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Critical Film Analysis: A How To Guide

I've often been caught sitting in my pj's in the middle of the day, eating a ball of port wine cheddar (sans crackers) while in the midst of a movie marathon. No, it doesn't look like I'm doing much, but I'm actually writing. How can that be, you ask? Well, every time I watch a film I am actively watching it, analyzing it, critiquing it, figuring out what works, what doesn't work, and how and why certain screenwriting and cinematic storytelling techniques should succeed or fail. As I do this in regards to what's on the screen, I am also actively thinking about how my work stands up to these questions. Usually there are holes in what I know about a project I'm working on, as most stories do not come to the writer fully fleshed out and in 100% perfect condition. It is the writer's job to sit and think about their stories! This should be common sense, but I often find new writers skipping over this fundamental part of the writing process. This might be because they don't yet know what questions they should be asking about their work. I suggest watching and analyzing tons of the great films that there are out there, and for every one of them, ask yourselves these questions. Once you get into the swing of analyzing and critiquing the work of others, you'll have the tools necessary to broach your writing projects with a finely tuned "kino" eye.

*Kino eye is a reference to Russian film making, meaning literally, the camera eye (kino = camera).

The Ins & Outs of Screenplay Analysis: The Right Questions to Ask

- What is the point of story acquisition? This is when you have your first sense of the story, i.e. we have enough information on setting, character and universe to understand what we believe this movie is “about.” Some call this the “hook” or “inciting incident.” It is the moment when all of the elements have first come together in a real story form, and reach a state of critical mass that jump starts the main drama. It usually happens in the first ten to twenty minutes/pages of a feature film/screenplay, and within the first minute of a ten minute/page short/screenplay. This is not formulaic: if an audience cannot grasp a sense of story within the first ten or twenty minutes, they’ll leave the theater and demand they’re money back. Just think how long you’d listen to someone telling a story with no apparent point. You wouldn’t sit still for long of that. Likewise, you can imagine the point of story acquisition as being the thesis statement of a film. It lets us know what we’re in for. So remember, the point of story acquisition is when you first engaged by the elements coming together as a graspable story that gets you hooked.

- What are the central conflicts the character(s) face throughout the film? The protagonist in particular? How are these conflicts related to the point of story acquisition? They should all be encompassed in that action/event.

- What are the ways the characters and their circumstances are articulated by the filmmakers?

- What are the main tensions? Tension is the question raised in the mind of the audience, the thing that keeps them in their seats waiting to learn the answer. In this way, every story has the element of suspense.

- What is the Major Dramatic Question (MDQ)?

- When is the first act turn? This is the point when Act I, the beginning, gives way, and we enter Act II, the middle? These are usually highlighted by a major “sign post” or “turning point,” a noticeable shit in the story. Usually part of the major dramatic question has been answered, and new questions arise out of that. This is akin to first paragraph in the body of an academic essay.

- When do you get a sense that the major tension is first answered? How is this related to tracking the characters’ wants & needs.

- What are the major questions/tensions raised at the midpoint of the movie that the film them pursues for the duration. Can you identify what those questions are? Where do you sense the shift from tracking the protagonist’s want to tracking his or her need? Remember, the want of the character is related to his or her goal or objective. It is something tangible that the character both aware of and is actively pursuing. The characters need is more of a psychological or subconscious state that they need to overcome in order to change or have an arc. All characters in the film should have a want and a need, though the one we’re most concerned with is the protagonist’s because these are the points that the story revolves around.

- How is the Act II tension resolved? How does that propel us into Act III?

- Can you identify the turning from Act II to Act III, the end; the point in the story where we jump into overdrive on our way to the climax and resolution?

- What are the Act III conflicts and tensions? Remember that conflict arises when a character’s need/wants/circumstances are unacceptable to the character, who then aims to change his or her situation. Tension is the question as to whether or not the character will be successful in this aim, and achieve his goal. Conflict is the collision of the character on a mission met with resistance, obstacles, and/or complications. Tension is the question of the outcome.

- Overall, where do you feel a distinct story structure, be it Acts or sequences? Sequences, as opposed to Acts are a series of scenes strung together in a what’s called a scene sequence. In features, they tend to consist of around 9-11 scenes, and around 10 minutes long (therefore you find roughly 9 -12 sequences in a film that’s 90-120 minutes long) that tell a solid chunk of the story. Usually in feature, they interweave the A Story, B Story, C Story and so on. This is terminology mostly used when discussing television writing, but is applicable to screenplays too. However, in film, we usually refer to these other stories within the large whole as subplots.

- What is the overall effect of the weaving together of the above dramatic elements in terms of the story, and audience understanding/enjoyment of the film?

- Identify elements of artistry and entertainment within and throughout the story.

Suggested Films to Watch:

ANY MOVIE EVER MADE.