Breaking down and analyzing scripts is one of the best things you can do to better understand how a script works.
There’s no right or wrong way to do it but here’s how I like to do it.
I write single-cam comedies and movies so my breakdowns are focused in those ares. However, the same principles are applicable to one-hour dramas and half-hour multicams.
Pick a show
Pick a show you love. You will already be familiar with it and it will be fun to pull apart and see how it works. Another route is to break down one of the classics in your respective genre.
Start with the pilot. It is the blueprint for the series. Great pilots set up everything that makes a successful show/series tick: the comedic engine/dynamic, POV, episode structure, etc.
If you can’t find the pilot, any episode can do in a pinch. But make sure its not a one-off, like a musical episode, bottle episode, or back-door pilot.
Get the script
You want to get your hands on the actual script. PDF or printed doc, it matters not, but you’ll have more luck finding the former.
And make sure it’s the actual script. Not a transcript or show synopsis or podcast recap. The actual written word.
A screenplay is a blueprint for another thing (TV show, movie, documentary). By breaking down and analyzing the script you are learning how the writer executed the idea in the actual form you are trying to master.
You’ll see the ratio of dialogue to action. The amount of white space. How characters are introduced. These are the rhythms of the page and they are crucial to see in prose.
There are a ton of resoursces for finding scripts online. For me, I use Google to find what I’m looking for. “SHOW Pilot pdf.”
But sometimes you won’t be able to find the actual script (hello Hunt for Wilderpeople). In that case, I watch the film or show and breakdown as I go. You want get the rhythms of hte page in the same way but its the next best thing.
I created a spreadsheet template for my breakdowns with six columns: scene, page length, location, synopsis, characters, analysis. I also do master headers for whatever act we’re in.
Scene counts vary depending on the show. Still it’s helpful to see how a show with a genre, tone, or vibe that you’re trying to emulate paces itself.
For a single cam half hour I shoot for my final draft to have fifteen to twenty scenes. For a thirty pages script that puts each scene at about two pages or less, ideal for comedy.
For shows that have big casts or use losts of cutaways (Archer, Arrested Development) the scene count can climb much higher. For features, the same general rule could apply but I find you have much more leeway.
Keeping an eye on your scene length helps with pacing, getting in and out of scenes quickly, and limiting the amount of characters per scene.
For single cam comedy two to three pages is a good target. Scenes with more characters are longer. And of course some scenes (top of acts especially) will be longer depending on the demands of story.
Ensemble detour advice: unless your show demands it, I would steer clear of big ensemble scenes for pilots. They are difficult to execute and can be tedious to write. Also, readers get lost easily when there are too many characters.
If you must have one, I would recommend emulating Modern Family, where each episode is mostly scenes with two or three people. The big ensemble scene for that pilot doesn’t come until the final act after the characters and their various dynamics have been well-established.
Knowing how many locations a show uses is helpful to stay in the world of the show (if you’re spec’ing) but also reveals how few locations you actually need.
Using a limited number of locations also shows show runners and producers you know how to write like a pro. I can’t tell you how many times production would tell us we needed to drop a location for budget reasons. TV and Film are businesses.
Similar to limiting characters, using only a few locations will help to keep things simple for those confused readers.
I write a brief recap of what happens in the scene, keeping it as sparse as possible. Its a good exercise for getting to the basics of what’s happening and how the story is moving forward.
If it’s an especiall dense show (like Veep) I’ll use bullets within the synopsis to keep things nice and clear.
I shoot to have bird’s eye view of how story is being delivered, how acts begin and are paid off at the breaks. How the B-story and C-story and runners slot in and intertwine. How characters keep creat fixing and solving new problems for themselves.
Veep is a great example of a dense show that feels like an impossible magic trick when you watch it. But by breaking it down to its elemental levels, you can see how the story threads all weave through and tie together.
I list all the characters to track the protagonist, when the B/C/runner stories are and how often they cross with the A, and what the typical character count per scene is. As mentioned above, two to three characters per scene is ideal.
Even a show like Veep follows this, bouncing between small groups and their respective stories that make you feel like you’re watching a much larger ensemble scene.
The last column is where I keep track of any thoughts I have while reading/watching: things I find interesting or inspiring, smart story/character moves, interesting structure, repetitive beats, anything.
I’ll also note emotion in this column: how does the character feel, how am I the audience supposed to feel, how should this scene?
It’s helpful for me to capture these in the moment and I don’t always have things for this column.
And that’s it! I go through the script or movie, noting all the above as I go. I pick shows I know well or that I think might be a good structural fit for the pilot I’m writing.
Also, breakdowns are very technical so I’m not in an emotional space while I do it. I do recommend doing an emotional pass, especially for dramas and dramedy, where you’re watching (and feeling) for the emotional cues.
It takes time but breaking down scripts in this way has been tremendously helpful for me. I’ve linked below to my template and a few breakdowns I’ve done for your enjoyment.
How do you like to breakdown scripts? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!