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One reads a screenplay in order to EXPERIENCE the characters and their world. It is as much an aural experience as it is a visual one, maybe more so. To read effectively is to see and hear the characters in their immediacy and to remain open and sensitive not only to what they do and say but to what is implied or suggested by what they do and say. When one "reads" from inside the story world, rather than as an objective, gawking spectator, one intersects and interacts with the characters at approximately the same emotional level at which they are operating. We read a script effectively when we are able to discern and emotionally respond to the TRUTH of the actions that comprise the story.
In discerning a screenplay's truth, we are not looking for OUR truths, or the truths that we believe our society or the imagined society of the writer is trying to uphold. We 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.
Reading a screenplay is an art form in itself.
To read effectively, creatively, you have to be able to HEAR and SEE what is actually occurring physically, intellectually and emotionally within the story-world, whilst at the same time not allowing yourself to read more or less than what is apt in terms of what the characters are actually doing and why they are doing it (including context). You must jettison any tendencies you might have to judge what is happening based upon what YOU THINK should be happening, or what you HOPE the writer must mean in terms of your own expectations and prejudices.
The reading of any coherent screenplay is largely a meditation on what is revealed, and an intuitive engagement with what might still remain hidden by the various possibilities and anticipations that subtext and context offer. At its best it becomes a thoroughly interactive experience in which the reader/audience enters into a dynamic, evolving relationship with the characters.
In many ways, the experience of reading a screenplay is allied to the art of translation, and - in its way – is for the individual reader every bit as as demanding as the art of making the film.
A screenplay is a lure for feeling.
Speaking about reading scripts, Elia Kazan once said: THE FIRST JOB IS TO DISCOVER WHAT THE SCRIPT IS SAYING, NOT WHAT IT REMINDS YOU OF.”
Maintaining some degree of emotional detachment is necessary in reading, understanding and analysing a dramatic script correctly.
It is not always easy to do. Screenplays – good scripts in general – are MEANT to be emotional experiences, and many readers respond strongly to the emotional stimuli in them.
The first job is to 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 by actors.
A story is a carefully constructed series of vivid and emotionally charged actions (action = change) that attracts our attention and compels our interest by virtue of the conflict and significance inherent in these events.
Some common errors
· The Affective Fallacy (Impressionism)
· The Fallacy of Faulty Generalisation (Over-expansion)
· The Fallacy of Illicit Process (Reductiveness)
· The Fallacy of the Half-Truth (Debunking)
· The Genetic Fallacy (Fallacy of Origins)
· Intentional Fallacy
· Secondhand Thinking
· Reality Testing
The Affective Fallacy (Impressionism) ...
Comes about when a reader allows his/her favourite ideals or momentary enthusiasms or the momentary enthusiasms of the community to intrude on one’s judgement of the story.
In a script like Death of a Salesman, for example, a reader might be reminded of his own father.
The reader might be tempted to confuse emotional memories of his/her father with Willy Loman’s situation in the play.
Alternatively, readers might personally identify with Willy’s economic plight, and be tempted to entangle their own feelings with Willy’s.
Intensely personal experiences projected onto scripts can result in loose thinking and analytical carelessness. A reader might become hopelessly bogged down in a kind vicarious self-analysis, recalling any number of personal situations, conflicts, attitudes, which the reader has experienced in his/her own life, in his/her own way.
Special care should be taken against projecting your own personal convictions or experiences into a screenplay written by someone else.
Readers should search for conditions that are objectively present in the story.
The solution to this problem is to separate intimate personal responses from what is objectively there in the script.
REMEMBER: THE FIRST JOB IS TO DISCOVER WHAT THE SCRIPT IS SAYING, NOT WHAT IT REMINDS YOU OF. (Elia Kazan)
A script is a complex machine of thought and feeling. Sweeping assertions about what it is or isn’t frequently blind the reader to what is going on…
When a reader jumps to a conclusion about a script without having enough evidence for making that conclusion, he/she commits…
The Fallacy of Faulty Generalisation (Over-expansion)
Be careful about using words like “all” or “never” in statements about a script.
Be attentive to contrary examples.
For example, after reading Hamlet, a naive reader might resort to the worn-out generalities about “the melancholy prince” or “the man who could not make up his mind”.
However, a little scrutiny will show that Hamlet is quite cheerful while welcoming the Players, and he is decisive when dealing with the Ghost.
Be sure to test your conclusions/prejudices about a script with whatever contrary evidence the script might provide.
A few contrary illustrations like the ones cited for Hamlet should be enough to test the validity or otherwise of any sweeping generalisations.
