Reader Question: How important is it for writers to analyze screenplays?

January 29th, 2013 by

A question from Maurice Vaughan:

I’ve been following your blog for a while now. Not sure if anyone has answered this, but my question is; I’ve been reading scripts lately and doing my own coverage on them (to see what works and what doesn’t in screenwriting). Do you feel screenwriters have to be able to go really, and I mean really, dirt deep into scripts they read to analyze them? I’m talking more than script coverage. I’m talking going in and figuring out how each and every part of a script works. That’s the one essential thing I’m tackling at the moment; To rip apart a story and survey its gears. I feel that’s the one thing holding me back from writing a genius script; To figure out how other genius scripts work. Or maybe I’m my own toughest teacher making sure I milk my screenwriting practice for all it’s worth.

I support your instinct, Maurice, 100%. And I speak from personal experience. When I co-wrote and sold the spec script K-9 in 1987, to be honest I wasn’t a very good screenwriter. K-9 was only my 3rd script. Up to that point, my ‘training’ was having read “Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting” by Syd Field and three screenplays: Back to the Future, Witness, Breaking Away. Yes, I had been a movie fan my entire life and had seen thousands of movies, took cinema classes as an undergraduate, was a member of film societies both at UVA and Yale. But despite selling a spec script for three-quarters of a million dollars and officially breaking into the business, I simply didn’t know enough about screenplays or screenwriting to feel confident about my abilities.

So for the first two years I lived and worked in LA, I did virtually nothing but live, breathe, and eat screenwriting and movies. I watched every movie, often three per day. I read every book. I attended every lecture. And I read scripts. Lots and lots of scripts.

Now there’s reading a script – sitting down and going through it page after page until you reach the end – then there’s reading a script, which is what you’re talking about, Maurice, breaking it down into its parts, analyzing its structure, trying to determine why it works or doesn’t.

There is value in both approaches. If you read a script in one sitting, you learn about pace, feel, tone, and the experience of a script reader. If you break down a script and analyze it, you are in essence digging deeper into the story – and there you may discover enormous insights.

Here are some of the ways I ‘read’ scripts:

* Scene-by-scene breakdown: Just what it sounds like, note each scene in order per pages. An example is one I posted for Shakespeare in Love here. The value in doing a scene-by-scene breakdown is that you can see the actual building blocks of the story — the scenes — laid out, one after the other.

* Transitions: Another thing you can do with a scene-by-scene breakdown is focus on the transitions between each scene. Each new scene requires the reader to shift from one location, time, and setting, and therefore it’s critical to smooth over those transitions in order to create as seamless a reading experience as possible.

* Scene sequences: I didn’t formally study the sequence approach to screenwriting until 2005, but during those early years of my self-education, I saw that screenplays had scenes that clumped together into their own mini-narrative. I called these “scene sequences” and that was another thing I could discern from a scene-by-scene breakdown.

* Major plot points: Inspired by Syd Field, I used major plot points as one of my main tools to analyze scripts and movies. In theaters, I had a stopwatch that I could light up to track when major events transpired. With scripts, it’s easy – you simply note the major plot points that shift the story in a significant new direction. This eventually led me to developing my own screenplay paradigm Narrative Throughline.

* Subplot breakdown: Another way to dissect a script is to identify each subplot and group together all of the scenes that constitute those sub-narratives. This really is like reverse engineering the script because I would take different colored 3×5 inch index cards, and list each scene in each subplot per color, then tack them up onto a board, so I could look at them. I made a huge discovery early on about the value of subplots because most scripts are much more interesting to write and read when you cross cut between numerous subplots than simply following one A-plot. Besides working with subplots can actually be a lot of fun, looking for all the interesting ways you can intersect characters.

* Dialogue: You can read the dialogue aloud to help get an ear for how to write it. One thing I hit on doing way back when was I would read all the sides of one character back to back to back, to see how each character sounded different than others. Later I was pleased to see screenwriting software systems allow me to do that with my own scripts — print out a character’s dialogue sides — so I could read them straight through, to see if some distinctive style is emerging, to check for too much repetition, etc.

So yes, an enormous value in digging into a script, breaking it down, and analyzing it. But as noted, there’s also a lot to be said for reading the script straight through in a sort of macro way per the story’s feel, tone, pace, and themes.

What about it, GITS readers? How do you analyze a script? What techniques and tools do you use to dig deeper into a screenplay story?

[Originally posted July 14, 2010]

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4 thoughts on “Reader Question: How important is it for writers to analyze screenplays?

  1. KristyLowrey says:

    It’s beneficial if you understand how to tell a story first. All the gurus who write the “how to” screenwriting books are good at breaking down the components of a script, yet how come they were never able to write a great one themselves if they know all the parts?

    Part of it comes from something you can’t do just because you read about it or saw it done in another script. You have to be able tell a good compelling story with good writing first and foremost I think.

  2. Well…I do exactly the way you’re talking about. Maybe the only thing I’ve overlooked was subplots. But yes, reading a script I’m considering the story as a whole, the scenes and their purpose, the way they are linked together, dialogue, plot points I e II (yes, I’ve read Syd Field’s “screenplay” as well), the dramatic premise, the “situation” and the character’s dramatic need…all at the same time !

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