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How to Analyse and Evaluate Film Scripts
By Lucy Scher
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2011 Lucy Scher
All rights reserved.
STORYTELLING AND THE PRINCIPLES OF GENRE
Reading screenplays requires the skills to analyse the ability of the writer, first, to tell a story, and, second, to tell that story dramatically. This book offers a method that enables the script reader to be precise and helpful in preparing the report. But before we get to the detail of the script report, first an exploration of genre. Screenplays are incredibly textured documents and extremely hard to write. As we are reading a script, especially first or early drafts, we begin to feel gaps in the story. We start thinking about ways to fill those gaps by improving the set up, or changing the characters, or making the problems more difficult – or, indeed, simpler – or altering the outcome so the script delivers a more satisfying story. In doing this we are bringing to it a very comprehensive understanding of genre.
Genre is a well-established technical term in the film industry. Genre categorises the type or the style of story. Genre is routinely used in marketing films, e.g. a thriller, a horror, a romantic comedy, a heist, a gangster film, etc. However, we use genre in script reading or development to delve beneath the surface to see the basic pattern of the story – the thriller or horror or romantic comedy, etc – that we are recognising or unconsciously beginning to understand.
We recognise the emotional territory within which the story works and the conventions used in the storytelling. Consciously using this knowledge in our thinking about the script will ensure that the analysis in the script report has relevance to industry and audience as well as the writer.
I can illustrate this from my experience in running a workshop in Macedonia for new filmmakers. I asked the class to read the local paper and pick out a story that they thought would make a good film. Every single one of them chose the same article whose headline translated as: '200 Macedonian students are to be given the opportunity to work in Disneyworld, Florida for the summer to improve their English and their relations.'
Nine students in three groups of three set about writing film versions of stories this headline suggested to them.
1. The first story presented was a comedy–drama centred around a guy aged 30. Although too old to be a student he was in love with the Disney characters, and the story related his efforts to get enrolled in a college so that he could go on the trip and meet Mickey Mouse. By the time he has succeeded and arrives in Florida, a real person has filled the gap in his life and he no longer needs Mickey.
2. The second story was a slasher film set in Disneyworld where a group of six Macedonian students is employed on the night watch when a Disney character starts to come to life. One by one the students are slaughtered until one lone girl remains, fighting for her life. In the morning she is found alive at the top of Big Thunder Mountain, mute and unable to explain what happened. As she is returned to Macedonia and starts talking on her cell phone about collecting her friends' wages for them, the audience realises it was she who killed the others!
3. The third story was a road movie about a Macedonian Grandma who has learnt that she is dying. She decides to visit her grandson who is working in Disneyworld for the summer. She has never left Macedonia before and deeply distrusts all Americans but she obtains a visa and a plane ticket and arrives in Los Angeles; she has, of course, gone to the wrong Disney theme park. Thus begins her trip from LA to Florida, with time running out. The trip enables her to discover the commonality and humanity of all people, including Americans, at a time, and in a strange new place, when she needs it most. She arrives in time to say goodbye.
This ability to sit down in a group and quickly establish the meaning and the main character of a story and then to fill in the events which link it all up is quite extraordinary.
Stories offer a stabilising integrity and the stories that endure are those that embody clear meanings. In each of the three Macedonian student stories, the writers employed a meaningful and resonant idea, and then found a way of telling it, so that the meaning is communicated to you when you read it.
Genre provides a framework within which to structure the analysis of a script. Establishing the kind of story that the writer is writing, or aspiring to write, is fundamental. It will enable the reader to understand what the story should mean, why it should mean that, and how that meaning is established through the choice of character/s and events.
Be in no doubt that wherever the idea for the story originates – whether from personal experience, a newspaper article, an intriguing situation, or whatever – the reason the writer has chosen it is because it has meaning that is in some way important to the writer. The task of script reading and script development is to find that meaning and assist the writer in conveying it as effectively as possible to the audience. Absolutely essential for doing this well is for the reader to have a thorough and conscious understanding of genre.
There are, and always will be, many exceptions raised to all the points discussed in relation to film, storytelling and genres. The purpose of any discussion about genre is not to find unity and precise definitions but to identify and understand the various emotional territories that stories inhabit. This enables the reader to make an informed judgement about a script – the work that is needed to enhance both it and its potential to find an audience.
