If you write (or want to write) screenplays, one of the most important skills you can have is the ability to critically watch and analyze other movies or TV shows.
This doesn’t mean you have to put on your snobby critic spectacles and declare that it’s utter garbage — no, not at all. To be a critical watcher means to simply understand the mechanics behind the storytelling.
If your analysis skills could use improvement, try one (or several) of these eight ways to become someone who can aptly analyze the movies or TV shows you one day hope to write yourself.
I should mention now that most of these techniques involve a paper and pen. Best get those notebooks out and ready.
1. TAKE NOTES
A very general way to improve your critical skills as a movie and television watcher is to take notes. You could make a bullet-point list of every single thing that happens, or a loose list of things you noticed during the movie regarding structure, production, and pacing. Pay attention to transitions, how music is used, how long the scenes are, if there are repeated motifs throughout the story, and the ways in which characters interact. Being a careful and attentive audience member will make you a more thoughtful writer when it comes time to put fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper — I don’t know how you do it!).
2. READ THE SCREENPLAY
Use that Google machine and see if the screenplay is available for the movie or show you’re watching. You’ll be surprised at how many are out there, just waiting to be downloaded.
Once you’ve found it, go through the screenplay while watching. See if the screen time matches the standard one-page-equals-one-minute rule, notice when something in the screenplay differs from what you see, and absorb the way in which descriptions were then brought to life on screen through cinematography, music, production design, or visual effects.
3. NOTICE THE STRUCTURE
I don’t care what anyone else says. Every story has a structure. Even if it’s as simple as beginning, middle, and end, it’s there. Your job is to notice it.
In television shows, this is a bit easier. Where are the act (commercial) breaks? Is there a teaser, cold open, or tag? It’s a bit tougher with movies, but not impossible. Some filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino, most notably) like to put chapters in their movies as though it’s a novel. But if there aren’t title cards to signal the movie’s structure, look for other key elements — voiceover, prolonged fade-outs, and establishing shots all point to structure. When in doubt, think about the story in terms of three-act structure.
4. BREAK DOWN EACH SCENE
Another way to look at structure on a micro-level is to study each scene individually. As a reminder, a scene is a division of an act that presents continuous action in one place. A good rule of thumb is any time the setting changes, it’s a new scene.
Each scene has a beginning, middle, and end in and of itself. Mark how each scene starts, what happens, and how it ends, as well as which characters are present, how they interact, and what kind of change occurs in the scene (for example: information revealed, character’s state of mind shifts, etc.).
5. TRACK THE CHARACTER ARCS
For a study in character, sit down and watch with the main characters in mind. First, decide which characters to track. To keep things easy, start with the most prominent three to four (for example: protagonist, antagonist, love interest, sidekick).
Make columns for each and get ready to write. Jot down the character’s frame of mind, note when something significant happens to them, and pay attention to how information is revealed about their personality. At the end of your viewing, you should be able to track the character arc pretty smoothly.
6. PLOT THE PLOT
Character aside, what happens in a movie is super important. While you’re watching, keep a running list of what happens — bullets, numbers, and shorthand is fine, in fact, it’s encouraged! Then take a look at your list and make notes about your notes. Was the plot mostly internal or external? Did things happen to the characters, or did the characters make things happen? Was your story rags to riches, or riches to rags?
An alternative is to track each storyline while you’re watching. After you hit play, identify each storyline when it is introduced, and track what happens in that storyline. Notice especially when the storylines are connected to one another, and how much screen time is devoted to each.
7. ACTION VS. DIALOGUE
Screenplays are made up of two basic elements — action and dialogue. While there’s a bit more to filmmaking than that, it is helpful to notice how those two elements appear in the final cut.
When watching a movie or episode of TV, keep an eye out for what is happening and what is said in any given scene. How do the two elements contrast? Is there subtext? Does the action add meaning to the dialogue or vice versa?
8. PAY ATTENTION TO THE AUDIENCE
Finally, as an exercise, head to the theater and see a movie that you’ve already seen. This is key — it has to be something you’ve seen, and therefore know the story.
You can watch the movie, of course, but the exercise here is in watching your fellow audience members. When do they laugh? When do they gasp? When do they grow restless in their seats (indicates boredom)? When do they cheer? How do they react when the movie ends (stunned silence, applause, chattering)? By paying attention to how fellow audience members react to what they’re seeing, you can deduce important notes about how well the storytelling itself is working.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.