While writing scripts is arguably the most important job a screenwriter has, being able to analyze scripts including your own can be very helpful in any stage of writing from first drafts to editing. Learning from other scripts can improve your own writing or give you ideas whereas analyzing your own scripts can help include more depth and point out problem areas you may have.
A good format I have for a text analysis is one from a professor on dramatic analysis. These analyses usually take me hours to complete and we usually use them on plays, but they work just as well on screenplays. Just follow along with the script of your choice and see what you can discover.
Be as specific as you can, especially if your script jumps around in time. It helps if you chop your script up into acts or scene segments first, that way you can apply these given circumstances of time, location to each. The more detail you put into each of these sections, the more you explore your world and the character. Here are some things to consider:
- Especially if you’re working with sci-fi or a period piece this important. If you don’t know why specifically in 2332 humans are leaving earth (or how we lasted that long before evacuation) or why is this in the 70s? What made you choose this time period?
- While this may seem more like a thing concerning plays, what with symbolic weather and such, this is just as important for your script. Are there holidays you wish to use? Does your character have spring-time allergies? Is it always winter in this location? Explain or explore why and see how that not only shapes the story, but your characters as well.
Working from big picture to more focused details, start to think about the location (or several scene locations) of your script. If you want to break it up again, use the previous scene or act breaks you used before.
- Are you even writing this on earth? Is this a whole other plant? Why and what changes in your script because of that.
- While sometimes there’s a whole map that goes along with fantasy novels, just because Avatar took place on Pandora, you want to explore why it doesn’t cover the whole planet. It is a whole planet! What makes where these militants and scientists set up camp so important? For those staying on earth, explore more about the country you chose to place your characters into. Is there anything about language or cultural differences?
- Countries can be huge! Where specifically does your story or scene take place in this country. Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland are two very different places. If you’re working from a fictitious world remember that countries vary within and they vary a lot more depending on their size. Maine has a different culture than Arizona or North Dakota.
- Specific Area in the Region. Is it a state park? Does this take place out in international waters? If you want to be extremely detailed, you could even come up with GPS coordinates if it takes place on our planet. If this is a new world, have you thought about how mountains connect certain areas and forest blur borders? The more detailed you go, the more you might uncover that could help either expand your world or add great depth to your script. The more detail the script has on location, even subtly (like slang or a local landmark in the background), could sell the story better to your audience.
- Specific Location in the Area. Is this a house in the woods? A military base? A flower shop? The more detail about this like who owns the restaurant or why are your characters in an abandoned mall could help you flesh out your story more. Is it family owned or is it run by the evil corporation with many fingers in many pies? The more you know about the setting, the better it can be interacted with. The smallest details, like a creaky screen door or that broken jukebox in the diner, could add character to the location itself and make the story more believable.
- Setting or Room. The actual area the scene takes place whether it’s the guest bedroom of a large manor or the shed on a farm. Explore why you chose here rather than other rooms or locations. Why a clearing in the middle of the forest instead of a dense pocket of pines? Why the kitchen instead of the dining room?
PLOT AND CONFLICT
Now we move onto the more mechanical aspects of plotting. Since stories are built on conflict. We’re going to look at some main factors of conflict and try to see what your characters have to work with. For these sections, since you don’t have to follow the assignment format I usually had to for college, I highly suggest freewriting. That’s the best way I know to shake some thoughts loose that could lead to some great ideas.
- In this, we don’t just mean government politics like republican or democrat. This means anything that falls under the definition of a situation in which power is divided or imbalanced. This includes types like family politics, work place politics, social clique politics, and more. Wherever there are groups of people in your story that have tension, there are politics. While this can include the political orientation of your characters if you so choose, it’s best to also delve deeper into the power struggles amongst fellow characters that drives your protagonist and supporting characters.
- This involves some political influence as there are huge power differences between classes usually. This brings up another theatrical ideology of status. If your character grew up in a rich family in which the parents are scrooges but the character is kind and charitable, we need to know how the got to be like that. Did they see the error of their ways or did something personal happen to them? Does a character’s wealth and background affect how others speak to them? Consider the time period and location. Does their culture have a specific class system that makes it difficult to accomplish their goals? Does a character, given their background and perhaps job and position, have certain societal events or privileges they are excluded from? How does this complicate the story and conflict?