Film genres may be loosely divided into the two main types. They are (1) stories that deal in transgression where someone or something has upset the order of the world and the purpose of the story is to restore it, and (2) stories that deal in relationships – some of which may involve transgression but in which our interest is more likely to be in the characters rather than the outcome of the transgression.
To clarify this, consider the horror genre. This genre covers such a wide range of stories that it is impossible to define any core conventions beyond the fact that it deals in our fear of the supernatural, with the method of storytelling employed to deliver some visceral shocks to the audience. Thus, as a genre, it embraces stories that deal with death and grief like The Orphanage and The Sixth Sense, cave–dwelling monsters like The Descent, as well as Nightmare on Elm Street and The Omen.
Whilst there are some films that are clearly conceived as horror films, ones with weird children all born on a particular day (6th of June) who are evil, other stories can be seen to 'use' the horror genre to give a big–screen presence to a story idea that, if rendered as a drama, would be boring.
The Orphanage is essentially about a mother who doesn't pay proper attention to her child, who then goes missing. It's about maternal guilt and the ghosts of orphaned or lost children searching for the mothers they never had. By the end of the film, you realise that, strictly speaking, there is no malevolent force, the ghosts are just children looking for their friends, but the film still contains really creepy moments, with doors closing inexplicably and blood trickling down the walls. Consequently the audience experiences the thrills of the horror film and arguably the filmmakers have obtained a much bigger audience for a story about grief.
In assessing and analysing horror screenplays a good script reader should know that the genre is defined by its method of storytelling, and that it can encompass 'natural' grief as well as supernatural evil. This demonstrates an intelligent rather than a prescriptive approach to genre.
GENRE CONVENTIONS – EXAMPLES
When trying to apply the conventions of a genre it can be useful for the reader to structure the assessment around the building blocks of the story. For example, pose questions about the nature of the main character. What kinds of character traits are we expecting? Does the character have a goal or does the audience supply it? Do the characters change? How is the character's conflict most prominently manifested? Is the conflict internal, situational or interpersonal? What resolution are we expecting?
Here are some examples of common genres and the particular considerations each presents for the script reader.
Rites of passage
It is common for writers, and even readers, to classify any story in which a young person learns something as a rites of passage story, but this is not always the case. The term 'rite of passage' applies to an event or ceremony that marks the transition from one recognisable stage of life to the next. Our present culture doesn't always offer clear milestones or markers. Indeed the distinctions between the different phases of life have been blurred – a mid–life crisis can occur in your twenties and middle age is now (happily) middle youth. However, we still recognise the phases through which we pass: childhood to adolescence; adolescence to adulthood; single to married; child–free to parenthood; working to retired.
Because film stories deal in conflict, celebrating successful transition is not usually seen in the rites of passage genre. Rather, the stories most commonly deal with characters who must struggle to make the transition – characters who are on the threshold of the next phase of life but aren't ready. Either the characters are trying to fly too soon, or life is about to require something of them that they don't yet feel equipped to give, or else circumstances will take away from them something they are not ready to surrender.
Bear in mind that the important genre convention is that the point of the story is to get the character successfully to pass through to the next phase (at the appropriate time); but this is not necessarily the goal of the character. The writer may make the character want something else or may have them resisting the transition in order to generate drama. It is the audience that cares whether or not the rite of passage is negotiated successfully. If you are reading this kind of script, analyse carefully how the writer has made us care, or what might be done to further this? The conflict for the character is internal and often situational, set by the constraints of their environment, and this conflict is manifested in problems with people such as parents, siblings, partners, etc. The character is changed by these experiences at the end of the story.
Stand By Me is still the classic 'childhood to adolescence' and 'loss of innocence' story retold from the perspective of the adult looking back; My Life As A Dog tells the same story from the point of view of 12–year–old Ingemar, who has to grow up very fast. Somersault and An Education both offer versions of trying to 'fly too soon' into adulthood; Lars and the Real Girl tells the same story but through the experiences of Lars, who hasn't made the transition to adulthood at the age of 27 and needs to. At the heart of American Beauty is Lester's mid–life crisis and the story is about his need to accept the stage of life he is in. About Schmidt is an example of the rite of passage to retirement and the recalibration of one's sense of self at this stage.