When a reader tries to reduce complex issues to one thing, he commits…
The Fallacy of Illicit Process (Reductiveness)
For example - "Don't you realize that all great literature - Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, A Farewell to Arms, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Crime and Punishment, The Bible, and The Charge of the Light Brigade - are all about what a bummer it is to be a human being?" - Kurt Vonnegut
This is a common mistake, even among experienced readers.
It happens when we make sweeping – often glib – assertions about what a script means. For example, thinking that Mother Courage and Streamers are anti-war. Or that A Raisin in the Sun is a social protest script.
To say that The Godfather is nothing but a gangster story is a way of dismissing much of what gives that story its potency and drama.
The phrase nothing but is the giveaway.
Ezra Pound once said: “You can always 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 (Fallacy of Origins)
For example, the question is NOT what does Death of a Salesman tell us about Arthur Miller’s personal life or about American society in the 1940s, but rather what does it tell us about itself?
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 our meditation on the story as script.
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 negative implications.
When someone says: “Nothing happens in Sam Beckett’s plays – there’s no plot.”, they are guilty of the fallacy of half-truth.
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.
This error results from speculating on what the author’s intention is and whether this intention is fulfilled in the script, instead of trying to attend to the work itself.
For example, if someone believes that Frank Pierson’s script, Cool Hand Luke, was intended as a statement of the need for Christ-consciousness as modern-man’s sole salvation from a life of inequity, and argued the merits of the story on the basis of that, one would be guilty of employing the intentional fallacy.
A mistake common to many inexperienced readers of scripts is when the reader resorts to “reality testing” as a way of understanding or not understanding what a script means…
Reality Testing 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 judgment, 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 example.
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 experience.
Frigidity means 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 here means not treating the feelings of the characters with the care that might enable one to intersect with those feelings.
Frigidity also includes an inability or unwillingness to be open to experience, or to recognise the relevance or seriousness or ironic significance of the situation, action or event, presented.
Frigidity occurs when pulling back from genuine feeling or when only looking at the surface trivialities. It is some times symptomatic of a resistance founded upon preconcerived ideas or prejudices. Unfortunately it is one of the chief characteristics of the current artistic scene. It leads increasingly to less concern for the characters, plot and concrete meaning of the story. In the dialogical experience that is the apprehension of a screenplay in its written form both the script and its audience must reach out to each other.
This error is a corollary of intentional fallacy. It stems from unconsciously relying too much on other people’s opinions, especially when dealing with difficult material. Addiction to the judgements of others can inhibit 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 or the vociferous knee-jerk reactions of the more opinionated members of the one's society or group.
THE SECOND-HANDEDNESS OF THE LEARNED WORLD IS THE SECRET OF ITS MEDIOCRITY (A.N. Whitehead).
To permit the free exercise of imagination, script analysis should initially be a solo experience.
SOME 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 inciting incident)
When is the opposing force identified? Dramatic tension probably begins simultaneously (though not always). 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 characteristics make the protagonist worth watching? Why am I fascinated by this character?
How soon do I begin to sense the theme of the story. How is it revealed to me?
What is the core conflict?
What surprises are there? What scenes and story developments are unexpected? Which characters most fascinate me and why?
Why does each scene work or not work?
Which scenes are unnecessary? Look for the subtext of each scene and the words that are not spoken.
What scenes are implied rather than shown? Make note of every story leap.
What are the complications in the story? What makes the plot thicken?
What is the key element in the script that holds my attention?
What in the script is dramatically valid and what is not. This is really a question about coherence and pretentiousness.
The first job is discover what the script is saying, not what it reminds you of.
Story is the recognition of the dramatic relations that exist between the characters, and between the characters and the things that are important to them. You can't simply "think up" a powerful story; you have to enter into relationships with the characters, and intersect with them at the emotional level at which they are acting and being acted upon. A story has to be in your blood and bones, otherwise it may as well be nowhere.
(Billy Marshall Stoneking)
PLEASE NOTE: When re-reading your latest draft it is recommended that you use the relevant DRAMA REPORT to find out whether or not your screenplay is dramatic or not. If your script cannot answer the essential character and narrative questions contained in the report, chances are it is NOT DRAMATIC. There is also a scene report that will help to illuminate the weakness of any troublesome scenes.
Cinema's Invisible Art
‘Film is a visual medium’. So goes the screenwriter’s favorite truism. And hence the most sublime joy of reading screenplays: the language of scene action. I’m not denying the pleasures of the cinematic experience for one moment. But the literary pleasures to be had from reading well-written scene action can be extremely powerful – and yet are largely overlooked.