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Sample Analysis #1

The following is an actual analysis of a screenplay analyzed by Peter Melencamp.
Permission has been granted from the screenwriter to present this sample.
by Peter O'Rourke


This script really grew on me as I read through it. Because I was led to believe, at the start, that Michael would eventually kill Marc, the early part of the script had a slightly sinister feel to it (by the way, I don't think that's a good thing -- more on this later). It took time for that sinister feeling to fade... but when it did, the story became a unique, fragile, star-crossed lovers' love story. Good work! I do have some suggestions, though, that I think will improve the script, particularly the first part of it. I'll start with some general, overall comments, then I'll give some page-specific notes.

For the most part, your dialogue is good: it's generally natural, believable, and does a good job of expressing what the characters are thinking and feeling. But there's a subtle problem with many of your scenes, particularly early in the script. I could say that you have too much dialogue and not enough action, but that's not really correct. When I teach screenwriting, I tell my students that drama is a series of events: something happens, then something else happens, then something else happens, and so on. And what I mean by "an event" is this: something that changes the situation as regards the story that's being told. Some events can be quite small and/or subtle; the thing to consider is: has the story evolved in some way? Events can happen in a conversation (things can be discovered, revealed, expressed), and that's why some films can have a lot of conversation and not much action and still be dramatically gripping.

So, what I want to say about your screenplay isn't that it has "too much conversation" or that it "needs to be more visual", even though I could say both of those things and I wouldn't really be wrong. You've chosen to tell a story that is about inner human emotions, and that kind of story doesn't lend itself to a lot of visual storytelling; these stories usually do need to evolve through conversation, which reveals the inner dramatic arc in the characters. But your script sometimes feels like it has too much conversation and isn't visual enough, because at times the tempo of the dramatic events is too slow -- it's more like the tempo of events in real life.

So in general, I would suggest that you go through your script carefully and try to see the moments in which something happens that makes the story evolve, and see those as the story's dramatic events -- and then try, as much as possible, to pare away everything else in between those events down to the minimum necessary to get from one event to the next. ...Be careful, though: as I said, sometimes dramatic events can be small and subtle. The long, six-page scene from page 20 to 25 is entirely conversation, but it's loaded with events that continually evolve the story -- you don't need to cut that one!

Another thing you can do (and should do), in order to throw a bone to the readers who will have the knee-jerk reaction of "too much dialogue", is simply to break up long stretches of dialogue with bits of scene description describing some action, or behavior, or change of location. As a rule of thumb, try not to let more than two-thirds of a page pass without some sort of scene description. I realize this may seem like a silly requirement which has nothing to do with the quality of the story, but it will serve you well when you come up against one of "those" readers.

Another rule of thumb is not to let your scene description paragraphs run longer than three or four lines of text. There's actually a good reason for this: script readers and producers read quickly, and we're more likely to absorb all the information if it's broken up into chunks that our eyes can scan easily. Case in point: at the top of page 35, that long paragraph would scan more easily if you broke it into several shorter paragraphs. I would start a new paragraph at "He looks in the mirror", and again at "Seeing the smeared makeup". (And note, by the way, how the three resulting paragraphs are actually three of the small dramatic events that I mentioned earlier: each one evolves the story a little bit.)

Occasionally some of your dialogue is too on-the-nose. If you haven't heard that term before, here's an explanation: "on-the-nose" refers to dialogue which sounds somewhat unnatural for one of three reasons:

1) The dialogue is too exact -- the line expresses exactly what the character is thinking or feeling, when a real human being in a similar situation would hide his or her feelings, or avoid the issue, or keep a secret.

2) The dialogue seems unnatural because that character at that time would simply be unable to form such grammatically exact sentences to express him or herself.

3) The dialogue sounds unnatural because it's too expository: the character speaking would have no reason to give this information to the other character, because the other character would already know it (writers often try to get information across to the audience this way). I suggest you go through all of your dialogue and look for places where it's on-the-nose; I'll point out a few particularly clear examples below.

You have several montages in your script. Montages are out of fashion, and it's usually a bad idea to use them. Personally I don't care what's in or out of fashion, but in this case I happen to agree, because montages are usually just quick & dirty shortcuts to get from here to there -- and, moreover, they generally don't contain dramatic events, and thus they aren't needed. For example, your montage on page 4 adds nothing to the story: all it shows is that Marc runs. So you could cut the entire montage, and simply begin the next scene with Marc running along a pathway and passing Sebastian.

Those are my general comments. Now, on to the notes I took for specific pages or specific scenes:

Pages 1-4: Your first voice-over is fine, but the following conversation does go on rather too long. The problem is mostly what I explained above (about real-life conversation versus "things happening" economically), but with the added factor of this conversation simply being too long and repetitious. Some of it is also too on-the-nose; even though one might think that poetic-styled language would be exempt from the on-the-nose requirements, still these are human beings talking with each other, and an audience will only let you get away with so much. (Michael's first speech, which begins "Please don't cry..." is very on-the-nose; so is his speech that begins "How surreal...") Also, since this is the opening of the movie, it's even more important that it be condensed and powerful, a blast of emotion before the story starts -- a short prelude. And since it's a dream/fantasy scene, it's even more important that it be brief, because the audience will quickly become impatient to get to the "real" story -- they will know instinctively that the poetic language means that this is a prelude, not the meat of the plot. I would suggest cutting the conversation down to a maximum of two pages. Finally, I would suggest that you not have the dialogue state so clearly that Michael will kill Marc, because that sets up expectations which will confuse the audience -- those expectations had me assuming that Michael was a sinister figure, and that's how I saw him for much of the script. It's fine to hint at violence and death, but I think it will be more powerful -- and less confusing -- if you leave what actually will happen more veiled.