- Especially considering time period and location in this category, gender politics could be as different as a deep valley or a small stream between characters of different genders. This doesn’t mean just binary characters either. Now, especially in fantasy and sci-fi, gender is becoming a more fluidic concept. Explore why your characters are the genders you gave them and how that changes their interactions with other characters or even companies and governments. Does their culture accept the choices they make gracefully or is there a constant fight because of an imbalance of power between genders? How could things be different if your characters changed genders? By exploring and playing around with some other concepts, you might find that maybe, by tweaking a small detail, a character gains layers that make them more believable or perhaps better suited for the situation or conflict.
- Your character’s sexuality can add a lot to a story and there’s a whole spectrum of sexuality you could research and find which fits your character best. From asexuality to pansexuality and more in between, depending on your script, this could affect many aspects of your characters. Explore why you choose the one you did and how it affects the plot and the way they interact with other characters and vice versa. Time period and location are definitely important. Is your character a gay man in the eighties? Making a female character in the early twentieth century or earlier asexual, could make her an outcast among everyone who believes that the woman’s goal is to marry and produce many children. While you shouldn’t feel the need to avoid having heterosexual characters, you should also be cautious not to change the sexuality of your characters just to make them “interesting”. Really examine how it would change the character’s upbringing, childhood life, and interactions with others. How much did they have to overcome to get where they are?
- In today’s film industry, diversity is becoming more and more important. However, like sexuality, it shouldn’t be used to make things “interesting”. Different characters from different races also bring to the table their own cultures. Some people, even though their heritage is from one culture, they could grow up in another and have a mix of both. I knew a woman who moved to America from Hungary from when she was seven, but her parents were adamant she knew Hungary traditions, but I also have a friend who is half-Mexican but her father never really brought Mexican tradition in except through his cooking. These ways of fleshing out characters with cultural background can make them more realistic and relatable. This also allows the writer to explore, like the other social situations, how being of a different race and culture affects how other characters react to them.
Now we get down into the plot and more character work.
- Finding the Protagonist. Why is this person the protagonist? The protagonist doesn’t have to be the main character, they just have to go through the greatest change. The person they are at the beginning of the screenplay should have changed by the end, for better or worse. Why did you choose this person as your protagonist?
- Finding the Climax. The climax is the moment of greatest discovery for the protagonist that leads to an irreversible shift. This should be the moment when the protagonist you had at the beginning becomes the protagonist at the end, when they make that character change.
- Finding Antagonists. Antagonists are anything that the protagonist had to fight against to reach their goal. While specifically, your story probably only has one, your protagonist could have fought through a corrupted government or had a troubling childhood or suffered a loss of a loved one not related to the antagonist. These are all factors the protagonist has had to overcome to succeed in the end.
And finally we get to characters. The whole reason this is at the end is so that, by the time you’ve gone through the process of really digging deep into your story, you have all the detail and changes to your characters you might want to put here. This is a simple format we were given, but feel free to expand on it if you wish with more detail. You can always make a character profile page if you want. You can make a small character bio for each important character.
- Their starting attitude and what their character is at the beginning. What is the flaw they need to overcome or characteristic they need to fine tune before the end?
- What do they do at their moment of greatest pressure? This isn’t always the same as the climax (unless this is the protagonist). Antagonists and supporting characters can have different mindsets and different character flaws that can be resolved anytime it is called for in the plot. They are more fluid, but they still are real people. How do they change through these events?
- Ending attitude: who are they now that they’ve gone through that moment of greatest pressure? Are they better or worse? Did they even survive the pressure? Are they happy that they’ve changed? How has this change affected their interactions with other characters?
Lastly, summarize the theme of the script in as few words as you can. Think of it as a logline, but focusing on the underlying theme instead of the plot. What do you wish this script to convey to the audience? How does it do that?
If you’re not sure about testing this on your own script first, try it on another film or script or play. Try to pick it apart as best as you can for all these details and infer where you can. If you can figure out the hidden depths of a blockbuster, perhaps you could apply their approaches to your own script and see where it gets you.