How to Break Down a Script

In this segment learn how to discover the story and the characters of your next production.

Video Transcript

So, you've found a great story and you're excited about beginning production. One of the first important tasks before you now, is breaking down the script. As the master storyteller, you, the director, must know the script intimately in order to tell it beautifully and with impact. In this segment we'll show you how to discover the story and the characters so your next production will have your audience clamoring for more.

Producing a film or television program worthy of an audience's time requires more than just a great script. Somehow, the story that makes the script great must be lifted from the words on the page and transported through the auditory and visual senses where it can actively and effectively engage those who experience it. The person responsible for discovering and sharing this great story is the director.

In order to discover the story the director must first read the script. More than simply reading, however, he or she must possess the ability both to read well and to understand what is being read and then to be able to break it down into its various parts. You can develop this skill by reading a lot of scripts and analyzing them for what grabs your attention, what engages you, what works and what doesn't.

On the first time through, read the script just for fun. Everything is still new at this point, just as it will be for the audience. Notice when you find yourself smiling or crying or moving to the edge of your seat in suspense. What is taking place in the story that is causing you to react in this way? You'll want your audience to experience these same reactions at the same points in the story. These observations will guide you later when actual production begins.

After the first time through, read it again, and begin to break it down. Depending on whether your work is intended for the theater or television, your story may contain from three to six distinct parts; each with its own beginning and end. The first part will typically be an introduction to the main characters and the conflict that drives the story forward. Subsequent parts build on this conflict, perhaps introducing new characters and plot twists, keeping the audience engaged and guessing right up to the story's conclusion. The story will typically end with some sort of resolution. Is it revenge, restitution, justice - or lack of justice? What loose ends are tied up and what do they tell us about the characters? Did John set out to avenge injustices to a village full of indigenous people and learn something of his own prejudice in the process? Where is that likely to take him in the future? All of these are details that will engage the audience fully and leave them satisfied with their experience.

The first place to start is by summarizing the story in one sentence. In this case it may be:"John confronts his own prejudice while battling the prejudices of others." Second, jot down the emotional arc you experienced during your first read. In this case we found it to be suspense to fear to anger to determined survival. You will want to re-create this for your audience. Third, identify the "A" story - the basic plot. In our story, John returns to a village he had visited years before to find its men have been taken and sold into slavery. John tracks them down, does battle with the bad guys and against all odds brings the men back to their village where he is hailed as a hero. Fourth, identify any additional subplots - a "B" or "C" story such as John discovers that the head bad guy is an old army colleague who had attacked this particular village as revenge because of former injustices he himself had endured at the hands of John years earlier. Fifth, name each scene in a meaningful way that reminds you how it relates to the whole story. And lastly, read the script again and note how each plot point builds logically on the previous point and leads into the next. Everything should serve to move the story forward, building toward the great climax.

You've broken the story down and identified its structure; now you must discover the characters. Who are they and what makes them unique and interesting?
As you read through the script again pay close attention to the dialogue in order to derive insight into the characters by asking the following two questions: "What does the character say about themselves?" and, "What do others say about them?" Jot down the obvious answers, then go deeper and read between the lines. Ask yourself what you can discover about them by what they say and do.
Examine the stage directions within the script to discover what the writer says about the character. What does he or she have them do? How does the writer describe their physical appearance or emotional state?
With this information you will begin to form a picture about each character. How are they similar to or different from other characters? Do they have a line or two of dialogue that has iconic potential such as the well known, "Ah'll be back" or "Go ahead, make my day!" What short label can you give them to capture their essence? Are they ruthless, wild-eyed, big-hearted or sanctimonious?
Determine what each character looks like. How are they dressed - richly or poorly? What props or accessories will they wear or carry? If you, or a friend, have an artist's touch you can begin to sketch the characters as you imagine them to appear. Otherwise you can cut pictures and text from magazines and paste them to a piece of cardboard to begin to create each character and their world. Include depictions of clothing styles, appropriate lodgings and images of where they might live, such as cities or rural areas - being sure to account for the time period in which they live - anything that will help you paint a complete picture.
In reading the script strive to determine the character's needs. What does each character need from every other character? And what obstacles may be preventing them from fulfilling that need? Ideally, two character's needs will be in direct opposition to one another. If Bill needs to love, and be loved by, Mary, while Mary needs Bill to leave her alone, then we have conflict. Conflict drives the story and the more conflict you have in your scene the better the scene.

Audiences want to be entertained; to escape into another world more exciting than their own. Follow these tips to break down your script and you'll soon discover an engaging story, and rich, compelling characters that will help you create a moving experience that audiences will love.