The most important element in the road movie must be the journey, and reading a script for a road movie should reveal very clearly the motivation for undertaking it. The motive may be the desire to get away from something (the police, a boring environment) or to get to something (a beauty pageant, a sporting event) but, whatever it is, the journey should be challenging and testing for the character and it should result in change to one or more characters. The audience and the characters will share the dramatic goal of completing the journey.
Unlike many genres, the road movie can support an episodic structure; the characters journey though the story–world and the writer doesn't have the usual imperative to set up or resolve every event along the way. Whilst a single character can undertake a journey, having two or more characters on the road will contain a relationship in a physical space that can generate tension, meltdown and resolution to this story element.
In Little Miss Sunshine, the beauty pageant could have been set in Albuquerque, where the family lives, as there is no inherent story reason for it to be set in California. But this is a story in which the family needs to change its attitude to what it means to win. Having a van with a sticky gearshift and a broken horn effectively assists this in several ways: it keeps the family in one place whilst generating urgency and moving the story on; it gives them something to work at together every time they stop or start; it is the cause of significant practical obstacles to progress on the journey that they need to complete within a fixed time; it is absurdly unfortunate and therefore very funny; and, lastly, but still importantly, the bright yellow VW van creates a striking visual image.
There are many classic road movies (and many good books dedicated to analysing and appreciating the genre) like Thelma and Louise, Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Wild at Heart, Mad Max, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Paris, Texas, and, more recently, Sideways, Broken Flowers and Little Miss Sunshine. David Lynch's The Straight Story is a beautiful example of the genre, telling a simple, moving story about the efforts of Alvin Straight to get to his dying brother before it is too late.
Like horror, this is a very broad genre, but a key generic definer is that thrillers are designed to be realistic. However extreme the situation, we are aware that psychos exist and bad things do happen, and that, occasionally, we may each put ourselves in some danger. One of the most important ways that thriller stories attain realism is through the construction of the antagonist – the character who perpetrates the threat. It is imperative that the audience glimpses the motive that drives them and in such a way that, for a moment, we understand their need for revenge, justice, vengeance. The most important aspect of the protagonist, the character who is under threat, is their survival! The audience is invested in their ability to survive. The range of situations found in thriller stories is too extensive for generalisation but one consistent element is the stake. In a thriller, life is at stake. If you are reading a thriller script, ensure that the threat is to life, rather than a job, or status, or a marriage.
Beyond that inviolable principle, examine the way that an audience is involved in, and relates to, the story. In a thriller film it is through the character of the protagonist. There is no better way of describing this character than by specifying that they need to be just like us, which we may loosely define as being 'normal'. Normal people don't have too much or too little of anything. We generally have homes, families, jobs, hobbies and are generally pleasant. At the start of the story it is quite likely that the protagonist's only goal is for everything to stay as it is. These are not characters that are looking for change and, because they are not really engaged with the idea of change, they often remain quite oblivious to what is going on around them until very late in the story.
Because the story will require them to deal with a big problem, they should be invested with the right attributes such as competence, cleverness, being fit and resourceful. Any serious gaps in their functionality, like having narcolepsy or being too chubby, or a serious shortcoming that the protagonist cannot just miraculously 'overcome' in order to win through, will affect our willingness to identify with them. It is an important convention that this character isn't fundamentally changed by the experiences of the story.
There is an exception when the writer intends the thriller story also to be a cautionary tale. In this case the character can have too much of something or gaps in functionality – the character may be overly ambitious, for example, or an alcoholic.
Thriller stories can also rely on dramatic irony, on the audience having more information about the situation than the character/s, and in this way the story can elicit our care and concern as well as generating the tension.
Examples of classic thriller films are Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Pacific Heights, all of which employ the convention of dramatic irony whereby the audience knows much more than the characters. Misery and Fatal Attraction both offer a masterclass in generating tension with the premise of crossing paths with the wrong person and the danger of misreading the signs. More recently, good thriller films have included Internal Affairs, The Departed, State of Play and Tell No One.
Excerpted from Reading Screenplays by Lucy Scher. Copyright © 2011 Lucy Scher. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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