Ray Morton’s process of screenplay analysis involves examining five key story components. In part one, he discusses the first three key components.
Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His many books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, are available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray’s full bio.
As regular readers of this column know (and as its title clearly states), I am a professional reader of screenplays. This means that I read scripts with an experienced critical eye and then write detailed assessments of those scripts for studios, production companies, producers, professional screenwriters, and aspirants. In my assessments, I identify a screenplay’s strong points and problem areas and evaluate its creative and commercial potential.
When analyzing a script, I focus on five key components of the piece and then ask myself one essential question.
Here are the first three key components:
The premise is the script’s core story concept – two young people from different social classes meet and fall in love on the doomed maiden voyage of the Titanic; a small town sheriff teams with a scientist and a fisherman to catch the giant great white shark that is terrorizing a beach community; the son of a murdered millionaire dresses up as a bat and fights crime utilizing an arsenal of high-tech gadgets; etc.
The first question I ask when assessing a screenplay’s premise is “does it have one?” You might think it would be impossible to write a script without a premise, but I often receive pieces that consist of lots of scenes and characters and bits but lack a workable narrative hook. If the script does have a premise, I check to make sure it has only one. Writers often come up with ideas so fertile they can generate a wide range of premises. A successful dramatic narrative can only have one core concept, which means writers must select one of their many possibilities to focus on. However, many up-and-coming scribes are reluctant to dismiss a good idea and so try to cram more than one premise into a single screenplay. The resulting narratives are always unfocused and confused and never quite track – a man is bitten by a werewolf and then helps a lost alien return to his home planet; a dog gets separated from its family and begins a perilous cross-country journey to reunite with them. Along the way, it develops the power of speech and becomes an eloquent spokesman for animal rights; a prominent brain surgeon discovers that he himself has a brain tumor and must now undergo the same treatment he normally gives to others. As this is happening, he meets and moves in with a kooky lounge singer whose free-spirited manner proves to be quite a challenge to his uptight button-down ways; etc.
If the screenplay has but a single premise, then I ask if it’s interesting – is the script’s core concept compelling in some way that will grab an audience’s attention? (Is it novel? Or clever? Or controversial?) If the answer is yes, then my final question is does the premise have sufficient dramatic potential – is it likely to generate enough conflict, action, suspense, romance, spectacle, and/or humor to create an entertaining feature-length film?
If the answers to these questions are mostly in the affirmative, then I am likely to give the premise high marks.
The story is, of course, the narrative developed from the premise.
The first thing I assess when evaluating a script’s story whether or not it is related to the premise. This may sound like a no-brainer, but I have read many scripts in which the tale being told has little or nothing to do with the stated premise of the piece. Even if the narrative is a good one, a script in which the story doesn’t match the concept is never going to gel into a successful whole.
The next thing I look at is how well the story develops the premise – does it make the most of the concept’s inherent dramatic potential and milk the notion for all it’s worth?
Then I assess the general narrative approach. There’s an old screenwriting maxim that encourages writers to do something new in an old way or to do something old in a new way. In other words, if you’re tackling brand new concepts or subject matter, it’s best to do so using a traditional narrative form so that the audience will have something familiar to ground them as you lead them into new territory. By the same token, if you are telling a familiar tale, it is best to do so in a novel manner so that viewers won’t find the results to be predictable. For the most part, I tend to agree with this principle – although there have been exceptions, I generally find that when screenwriters attempt to write about new concepts using innovative approaches to storytelling, the results are usually incomprehensible and when they tell familiar stories in familiar ways, the results are usually boring.
Now it’s time to look at the narrative’s structure – specifically does the story have a solid beginning, middle, and end? A properly constructed dramatic narrative needs to have all three, although not necessarily in that order. If the story is being told in a non-linear or otherwise unconventional manner, are the beginning, middle, and end still clearly defined? (They should be.) Is there a strong plot twist at the end of Act I and another at the end of Act II? (Yes, I believe in the three-act structure and believe that all successful dramatic narratives adhere to it, whether knowingly or unknowingly).
Other story-related items to evaluate:
- Are the story’s world, characters, and premise clearly established in the story’s first act? (They should be.)
