Hal Ahal treesckerman
 
Hal has been on the UCLA Screenwriting faculty for thirty years, and was Co-Chair of the screenwriting program for the past decade.
 
More than a dozen scripts written in his classes have become feature films. Countless others have been bought and optioned for film and TV. Many more have won contests and been the recipients of prestigious awards. His book Write Screenplays That Sell…The Ackerman Way is the book of choice at many universities, and praised by screenwriters and fiction writers.  He has sold material to all the major studios and broadcast networks.
 
Hal has had numerous short stories published in literary journals including North Dakota Review, New Millennium Writings, The Pinch, and The Yalobusha Review. “Roof Garden” won the Warren Adler 2008 award for fiction. “The Dancer Horse” was nominated for a Pushcart prize in 2011. “Belle and Melinda” was selected by Southeast Review as the winner of their WORLD’S BEST SHORT SHORT STORY CONTEST.
 
He has published two “Soft Boiled murder mysteries in addition to a dozen short stories.  His play “Testosterone…How Prostate Cancer Made a Man of Me” (later renamed “Prick”) has won several awards including the William Saroyan Centennial Prize for drama and BEST PLAY at the United Solo Festival in New York.  
 
He is a noted racetrack handicapper.
 
 
Question & Answer with Hal Ackerman
 
Q: What’s your favorite piece of advice for writers struggling to crack a story?  
 
Theme is your nemesis. We are taught from the earliest Aesop’s fables that stories must have a moral. That notion often filters unconsciously into our creative process. Thinking about theme is limiting dramatically. Not that a story shouldn’t have a theme. But it should not be the driving engine of story birth. You, the writer, should not know what the theme of the story is until it has revealed itself through the act of writing. Instead of the STATEMENT of theme, substitute the QUESTIONS: Whose story is it? What does the character most want? What are the interior and exterior obstacles that will prevent that character from successfully achieving it? What will that character DO to overcome those obstacles?   
 
Q: What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
 
There are mistakes in concept and in execution.
 
Conceptually: Incomplete stories. I don’t mean scripts that don’t get finished. I mean a writer not having a complete sense of what a story IS. Of how many scenes and events go into a feature film. One-dimensional characters. Characters who the writers think must be only likable.
 
Common mistakes in technique include: Over-written narrative descriptions. Too much micro managing of characters’ behavior; the writer telling the actors how their facial expressions and actions of various appendages should express the writer’s emotion. Scenes without conflict, where the immediate needs of the characters do not define the action, but where what the writer wants the scene to accomplish gets in the way.
 
Q: Why is a good structure so important to a script?
 
More so than any other common writing form (novel, play, poem) a screenplay’s basic premise and its narrative structure are its two most important elements. It’s sometimes helpful to think of a screenplay as a small business plan, for that is the way its potential financiers will see it; i.e.: How can this “product” be effectively marketed. It is perfectly appropriate and desirable for you to see your work as an offering from your heart and soul. You must also see it as your buyer will see it. If you were fashioning and offering for sale a coffee cup, no matter how original and beautiful it was, it still would have to hold liquid, not transfer heat to the hands, be of a useful size and weight, and made of material that would serve all its purposes.
 
Q: You’ve taught at UCLA for a long time, running the screenwriting program for years. What has changed most for aspiring writers in that time?
 
Other than their getting younger, they have far more technical and business savvy. As helpful as that sounds, it can be a detriment. Writing a script to chase a popular trend is often self-defeating. By the time you’ve written that script, that pipeline is nearly always already filled. I believe a better and more profitable strategy is to write something more personal, something nobody else in the universe can write, even if it doesn’t fit a trend, so that it showcases that ineffable, individual thing called YOUR VOICE. It may very well garner you an assignment to begin your career.
 
Q: What can writers expect from the screenwriting retreat in Italy?
 
To leave as better writers than they were before they came.
 
Q: What part of the program are you most excited to share with the group?
 
I love the creative interaction of people working with full and open hearts to do their best work. Seeing with new fresh eyes. The excitement of discovery.