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Writing for TV: The White Lotus Pilot

Writing for TV is a challenging task not every writer has the patience or skill to pull off. No matter how strong your script is, there comes the point of finding someone interested, getting the right budget, studio, network, and much more. Thankfully, there are plenty of successful shows to learn, such as The White Lotus.

The White Lotus is a dark comedy-drama anthology TV show on HBO by Mike White. The series explores the interplay between the staff and guests of the fictional White Lotus resort chain and how their unique psychological and emotional issues impact their stay. The show's first season is in Hawaii, while the second season is in Sicily.

As writers, there’s much to learn from The White Lotus, mainly how a show intended as a six-part limited series is strong enough to warrant another season. Thus, in this article, we’ll discuss writing for TV and what we can learn from The White Lotus.

Still from 'The White Lotus'. Photo credit: Tell Tale

Unlikable and Likable Characters

There are four traditional character paths to consider when creating characters for a story. The two easiest to understand are likable and unlikable characters, both of which are self-explanatory. You have a character that’s easy for the audience to like and another that’s easy for them to hate.

Then it’s followed by the sympathetic character, who may have flaws but is still relatable, and the intriguing character, who may have negative traits, but their complexity makes up for it.

It's essential to consider where your character falls on this scale to make your story work. While it's not binary, many characters in The White Lotus exist in the middle ground, and there are gradations within each gradation.

For example, Quinn (Fred Hechinger) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) are two of the easiest characters to root for, falling into the sympathetic category. Quinn is a teenager who's bullied and falls under that typical loner trope, while Rachel realizes she's married an awful person and wants to do something with her life. On the other end, Shane is a straight-up jerk with no redeeming qualities, making him an "unlikable" character.

When creating characters, it's crucial to consider where they fall on the scale and what traits will make your audience root for or against them. The White Lotus does an excellent job at crafting characters that aren’t too singular, meaning there are many things to like and dislike, with a sliding scale for each.

Using Suspense

The White Lotus starts with a bang, informing the audience that a death will occur on the resort island. This creates a sense of suspicion and builds in potential suspects from the get-go. Suspense is extremely useful in writing, particularly in television, since you need suspense and conflict to keep a show going.

As the show progresses, the audience is tasked with a whodunit challenge while also questioning whether a character might harm themselves due to the personal issues they are dealing with. Each main character has their own baggage, making it a personal journey for the audience.

Knowing the Use of a Crisis

There’s a lot to learn from properly using a potential crisis or conflict and having it heighten your script. The White Lotus features a diverse cast of captivating characters dealing with a mix of authentic and manufactured crises in their lives. While the hotel guests come from privileged backgrounds, the idyllic paradise setting can amplify their problems rather than alleviate them.

On the other hand, the resort staff may have breathtaking surroundings, but they still face challenges in their service roles. Despite their differences, the show’s creator Mike White masterfully gives each group so much depth that they are impossible to look away from and sometimes root for.

Having an Ensemble Cast

Writers understand how beneficial an ensemble cast is for a TV show. People often tune into a show solely if an actor they like is in it. In this case, Mike White skillfully creates a true ensemble in The White Lotus, seamlessly transitioning between the various groups' storylines and perspectives.

His decision to group characters in families or alone also helps to balance the ensemble. Juggling multiple characters in a story is challenging, requiring screenwriters to carefully craft distinct points of view, clear personal objectives, and a way to connect seemingly unrelated characters.

It’s vital to demonstrate mastery of these skills, bringing eloquence, charm, and lethargy to characters ranging from bored teenagers to self-absorbed middle-aged men.

Knowing Your Theme

At its core, The White Lotus is about the corrupting influence of power and wealth. Much of that theme is spread from the start, showcasing how crucial it is to stay true to your themes while writing. Having too much of a tone or theme shift may confuse your audience. Though you shouldn’t take the most obvious path, it’s a way of staying consistent with some twists.


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