Page 10: Here's another good example of on-the-nose dialogue: Michael's line "I guess it's just because I don't understand it. Aren't we all a little afraid of things we don't understand?" This doesn't sound natural, because it's too grammatically correct, especially under the strained circumstances. It would be more natural if he said something like this: "I don't know... maybe I don't understand it."

Page 11: This montage does contain some necessary information (in other words, it contains dramatic events), but the montage itself is rather clumsy. What it gets across is that Marc is an outsider who feels put-upon by the other students, and that the other students do persecute him, and that someone has put graffiti on his locker. It would be better if you wrote a very brief scene to get those things across, rather than using a montage.

Page 25: Marc's long speech on this page is yet another good example of on-the-nose dialogue.

Page 35: The short scene with the slug line "BACK ALLEY - SHORT WHILE LATER" is an example of a chunk of the script which contains no event, and is unnecessary. We already know that Marc is unfamiliar with this part of town; you could cut this little scene and not lose anything necessary. And you'd make the pacing better as well.

Page 50: When Marc's mother comes home early and barges in on Marc and Michael in Marc's bedroom, it seems to me that there would be a huge explosion -- but you end the scene quickly, then cut to Marc a few minutes later behaving as if nothing much happened... he hardly even mentions it; his line "We just unraveled years of therapy" is flippant and makes it seem as though what happened is inconsequential. But I would think it would have major consequences! Maybe I'm missing something here, but I would suggest that you continue the bedroom scene for another few moments, showing how Marc's parents feel about the discovery, and showing how Marc feels about being discovered; then let that resonate in Marc's behavior and dialogue in the next scene or two.

Page 51: Another montage that doesn't add anything to the story, and could be cut.

Page 58: Marc's plan to have the taxi take them to Sebastian's house in order to confuse the authorities seems too cool-headed for him at this point in time. To me, it seems like the sort of plan that Michael would come up with. Ditto Marc's plan to run away to the ocean: the way you've established Marc's character, I would think he'd be too upset to think clearly; and the way you've established Michael's character, it seems like running to the ocean would be the sort of plan he would come up with.

Page 61: Marc's long speech on this page is another good example of on-the-nose dialogue.

(The following isn't a criticism, just a bit of musing...)
After Marc knifes Sebastian and he and Michael run for the ocean, it's almost as though the story changes gears -- it becomes a bit surreal, like a journey into "the wilderness" of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey paradigm. And the change in mood makes sense, in a way, because the two boys are suddenly so out of their normal element that it fits that they might be just a bit delusional. The people they encounter are quirky, but sufficiently believable; I've known several Buddhist monks, so Ryvre's odd behavior works for me.

Page 86: Marc's long speech on this page is yet another example of dialogue that's too on-the-nose.

Page 88: The slug line "DAYS LATER": is that intentional? This scene feels like it happens only an hour or two later... and I would suggest that that would be a better time line: it's usually not a good idea to jump far ahead in time so near the end of a movie, because doing so tends to diminishes the building intensity of the story.

Page 92: ...And by the same token, jumping from morning to evening on this page is not a good idea (and again, I suspect you didn't mean to).

Page 94: ...Once again, jumping "DAYS LATER" on this page isn't a good idea. If you were instead to make it "early the next morning", the dramatic intensity wouldn't be diminished -- and even though it's rather condensed, I could buy that within one day Michael could be arrested and sent to a group home.

Page 91: I don't quite understand why Michael leaves Marc; I think you need to make this a little more clear in the script (without being on-the-nose, of course!) What does Michael hope to accomplish by leaving Marc? A few pages later, Michael is suddenly ready to get back together with Marc when he learns that Sebastian is not dead... but I'm still confused: it now seems as though maybe Michael wanted to get away from Marc so that he wouldn't go to jail when Marc gets arrested for murder. I don't think you want the audience to jump to that conclusion!

Page 95: The montage here is a good one, primarily because of the voice-overs which are accosting Michael's mind. But I would suggest that you leave out the shot where he meets Marc's parents: such a meeting would open a whole can of worms that you don't want to have to deal with at this point in the story. I would also suggest that you not have Michael go all the way back to the city to look for Marc -- again, such a time jump diminishes the dramatic energy, right in the middle of your climax. If you keep it all happening in the same day, the power of Michael's anguish will be stronger. And on the next page, instead of Michael seeing a bunch of flowers and a cross marking the place where Marc died, it would be much stronger dramatically if he were to find Marc's body. In order to get the religious connection, perhaps Marc could be wearing the Buddhist monk's robe -- which you could specify as looking not unlike a Christian monk's robe. And perhaps Marc could be clutching the knife he used to kill himself -- which you could specify as being a large one, shaped like a crucifix.

Page 96: Starting with Michael's "I... I... was scared and I ran" through to the end of the script, I strongly suggest that you pare Michael's speech, and his conversation with Marc, all the way down to the barest essentials. Less is definitely more in these circumstances. Also, much of the speech and the conversation is on-the-nose, and it will jar the audience out of the fine emotional catharsis you've set up for them.

Again, I liked this screenplay more and more as I moved through it. But it's well-known that most producers and readers make up their minds about a script in the first ten or twenty pages, so I think if you can improve the early sections, the entire script will be much more appealing. Let me know if you have any questions about my notes.