Meet the Reader: Mindi White
Mindi White discusses the importance of proofreading, earning the reader's trust, and why you shouldn't stick to the rules.
By Brianne Hogan.
Mindi White didn’t get into script reading the “normal way,” she says. A producer had asked her to provide coverage on a book she had wanted to make into a movie. It had only been three days prior when she learned what coverage actually was, but White told the producer, “Of course I can!” and proceeded to write coverage for the book. Afterwards, White’s boyfriend, a script reader at the time, perused her work and told her that it was some of the best coverage he had ever read.
“I was like, ‘oh, okay,’” recalls White. “And he got me my first coverage job, which was at a film financing company. It paid terribly but I got stacks and stacks of scripts. I did a million coverages and got my chops out, I guess. And from there I went to production companies and agencies.”
One could say that script reading was a natural fit for White. A lover of movies and reading since childhood, she says she sees “novels and screenplays in my head pretty well. Because I see them and hear them in my head, it’s like watching a movie… It combines the best of both of my worlds. When I was a little kid, I loved movies and I loved reading. And I remember thinking if only I could make a living reading and doing movies, and that’s what I do.”
When White isn’t writing her own projects – including her book Getting Past Me: A Writer’s Guide to Production Company Readers — she continues to read scripts for production companies, agencies, private clients, and a slew of screenplay contests.
“I always open the screenplay and look at the first page and say, ‘All right. Surprise me.’ And that’s fun,” she says. “I love reading good scripts. It makes me really, really happy.”
Creative Screenwriting chatted with White about what makes a compelling story, why reading screenplays is so important, and what readers really think about your script.
What makes a compelling, must-read story for you?
That’s very hard to define. Really well developed characters for one thing. Characters that I really care about, ones who I want to take a journey with. It doesn’t have to be a big story. They don’t have to be big, amazing characters.
In fact, if the characters are smaller and identifiably human, I find them easier to relate to and easier to embrace. If they have a journey that I haven’t seen before, great. Even if it isn’t a big or fabulous journey. Many times an internal journey is more exciting and astonishing for me.
I want to touch on your book, “Getting Past Me: A Writer’s Guide to Production Company Readers.” What I thought was different about your book is that you offer insight into the mind of a reader. Could you share a little bit about that?
Yes. It’s not a screenwriting book. My book is what readers think, and it’s how to get past the readers. Readers are the gatekeepers who receive about 90% of the scripts that get sent out, and people don’t know who we are.
We’re invisible, and writers don’t know what we think. And writers aren’t aware of what puts us off, and what we love to see in a script. So that’s the approach I took.
People need to know what we think and what we look for because there are a lot of minute things about screenwriting that people often gloss over. Readers are smart and well rounded, and often irritable [laughs].
So let’s say there are typos, for instance. Typos drive readers bonkers. Writers need to know these things. They also need to understand what we are looking for and what we love to see in a script.
A lot of what I look for, and I think what other readers look for, is to be able to trust the writer. I need to feel secure with what the writer is doing on page one, or else I can’t feel supported for the next hour and a half, or however long the movie is.
So what can writers do to earn that trust, like you said, on page one?
No typos. [Laughs.] I really can’t urge writers enough to get things proof read. I get my own stuff proof read and I used to be a proofreader.
Here’s one: I want to see characters that are introduced briefly. What I have been seeing a lot of, for instance, are these very long paragraphs of descriptions for who this character is. It’s like, “Joe Blow is early 40s who has always been troubled and he has to overcome a past by being glib and funny” and then none of that shows up in the character’s actions or words. So if I see a whole bunch of prose that doesn’t translate into action or words or actual character development, I am not going tor trust that writer to be able to tell a story.
What are the key components that make a good story?
I hate to say structure because I so love it when I don’t see the structure. If the characters and story builds slowly, I appreciate it rather than it being cut to the chase.
And then for Act Two for complications to set in and they’re not being completely set up or cliché, so that they seem completely organic to the story, and then you go, “Oh, no. What’s going to happen?” I love being surprised.
And then in Act Three, for all things to go completely sad or funny or weird – if that’s appropriate – and then to resolve in a way that isn’t trite. I want something that’s original and really carries me to go, “That was really satisfying.”
Should emerging screenwriters stick to what they know? Or should they venture out and do something completely crazy?
It’s absolutely true that people say to write what you know, and I would have to disagree. A script that people found most compelling that I wrote has nothing to do with me. A guy is the protagonist, and he’s a therapist – which I’m not — and its set in Washington D.C. where I’ve never been to, and it has elements of sci-fi. People write sci-fi but they’ve never been there because it hasn’t happened, it’s their creation.
I think imagination and playing with possibilities is incredibly important. And why not make stuff up? That’s what we are doing anyway. It’s fun. And you can base it in emotions that you know and scientific facts that you know and the way nature works that you know, but still, things can take off from there and go anywhere. So I say, make stuff up!
What would a script have to have in order to receive a Consider?
Everything has to work. The story, especially, has to have internal logic that holds together throughout the entire thing. It has to have characters who are very, very compelling and believable, and it has to have a story that I believe in the entire way through. Even if things don’t make sense in my world, they have to make sense in that world.
