departments from several of the major studios, TV networks, and prestigious independent production companies. They would discuss that most elusive of subjects: What the Studios are Looking for Now.

I had, however, a conflict. A regular presenter at the conference, Prof. Steven Goldsberry of the University of Hawaii, himself a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays, was offering a poetry workshop. Over the years I have myself written exactly no poetry. I have also read precious little poetry, and had precious little interest, therefore, in attending Goldsberry’s event under any circumstances, but especially in light of the fact that it was scheduled opposite the development workshop.

What did I need with any rinky-dinky poetry workshop? Are there even merely six writers in the nation who make a living writing poetry?

The problem was that over the years Goldsberry and I had become friends. What’s worse, he had attended my own screenwriting and literary presentations, and I felt an obligation to reciprocate. The thought of offending Steven by snubbing his workshop caused guilt to wash over me like the surf at Mokapo Beach.

I devised a strategy. I would catch the opening of the development panel’s presentation. After that I would pop into Steven’s workshop ten minutes late, stay for five or six minutes, make sure that he spotted me, and then at the proper moment (for example when he turned away to face the blackboard) slink quietly out of the conference room and return to the development confab.

The development panel was so well attended that there were writers hanging from the koa-wood rafters. I settled in at the back of the room as the development heads struggled to define the sort of screenplays studios sought. Not anyone could come up with a remotely reasonable description.

Frustrated, the head of development at Universal said, “I’ll tell you what Universal is looking for. We’re looking for whatever script Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks (or any other bankable movie star de jour) wants to do.”

What he meant, of course, was that the studios don’t know what they’re looking for.

Imagine, though, if you asked one of the Toms (Cruise; Hanks), “What are you looking for?” It’s fair, I’m sure, to imagine that they’d say something like: “I don’t know what kind of script I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I see it. It will have, first of all, a compelling story. That story will have a stunning lead role for me to play, but that can’t be the only meaty role in the movie. There will be also other worthy roles that will attract worthy supporting players, as a protagonist needs solid characters to support him.”

No solid lead role exists in a vacuum.

One or the other or both of the Toms would likely have continued, “I want my character to have brilliant dialogue that is all by itself fun to listen to because it’s peppy and punchy and perky and provocative, and those are just the P’s. It’s got to be worth listening to all for its own sake. But it can’t be there all for its own sake. It’s also got to advance the story. Notwithstanding that, the script will not be talk-heavy but active, that is, the story will be moved forward not by dialogue so much as by action.”

Isn’t that merely a description of good writing? Do writers truly need a highfalutin' studio executive to tell them that?

I checked my watch and saw that it was time to put in my appearance at the Goldsberry poetry workshop. I poked my head in the door for what I thought would be five minutes. Instead, I stayed for the entire presentation, and all that happened was that my writing life was changed forever.

The most important lesson at the workshop: economy. Steven had all the writers in the room take ten or fifteen minutes to write a poem on the blackboards that surrounded the conference room. He then went around the room wielding an eraser, changing not a word, adding nothing, rearranging nothing, but here and there merely eliminating words, sometimes phrases, occasionally sentences and sometimes collections of sentences.

For the most part, the poems were overdrawn and overwritten. Steven deftly swept away redundancies. From clunky, klutzy, unwieldy, self-conscious and heavy-handed mega poems there emerged smaller verses, sometimes merely a handful of haiku-like brushstrokes, which rang with clarity, joy, pain, and the sweetest, purest beauty. Here were capable poets drowning their own best stuff in storms of indiscriminate language. Once again I learned the critically important principle that applies to all forms of creative expression: Less is more.

I had to suppress the urge to dash next door into the development panel and proclaim, “Hey! Writers! Forget this development crap. You’ve already know what the studios seek: good writing. You want to learn how to be a good writer? Come next door and listen to Steven Goldsberry.”

Among the most poignant lessons I learned in Steven’s seminar that late summer Hawaiian afternoon: Consider every sentence to be a joke, and jokes end on the punch line.

Writers need to poke about in their sentences to find the central point, the word that represents above all others the sentence’s import, its punch line. In the sentence immediately prior to this one, for example, the punch line is ‘import.’ That’s why it’s a better sentence than, say, “For maximum import writers need to decide the central point of their sentence.” The latter sentence isn’t particularly dreadful, perhaps, but compared to the other it is inferior.

Exactly as the previous sentence is better than: “The latter sentence is inferior to the other.” It is not ‘other’ but ‘inferior’ that constitutes the punch line.

I realized, also, the reason I don’t write poetry. I’m not good enough. Poetry is not the easiest but most difficult of writing formats. In other kinds of writing a poorly chosen word will hurt you.

In poetry, however, it will kill you.