- Does the story make sense? Are the events in the story clear? Do we know what is happening and why? Does the story clearly establish its own internal logic and then adhere to it? Is there a strong, clear, logical cause-and-effect between the events in the storyline? (Does A logically leads to B; does B logically leads to C; and so on?) Is the story free of co-incidence and convenience? (Nothing in a properly constructed dramatic narrative should ever occur by happenstance or just because the writer needs it to.)
- Is the narrative point of each scene clear? Does each scene advance the story in a clear and meaningful way? (It should. If it doesn’t, it should be eliminated.)
- Does the plot have a clear and steady build from the inciting incident to the inevitable climax? Does it avoid digressions and/or elaborate subplots or flashbacks that interrupt the narrative flow?
- Is the plotting active? Does the story advance because the characters are doing things (as opposed to simply reacting to things that happen regardless)? Do we see things happening (as opposed to being told about things that are happening)?
- Does the story address all its genre conventions and expectations in a satisfying manner?
- Is the storytelling fresh? Are the characters, scenes, and situations original or are they clichéd? If the story employs well-worn tropes and clichés, does it at least try to put an original spin on things?
- Does the piece have a clear theme? If so, is it related to the events that happen in the story?
- Are the individual scenes interesting? Are the things that happen in them interesting or intriguing or compelling? Is the conflict between the characters strong and powerful? Are there good bits of comedy or action or suspense?
- Is the ending satisfying – does it pay off everything that has come before and leave us with a strong emotional punch?
Most importantly – is the story entertaining? If it’s a comedy, is it funny? If it’s a thriller, is it tense and suspenseful? If it’s a horror movie, is it scary? If it’s an action movie, is it exciting? If it is a romance or a drama, is it moving? Because if a story isn’t entertaining – if it doesn’t give viewers what they have come to the movie to experience – then it doesn’t matter how good the rest of the elements are because the screenplay is a failure. However, if the tale a script tells is entertaining – truly entertaining – then my response is likely to be enthusiastic even if the rest of the piece is problematic.
When it comes to assessing a script’s characters, I begin by determining if the piece has a clear and identifiable protagonist – a lead character who develops an important goal at the end of the first act and whose pursuit of that goal in Acts II and III drives the action of the story ever forward. In the course of the story, the protagonist undergoes a profound and permanent change as a result of his experiences in the tale. A successful dramatic narrative must have a protagonist. A single protagonist – there is no such thing as a workable story that has more than one lead character. Even an ensemble piece has one protagonist to anchor the multiple narrative strands.
Once I have identified the protagonist, I look to see if he is interesting. Does he have an intriguing personality? An interesting occupation? Unusual talents of skills? Are his circumstances remarkable, enviable, or exotic? Is his goal a meaningful one? Is the character well-developed? Does he have more than one dimension – multiple facets to flesh him out?
Is the protagonist sympathetic (as I have stated in previous columns, I do not necessarily believe a protagonist needs to be “likable” to be viable, but I believe we must be able to sympathize with him – find something about him to like or care about on some level that will persuade us to invest ourselves emotionally in him and his story – something that is absolutely vital for a script and film to succeed). Is the protagonist’s arc clear and strong and does it grow organically out of the events of the narrative?
I also check to see if the protagonist is active. In a dramatic tale, the lead should always be doing things – working to achieve his goal and constantly pushing the narrative forward. A viable protagonist is never passive or reactive.
The most important thing to determine about a protagonist is if the role is one a star (or at least a bankable actor) would want to play. If it is, then the script stands a much better chance of getting financed.
The next character to assess is the antagonist. Every dramatic narrative must have one, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be a person (it can be circumstances, a physical or psychological ailment, or a force of nature). Whatever form the antagonist takes, it must be formidable and provide worthy opposition for the protagonist. If the antagonist is a person, he must also be interesting and well-developed.
The story’s supporting characters must also be interesting and are hopefully also well-developed (although minor characters can be one-note if they make a strong enough impression). They must also be necessary – every character, no matter how minor, must play an essential role in the tale. Any extraneous characters should be eliminated.
Stock characters should be given some sort of clever or original spin.
All of the characters’ motivations must be clear.
THE END OF PART 1
In PART II we’ll look at the last two key components and that essential question. See you next month.
Copyright © 2017 by Ray Morton
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