And it has to have things that I haven’t seen before, but if it does have things I’ve seen before, they have to be done in an original way.
Like romantic comedies have a very specific formula. They have to follow a precise formula and we have seen them a million times, but they can be done freshly with characters who surprise and delight me.
And if a comedy makes me laugh? Amazing. If a drama grips me emotionally? Done, I’m sold. It doesn’t have to be flawless.
I have given a recommend, which is the highest you can get, to maybe, maybe 10 scripts in my life, and I have read thousands and thousands of scripts in my life. So it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to have a spark of life that is rare. It has to be exceptional. It has to make me want to keep reading it.
What have you learned about writing as a story analyst?
Everything. I wasn’t a writer before I started analyzing scripts. Most story analysts are writers, I was not. I have never taken a screenwriting class, to be perfectly honest. I absorbed structure and character development and timing – I’ve absorbed a lot of this from reading.
It’s amazing what you can learn from reading scripts. If any writer who wants to know how to write a script, read them. Get your hands on movies that you love, stories that you love.
I learned what to do and what not to do, and it was all through osmosis. And it turns out I am a pretty good writer – go figure.
So do you think screenwriting can be self-taught? There are a lot of film schools and courses out there that teach screenwriting, but sometimes I feel that I learn more from reading and watching movies.
I agree. I think you can learn everything you need from reading. My boyfriend is a writer and a director and he’s also teaching screenwriting. He says that you can read all of the books that you want and take all of the screenwriting classes you want and absorb it, but then forget it all.
Because, firstly, what you need comes from life. And second of of all, it’s important not to stick to the rules that are laid out in a really rigid way.
I talk about this in my book as well. When someone is following one of those screenwriting books – and I’m not going to mention which ones — and they’re doing so really religiously and strictly, I can tell. “This inciting incident must come at this certain page,” or “these complications must happen on these pages,” and it doesn’t feel real, it doesn’t feel like life.
And screenplays need to feel life because when you’re watching a movie, that’s life. You have to live it, it has to breathe. I use the word organic a lot when I give notes to readers. “Of course this happens because that’s what needs to happen” rather than “Good thing this happened on page 33,” or whatever. I need to not be aware of how a writer learned how to write. So, yeah, read scripts.
So which scripts would you recommend a writer to read?
Hmm…that’s an interesting question. Here are the interesting ones that I am really proud that I read and recommended.
One of them was an HBO movie, RKO 281. It was about Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz and how they wrote Citizen Kane. It was John Logan’s first script and no one had ever heard of him. It’s a great, great script. That’s a good period drama, and it’s fact-based, which is neat.
And another one is, if people like comedies, one of the funniest comedies I have ever read, it’s called Idiocracy. If you can get the shooting script of this, you will be on the floor laughing. It was wickedly funny and smart. I love smart.
Speaking of movies, which recent movies and TV shows have you liked?
I just saw Mad Max: Fury Road. I loved that movie. Here’s what I loved about it. First of all, I love action movies, which is kind of strange. I don’t see most of them because they’re dumb. They’re special effects-driven and that doesn’t interest me.
What I loved about Mad Max was the excitement was based on the characters and the relationship between them. The relationship between the two leads developed so well. It was so well done that I was dazzled by it. It was beautifully written and directed.
Because I was so locked into the characters, all of the insane adventures — the driving through the desert and everything — it was so exciting, so fun. I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen, and how will they work it out.
And when a secondary character died, you felt it because you knew who she was. And even the antagonists, who were these vile, hideous characters, had full, emotional lives and that was great.
My favorite TV show of all-time is The Wire. In my opinion it’s the best thing that’s ever been written – TV or movie…it’s astonishing. It’s muddy; it’s exciting and unexpected.
So what are you working on now? You mentioned writing a pilot.
I am. I’m adapting my feature — this one incredibly dark, political drama that I have – into a one-hour drama. And it has some interest – yay!
I taught myself how to write a one-hour drama [laughs]. I thought it was a coup that I taught myself how to do that. You know how I did it? I googled how to write a drama TV script and I got the template and then I read a one-hour drama script that had a similar theme to my story, and that’s how I learned how to do that, and it worked.
I’m going to write what you did and then all of these people will Google one-hour TV drama templates and start writing their pilots.
[laughs] That’s fine. Spread the wealth.
In a nutshell what would you tell someone who is interested in writing scripts?
This came up recently; my nephew is interested in writing screenplays and I told him to read scripts.
Here’s another biggie: a lot of times writers get really excited about what will happen when their screenplay is made into a movie, and I think that’s unwise. I can tell when someone wants to sell a movie and make money and take road trips that are in the movie, and that doesn’t work. I think it’s really important for a writer to just write.
Wondering, “Imagine what will happen if this sells?” I think that’s a trap. Locking into the work and the script and spending a lot of time with that, and developing the script and characters, instead of cranking out product, I think that’s the important thing.
Writing is a joy – at least I think it is. It’s a gift. If you can write a script, that’s gift. So focusing on that gift rather than if someone is going to buy it, that’s huge for me.
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