Monday, June 16, 2008
THE ART OF READING A SCRIPT
Its purpose is to reveal the story (the meaning) that
lies behind the black squiggles on the page.
A script is a lure for feeling.
Reading a script is - in part - a meditation on what is
revealed, and through that meditation, a discovery of
what is hidden or implied.
The effective reading of a script is akin to the art of
translation. In its way, it is every bit as demanding as
the art of actually making a film.
One reads a script to uncover not only the emotions
that it conveys but the TRUTH that it expresses.
The truth and the emotions are inextricably connected.
“Truth is beauty and beauty is truth.” HOWEVER, when
you read a script, you are not looking for YOUR truths,
or the truths that YOU believe your society, or the
imagined society of the writer, is trying to uphold; you
are looking for the truth of the script… the sum of those
almost indecipherable moments of grace by which the
story becomes more than the sum of its parts.
To read a script creatively (i.e.: effectively) you have to
be able to SEE and HEAR what is actually there, and not
simply what you THINK is there.
“THE FIRST JOB IS TO DISCOVER WHAT THE SCRIPT
IS SAYING, NOT WHAT IT REMINDS YOU OF.”
- Elia Kazan
The first job is discover what the script is saying,
not what it reminds you of.
A script is the expression of a story that is to be enacted
A story is a carefully constructed series of vivid and
emotionally charged events (action = change) that attract
our attention and compel our interest by virtue of the
conflict and significance inherent in these events.
Some common errors that are made when analysising and
• The Affective Fallacy (Impressionism) …
• The Fallacy of Faulty Generalization (Over-expansion)
• The Fallacy of Reductiveness
• The Fallacy of the Half-Truth (Debunking)
• The Genetic Fallacy (Fallacy of Origins)
• Intentional Fallacy
• Secondhand Thinking
• Reality Testing
The Affective Fallacy (Impressionism) …
When one allows one’s pet notions or momentary
enthusiasms or the momentary enthusiasms of one's
community to intrude on one’s judgement of the story,
one is employing affective fallacy.
For example, in a script like Death of a Salesman, one
might be reminded one's own father, and be tempted to
make judgements about the character and the story based
upon one's personal memories and feelings. On the other
hand, one might identify with Willy’s economic plight and
allow one's own problems to AFFECT the way in which one
"feels" the action of the story.
Intensely personal experiences projected onto scripts often
produce critical carelessness, and may allow sentimental
and, possibly, propagandistic writing to go unchallenged.
To avoid becoming hopelessly bogged down in a kind
vicarious self-analysis, applying any number of personal
situations, ideals, attitudes, or conflicts to someone
else's script, special care should be taken NOT to project
your own personal convictions or experiences onto a
screenplay written by someone else.
Instead, one should look for conditions that are objectively
present in the story. This means one must separate intimate
personal responses from what is objectively given in the
The Fallacy of Faulty Generalization (Over-expansion)
When you jump to a conclusion about a script without
having enough evidence for arriving at that conclusion, you
are usually talking more about your own prejudices and
fears than you are talking about the script.
When one resorts to generalisations one runs the risj of
over-looking the subtle nuances and complexities that may
lie buried in the script. Sweeping assertions that attempt to
encapsulate a story can work to blind one to a story's
complexities. Be careful to avoid the uncritical use of words
like “typical", all” or “never” in statements about a script, and
seek out and challenge your own prejudices with whatever
contrary evidence the script provides.
The Fallacy of Reductiveness
A common mistake - this occurs any time one sums up
a script by reducing its meaning to the smallest,
common demoninator. To say that Platoon is merely
an anti-war story, or that The Godfather is nothing
but a gangster film is a way of dismissing much of what
gives both of those stories their potency and its drama.
The phrase "nothing but" is the giveaway, when attempting
to articulate the underlying theme or meaning of a story.
Allied to reductiveness is …
The Fallacy of the Half-Truth (Debunking)
This error in logic occurs when readers use the same
explanation for everything, usually with deliberately
When someone says: “Woody Allen's films are only about
his own sexual neuroses," they are guilty of the fallacy of
The remedy is to study the script more than once with
an open mind. This is not just a question of finding any
reasonable explanation and verifying it in the script but
also of testing what connects to what against the many
points in the script.
