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Mike's Writing Tips

Scripts and Screenplays: courses with Pete Robinson and Sam North, August 2010
by Mike White

The following is simply a compendium of the notes I took and comments I made at the time.  Both teachers are very experienced and knowlegeable.  Any errors & omissions are mine. 



Write plot

Define characters, their back-story, time & date

Split story into bullet points/scenes.  For 90 minute film: 30-40 bullet points.  Keep each film/radio script scene below 3 minutes, except courtroom dramas.  Scenes on stage are MUCH longer than in film or radio script, but the same principle applies: something needs to happen pretty frequently:

Don’t necessarily write in order: may need to research for some scenes.


Plot and story arcs.  Five stages:

Stability; Inciting Incident; Fall; Attempts to resolve; A new stability is achieved.

Inciting Incident: what does the plot hinge upon?  E.g. Gandalf tells Frodo about the ring.

A series of small surprises, with a big one at the end.


The ten-minute rule: introduce everyone of significance, defining their characters; introduce what the story is about; location, date, time & scene; all in the first ten minutes.


Scene Structure.

A scene is about change.  Often a change of status.  See Wit, by Margaret Edson, where the university professor fences with her oncologist. 



Characters should be flawed (how boring is Superman?) and these flaws should inconvenience them for the benefit of the story.  Give them difficulties to surmount.  Externals, e.g. weather change behaviour, delay things, raise tension.


Protagonist MUST be logically involved in the conflict and have a stake in its outcome (Superman still boring!)  Gets directly in the way of the antagonist.  Viewer must feel for protagonist, be interested in his fate.  Make them learn by their mistakes but leave them alive.



Advances the story and reveals character.  Nervous tics, ‘thumbprints’, evasions, digressions, naturalistic.  Enjoy it.

Good: Arresting, authentic, purposeful, concise, musical, beats & pauses, light & shade, changes of pace, voices distinguishable, subtext, interesting, springs surprises.

Bad: Rambling without purpose, ping-pong (direct answers to questions or topics), predictable, full of chaff (er, um, well, to tell the truth…)

Pace!   Every line should move plot forward or define character.


Selling tools:


Log line/strap line (single line for poster, etc.)

Synopsis: don’t reveal ending (though two publishers I've submitted work to demanded the ending as well.  Less than an A4 side for full-length play/film.

Elevator test: Know your story; be prepared to pitch it in 3 minutes if you get into the elevator with a famous producer.

Finish your script before you try to sell it.  If you’re lucky, someone will ask to see it!

Killers: spelling error in first paragraph!  Loss of interest in first three pages