Character and Theme-focused Screenplay Analysis


Because there can be varying definitions of terms in screenwriting circles, these are some short explanations of the terms I use, many of which are discussed more thoroughly in the links provided.

Act: A sequence of scenes in a screenplay that comprises either the beginning, the middle or the end.

Backstory: Everything that took place or happened to the characters before the opening scene of the movie.

Cause and Effect: The events of the present scene must occur as a result of what happened in the immediately preceding scene. In turn, the present scene makes the events of the following scene imperative. Serves to build dramatic momentum by interrelating the events in such a way that the story is continuously pushed forward. (For more on this, go here.)

Character: The infusion of individual human nature into the story. Elucidates the main character’s relationship with him or herself (also known as “the inner journey”).

Character Driven: A screenplay story that is motivated as much or more by a main character’s innerconflicts and problems as it is by external action.

Character Transformation: The main character goes from A to B in psychological or emotional terms to arrive at an increased awareness or external accomplishment. Also called Character Arc. (For more on this, go here.)

Climax: The most high-pitched, exciting and/or emotional moment of the screenplay, very near the end. (For more on how the Climax functions in a plot-based story, go here. For how it functions in a character based story, go here. )

Exposition: Dialogue that provides background information needed to inform the current circumstances. Best if done in such a way that the audience is not aware they are being informed. One of the most effective methods for bringing out exposition is through an argument. In all cases, the rule with exposition is “Less is more.”

Flashback: A scene or sequence that reveals an important event from the past in a character’s life pertinent to their current situation. When used well, it helps further the story or characters. When used badly, it spells things out too much. In any case, flashbacks should not be overused, unless being done from a stylistic choice to tell a non-linear story.

Inciting Incident: Another term for the Point of Attack. (For more on this, go here.)

Main Character: The character whose story the film is telling by establishing him or her as the sympathetic character at the beginning and having them undergo a triumph or transformation at the end.

Midpoint: A scene or event halfway through the story that prompts a significant change in direction. In a plot-driven story, it is usually a first attempt to solve the problem, which either partially succeeds or completely fails, thus, creating a setback, reversal or turning point. In a character-based story, it is a nearly cataclysmic external event that creates an internal shift in the main character. (For more on how the Midpoint functions in a plot-based story, go here. For how it functions in a character based story, go here. )

Parallel Action: Cutting back and forth between two scenes or sequences that are going on simultaneously. Most often, parallel action is used to build tension. The burglar is breaking into the house as the family is on their way home.

Plant and Payoff: A prop or piece of information established early in the story that will play a key role later on.

Plot: The external action of the story. Where the main character plays out his or her relationship with an external other (classically referred to as the “antagonist”).

Plot Driven: A story that relies on external action more than the internal conflict of the main character.

Point of Attack: The first moment that something happens. The event that begins the story we have been brought in to see. Also called the Inciting Incident. (For more on how the Point of Attack functions in a plot-based story, go here. For how it functions in a character based story, go here).

Resolution: The end of the story when external and/or internal conflicts have been resolved and we are given a glimpse of how life will proceed as a result. (For more on how the Resolution functions in a plot-based story, go here. For how it functions in a character based story, go here).

Reversal: A major setback in the fortunes of the main character or the direction of the story.

Reverse: The audience is led to expect one outcome and the opposite happens.

Scene (1): A story event that takes place in continuous time and continuous location.

Scene (2): A dramatic unit of action that fulfills a purpose and resolution, regardless of time and location. A scene of two people arguing about which movie they are going to see (purpose) starts in the bedroom, moves into the living room, jumps time and location to the car as they drive to the theater and then jumps again to them parking and finally to them in the ticket line making a decision and buying their tickets (resolution).

Secondary Characters: Characters who aren’t the main character but are critical to the story’s dramatic progression. They do not simply exist to serve the main character. They are their own individual with their own agenda.

Set-up: The first few scenes of the screenplay establishing the various elements that will later come into play. (For more on how the Set-up functions in a plot-based story, go here. For how it functions in a character based story, go here).

Story: The most fundamental requirement for a narrative account to constitute a Story is that there be a progression within it from A to B. In other words, it is the potential for a story to take us truly somewhere different from where we started that distinguishes it from just a chronicle of events. That different place can be the triumph over an enemy, the solving of a mystery, the inner transformation of a main character, or a greater understanding about the nature of things. In the case of tragedy, it can be the demise of the main character or the devolution of society. We just need to know we have progressed somewhere, learned or accomplished something or that a change has occurred. (For more on this, go to The Three Dimensions of Story.)

Structure: A strategic sequence of events that communicates the intended story with maximum dramatic effect.

Sympathetic Character: A method by which the viewer is invited into the story through attachment to a main character. This attachment is created by a moment early in the story when the main character is shown to be at some kind of power disadvantage. They are humiliated, neglected, betrayed, abandoned, persecuted or even just having a bad day. This underdog moment serves to get the viewer on board with the main character in order that their investment in the story is sustained through all the character’s test and trials. (For more on this, go here.)

Theme: The larger meaning of the story that comments on human experience or the state of the world and unifies the structure of the screenplay. (For more on this, go here, here and here.)