So you wanna write movies. I hear you. You’re new to the game; you’ve seen every film there ever was, including this one; and you’ve vowed not to rest until your better mousetrap is up on the silver screen. Fantastic and congratulations — you’ve just pledged yourself to some good, long hours spent with pad and paper, breaking down your favorite films.
What’s this, you ask? You can recite dialogue from His Girl Friday, Airplane, AND Solaris and still that’s not enough? Don’t try to weasel out of this. As your momma always said (or the momma in one of those dripping Southern dramas always says), “you gotta finish what you started, honey.” You want to write movies, watching and reading isn’t enough. You have to break them down.
Breaking down a movie is the process in which you sit in front of your most cherished film, remote in hand, and take scene-by-scene notes from beginning to end. Your goal is to produce a time-based list of all scenes and the major internal and external story points that occur. Why? Because, in my world, there’s no better training for creating a proper film script than translating the finished product for yourself. You’re not reading a screenplay nor a book on how to write one, you’re watching the finished roller coaster in all its glory and peeling apart your experience in a way that is meaningful to you. It’s the difference between listening to a great piece of music with your eyes closed and reading its sheet music.
To break a film down, you’ll need a film you love, a pause button, a time counter of some sort (i.e. the one right on the DVD/BluRay player), and three uninterrupted hours for your first try. Note 0:00 in the left margin to indicate the start of the film. Hit <PLAY>. You’ll likely have to pause after the first establishing shot and/or first line of dialogue. Write down what you saw and heard. Quick notations are fine so long as they are legible later. Hit <PLAY>. Stop again when the next bit of information is established (often this will be the introduction of the main character). In the margin, note the time on your counter. Rinse. Repeat. Make special notes when you find yourself particularly engaged with the movie (where you laughed, cried, recoiled, tensed in anticipation, etc.)
This is tedious work at first, especially off the top as you’ll be pausing every few moments as characters and plot points are established. But you’ve seen this film; it’s one of your favourites; you can see this through until the end. You’ll get into the rhythm, scenes will stretch out a bit, then before you realize it, the credits will be rolling and you’ll have a detailed breakdown in your hands.
But don’t stop there. This is raw material for your education. It’s what you do with this breakdown that will rocket your screenwriting skills ahead. Look over your notes for the major reversals and hence, the major act breaks. Draw lines so you can see those breaks on the page. Identify major sequences: scenes that group together to make larger movements in the story. Notice how they work together, laying groundwork then building upon each other, how they play out across the pages of your notes and across the act breaks. See how and when key items are revealed and how they are used to achieve the film’s climax. Follow the protagonist’s growth through the film as you follow the plot from its beginning to its natural conclusion. If you do have access to the film’s screenplay, when you’ve finished your own observations, compare your notes to the written scenes and record the differences.
Of course you can do this exercise as you read a screenplay but by breaking a film down for yourself, you’re creating meaningful connections between your own emotional experience and the craft of the story. You’re revealing the unspoken layer. You’re creating your own storytelling road map to guide you as you forge your own path through the murky story waters ahead. Most of all, you’re learning what makes you tick as an audience member and as a writer while you learn how to translate your own emotional experience to the page. There’s nothing more valuable to a writer than that.
P.S. Yes, this is applicable to novels, memoir, and every other story experience there is. Absolutely.