The Genetic Fallacy (Fallacy of Origins)
Ezra Pound once said: “You can spot a bad critic when he
starts by discussing the poet instead of the poem.”
Reducing a script to its sources in the biography or social world
of the writer produces the genetic fallacy.
For example, the question should not be: what does Contempt
tell us about Goddard's view of the 20th century woman, or
about Frenchsexual values in the mid-1950s, but rather what
does it tell us about itself? It is fallacious for a writer to say
his/her script works as a script because he/she had first-hand
knowledge of the experiences which the script presents.
Remember what the black creative writing professor said at the
end of Todd Solondz's film, Storytelling?
"Once it's written down, it's all fiction."
There may be some connections between a script and some
external features in the life and world of the writer, but they
should not impinge on one's critical meditation on the story
grammar or the dramaticeffectiveness of the script as a
This error results from speculating on what the author’s
intention is and whether this intention is fulfilled in the script.
The road tomediocrity in criticism - like the road to Hell - is
paved with intentions.
This error is a corollary of intentional fallacy. It stems from
unconsciously relying too much on other people’s opinions
and judgements, especially when dealing with difficult
Addiction to the judgments of others inhibits self-confidence
and independent thinking.
Writers and others should beware of cutting themselves off
from new experiences, feelings, or words by relying on
established opinion rather than on direct contact. Likewise,
directors and producers should be wary of sub-rating their
own feelings about a script in favor of what someone else’s
response might be.
“THE SECOND-HANDEDNESS OF THE LEARNED WORLD IS
THE SECRET OF ITS MEDIOCRITY.” (Alfred North Whitehead)
To permit the free exercise of imagination, script analysis
should initially be a solo experience.
A lot of inexperienced readers resort to what I call
“reality testing” as a way of understanding or not
understanding what a script means.
This is the error of evaluating everything in the script on
the basis of its likeness to real life.
When it is used as a negative judgement, a statement like
“the Ghost in Hamlet isn’t believable because science tells
us there’s no such things as ghosts” is a typical crude
Other examples I’ve heard include: “A couple who have been
married that long wouldn’t talk like that.” OR “Teenagers
would never be that dumb.”
This kind of thinking is a sign of a limited imagination as
much as anything else.
The quality of observed reality in a script has little connection
with the script’s potential for expressing truth.
A script can be completely unrealistic in all its outer features
and still permit emotionally honest acting.
Emotional reality and theatrical reality are completely separate
and distinct issues and do not contradict one another.
Good scripts create their own realities, and everyday reality
is largely irrelevant to understanding a script as a dramatic
Frigidity here means not treating the feelings in the play
with the importance and care they deserve – literally, not
showing enough concern – or the right kind of concern –
about the characters or situations. It is a lack of empathy.
The standard of comparison is the concern any decent
human being would naturally show under the circumstances.
Frigidity also includes an inability to recognise the seriousness
of things in general.
Frigidity occurs when pulling back from genuine feeling or
when only looking at the surface trivialities in a conflict.
Unfortunately it is one of the chief characteristics of the current
artistic scene. It leads increasingly to less and less concern for
the characters, meaningful (i.e.: emotionally confronting)
narratives and commitment to theme and meaning for the
QUESTIONS to ask of a script:
What is the genre? How do I know the genre?
When do I know who the protagonist is?
How quickly is the line of action established? (the problem
or opportunity that starts the protagonist on his/her quest)
When is the opposing force identified?
How far am I into the film before this happens?
What does the protagonist need and who or what stands in
his or her way?
What traits or characteristics make the protagonist compelling?
At what point do I begin to do I sense the theme of the story?
What is the core conflict?
What surprises are there?
Why does each scene work or not work?
What scenes are implied rather than shown?
What are the complications in the story?
What is the key element in the script that holds my attention?
What in the script is dramatically valid and what is not?