Movies and television shows are complex machines, and to learn how to create your own, you need to see the inner working parts of one that is fully functioning. The best way to learn how is to READ SCRIPTS. Binge watching Netflix is not enough to fully internalize what it takes to tell a great story. By breaking down a script to its bare bones, you’ll garner the ability to understand and tell stories just like your favorite writers. Here are some tips to help you break down your favorite movies and TV shows to see what makes them tick.
1. Put everything down and READ! (The first pass):
Yup, I said it. EVERYTHING. Turn off all your notifications and tell your friends and family that you’ll be busy for the next few hours. By keeping distractions to a minimum, you’ll have the opportunity to be fully immersed in the story world and feel the range of emotions that the writer intended. Or, maybe you won’t. Some screenplays won't grab you. Boring! You’ll be able to see what you like and don’t like by making decisions based on what does and doesn't work. For the first pass, all you have to do is sit and read. The real work follows...
Next up is to analyze the scenes individually or by sequence to see how the writer crafted the plot. Think about the movie or TV show as one complete puzzle and the scenes/sequences as the little pieces that make the picture. To analyze, all you have to do is write down what happens in the scenes/sequences. These are called beats or plot points. From doing this, you get to see how the A story (main plot) was crafted and how the B and C stories (side plots) enhanced and tied back to the A story. You’ll also learn how to outline your own script through this exercise. The object is to learn the goal of the scene and understand the decisions the characters are making that push the story forward. You’ll then be able to take this knowledge into crafting your scenes. Remember, every scene must be cause and effect. During your read, connect the dots of the setups and payoffs. See, a puzzle.
Your characters are the keys to our hearts. I can’t go on Twitter without seeing a tweet questioning how people can watch 17 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. How can someone sit there and watch 17 seasons of people in a hospital? BECAUSE WE GIVE AF ABOUT THE CHARACTERS. THAT'S WHY! Your characters are the beating hearts of your story. You want us to feel what they feel and root for them no matter what their morals are. To understand how to write characters, read a few screenplays featuring some of your faves. Notice what’s on the page in comparison to the screen and how the writer directs action and decisions indirectly to give the actor room to play. Notice the dialogue choices, the rhythms of the words. Notice the beat changes because the goals change or a character isn’t getting her way, so she changes her tactics. Notice how the action (including body language and pure silence) pushes one of the characters to take action in a later scene. Actors want to play complicated, hilarious, authentic, 3-dimensional heroes and everyday people. Use what you learn in the screenplays you read to create your own story that will give your favorite actor the ability to do what they do best. If you keep honing your craft to write genuine characters, they may jump to play a character YOU WROTE.
Every story has a purpose. It has something it wants to say to the masses. Stories are meant to get the people talking and questioning everything they thought they knew. Your theme is the statement/question that drives the narrative part of your story. There are two types of themes: the main themes and sub-themes. My favorite film of all time is Hereditary, and when reading the screenplay, I was able to note the themes that made the film so compelling. The main theme is: Is fate escapable? The story teaches us that it isn't. The grandmother character makes a pact with a demon that orchestrates the death of the Graham family. Try as they might to change their fate, we're shown via a foreshadowing of motifs like the sigils in the grandmother's necklace, blue flashes of light that symbolize the demon’s control, and various moments of the grandmother's cult members watching the sh*t show unfold from the sidelines. But this is the easy stuff to see, the sub-themes are threaded subtly, and the only way you’re gonna see them is by breaking down the script. There are 4 sub-themes (manipulation, guilt, death, and grief) that take the story to the next level.
Manipulation: In the opening scene of the film, we see an open diorama of the Graham family’s home and we slowly enter the story through this view. If you only watch the movie, you’ll think Annie created the diorama because that's her job. But if you read the script, you’ll connect the dots that it's a DOLLHOUSE. The same way children manipulate dolls to do their bidding, the grandmother and her cult manipulate the family into their demise. By reading the script, we recognize that we ARE the cult, and we’re a part of the manipulation of the Graham family.
Guilt: After her mother’s funeral, Annie wonders if she’s a bad person for not feeling anything. Normally we wouldn’t feel anything for a bat sh*t crazy woman who manipulated her husband and son into killing themselves. But as we see throughout the script feeling guilty is who Annie is and feeling guilty over something we can’t control is a normal human response. Audiences gravitate to vulnerability. It makes us feel seen and we respect and empathise with Annie which makes what happens to her and her family much more difficult to watch.
Grief: After the gruesome death of Charlie(her daughter), Annie desperately tries to make sense of it all. Her vulnerability led her straight into the arms of JOAN, a woman who helps Annie “communicate” with who she thinks is Charlie. But we later find out that Joan was in cahoots with grandma and caused Annie to summon the demon grandma’s cult made a pact with, causing the death of the entire family. What makes this so scary and relatable is that millions of people go to seances, to communicate with lost loved ones. Imagine a cult member manipulating (ties back to theme) you into summoning a demon into your home and sacrificing you to complete a pact. Preying on our weaknesses is what the horror genre does best and it ties perfectly to the theme of manipulation and fate.
Death: Death is something we all will deal with sooner or later. But for Annie, it's been a part of her life since she was a child. During a grief anonymous meeting, we learn that Annie’s father and brother killed themselves due to what she thinks is mental illness. But it’s really grandma doing everything she can to fulfil her pact with the demon. After seeing how traumatic Annie’s childhood was we empathise with her, and when family death continues to plague her, our emotions get to a boiling point right along with her and makes us vulnerable through the entire viewing.
Those 4 themes are what made the movie universal and allowed us to cling to Annie and her family during their darkest moments. To understand the theme, write down the main character’s arc throughout the entire story. What part of the dramatic question are they answering or discovering? Look at how their circumstances cause them to change or bring out a side of themselves that has been hidden under the rubble. Who or what can represent the other side of the argument? How can you show us this in your screenplay? This is where the meaning of the story resides and adding theme into your own script will make it that more powerful.
5. Language and Style:
The more scripts you read the larger your word and style bank will become. By reading scripts from your favorite writers, you’ll have an abundance of styles that you can play with. Now, remember, you are an individual. You have a unique voice. You don’t become great by copying Sorkin’s use of action. Learn from what his style means and how it pushes the story forward. Then compare it to other styles to find your own. It’ll help you find your voice and get you closer to earning a key into the biggest gated community in the world!
So, the next time you see a film you love or pilot you wish you wrote, READ IT. See how the writer made their magic. It’ll make you a better writer and get you closer credits and coins!
Wanna learn screenplay structure from The Professional Pen? Click here to take the leap.
-Written by Collin Shaw