Stick to the script

‘Don’t spend any time trying to be original if you want your film or television script to get noticed by producers.’ OCA tutor James Richards told it to them straight at last Saturday’s scriptwriting workshop at the Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday. He compares attempts at originality to trying to build a car using British Leyland as an inspiration rather than following the shining example of the Germans. ‘It’s one of the most structured forms of writing you will ever do in your life,’ says James. ‘Just stick to the script.’


The scriptwriters’ script in numbers

4 + 4 – the things that make a film: story, character, structure, dialogue; and the number of pages in the outline of a script (page 1 – the story, pages 2 and 3 – structure and plot, page 4 – how it all turns out at the end)

6 – the combined number of acts and plot points: Act 1 – introduces the characters and situation; plot point 2 – what the story’s about; Act 2 – the main body of the story, in which something happens and a decision has to be made; mid-point – about 25 minutes in, when things get an awful lot worse; plot point 2 – confrontation and resolution; Act 3 – ties up the loose ends.  (the three-act structure and three plot points build tension so the audience gets more and more involved in what’s happening)

12 – the maximum number of significant characters who should appear on screen (there are some long-established precedents for the power of 12, including Jesus’ disciples and the gods of Norse mythology)

25 – the number of minutes in to the film that something significant happens (sometimes it’s a little sooner, at 23 minutes, and sometimes a little longer, at 30)

27 the maximum number of words in the ‘log line’ (the Hollywood term for the synopsis of the story of a television programme or film)

120 – the maximum number of pages for a 90-minute script


2 things scriptwriters should never do:

  • be parted from a smart phone, dictaphone or notebook for noting ideas down
  • throw any writing away as it may be useable in the future, even years later

Reading list: the 1 book scriptwriters should read if they read just one is Syd Field’s ‘Screen Play – The Foundations of Screen Writing’ from cover to cover. In scriptwriting circles is it, says James, ‘the Gospel according to John’.

Watch list: 12 films that show sticking to the script works:

What these films show, says James, is that you should follow the rules before you even start thinking about breaking them.

Sticking to the script: which films would make your top three?

photo credit: <a href=””>Marc Wathieu</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>


  1. Matthew Clegg 23 October 2014 at 2:05 pm

    ‘Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about…’
    WH Auden, ‘Writing’, The Dyer’s Hand, 1948

    1. James Richards 23 October 2014 at 4:13 pm

      Good quote – which I shall appropriate for future lectures/seminars – I already use one from Auden on first efforts at writing

  2. Nic Jones 23 October 2014 at 4:11 pm

    He certainly did lay it down! Fab workshop, loved it very much and still feel enthusiastic about having a bash….however as we were promised full notes by email I paid full attention and didn’t write down a single word. Could you please give James a nudge and ask him to email the notes, character worksheets etc through.
    Many thanks

    1. Elizabeth Underwood 23 October 2014 at 8:50 pm

      Nic, ACT 1- the scene is set by me confirming the notes exist as I have had a copy myself today. ACT 2 – something happens to move the action on as I remind James to send them to you and everyone else with us on Saturday. ACT 3 – loose ends are tied up as you (plural) receive the notes.

      1. Nic 23 October 2014 at 9:17 pm

        It’s a box office smash!

  3. bryaneccleshall 23 October 2014 at 4:26 pm

    Not quite what you’re talking about, but relevant, I think. Three conflicts in movies (probably more, but I learned it about movies:

    1 – Protagonist Against Protagonist
    2 – Protagonist Against Nature
    3 – Protagonist against Nature

    It’s why Jaws works so effectively. It dovetails them all brilliantly:

    1 – Chief Brodie is in conflict with the mayor. Brodie wants to shut the beach, the mayor doesn’t.
    2 – Nature, and I’m sure you’re ahead of me, is THE SHARK!
    3 – Brodie can’t swim and has a fear of water, which he has to overcome.

  4. watlvry 23 October 2014 at 5:16 pm

    -love the BL (lack of) quality video, still relevant. As for the message, I once attended a script-writing conference where the message is seen over and over again even now – hero lives on farm; hero leaves farm, travels, faces adversity, triumphs!, but – even worse last minute adversity; conquers adversity against all odds; returns to farm, all is well.

  5. liz cashdan 23 October 2014 at 8:17 pm

    Just taking part in a film course, not just screen writing, but all the other aspects too, at Leeds Beckett University. It seems to me that in the end the guy with the most power over the finished product is the editor, never mind screen writer, producer, director, camera people etc.

  6. leonie 24 October 2014 at 12:49 pm

    My all time favorite is The Big Lebowski. Thanks for the article!


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