One of the first things that we were taught to do in our Dramatic Writing department at school was to analyze scripts and films as a way to help us in our own development. With classic examples such as
, our professors tried to lay down a solid foundation of story structure and character development for us. This was a tool more frequently used in the early years of our college careers. Later – though professors did occasionally still screen movies for us to study – these skills were ones we were supposed to use increasingly outside the classroom. Casablanca
Whenever I see a movie, at least for the first act of it, I try to split my viewing into two modes: entertainment and study. It’s hard to do both simultaneously, as a particularly entertaining movie can cause me to forget to study it (the same can be said for an excruciatingly u-entertaining movie). Throw in a few screenplays that I’ll read here or there, and I like to think that I do a fair share of studying. However, it’s not an exercise that a screenwriter can ever do too much of, and I’ve done a lot of it for my post-Apocalyptic spec recently.
I’ve been concentrating heavily on re-working my second act, as that’s where most of the notes I’ve gotten have been. Act Two is almost any writer’s big nightmare, and I’m certainly no exception. Pages 60-70 have got to be the worst ten pages I ever have to write. Luckily, the script I’m working on is main-stream enough that there are a number of great examples out there for me to study. Most recently, I’ve re-watched MINORITY REPORT and
CHINATOWN (taking notes the whole time), and have archived notes from a viewing of CHILDREN OF MEN not too many months ago. When watching these, focusing primarily on Act Two, I try to break down the structure. Where does the protagonist go at the end of Act One? What info does he get there, and how does that lead him to his next location?
CHILDREN OF MEN and MINORITY REPORT were both pretty easy. They each featured six of seven main beats throughout Act Two in which their protagonists went from point A to B to C (etc.) gathering bits of pieces along the way. Virtually every big beat came with action and some sort of reveal.
CHINATOWN had a lot more shorter beats, with info coming in fast and furious. (I don’t know if this is because CHINATOWN is much older than the others, or if the other two just fit more stylistically, but it was interesting to compare them.) Having already seen all three movies, focusing while in study mode was much easier.
Whatever the reason for the differences and similarities, I already found myself coming up with more streamlined solutions to some of the problems I have to address. Reconceived scenes in which the protagonist had to witness someone’s treachery were quickly tweaked to place him in immediate peril as a result of those betrayals. The other characters’ actions continually turn our hero’s world upside down, leading him on a number of quests to find out what is really going on. Of course, in studying these other films, I have to be sure not to adhere too closely to their structure, or my script will be little more than a combination of them. Still, studying other movies is a great practice, and one all writers should do as often as possible.