Home Scriptwriting and Pre-Production Software 6 Clever Tips to Help You Breakdown a Script

6 Clever Tips to Help You Breakdown a Script

by Celtx

You’re a writer looking to take the next steps to make your script as production-ready as possible. Or perhaps you’re a Producer preparing to turn a script you’ve received into a more tangible and quantifiable plan. Or better yet, maybe you’re a 1st AD who’s just joined a project and needs some tips about turning a 100-page screenplay into a comprehensive blueprint that the entire crew will use as their logistical roadmap.

No matter which category you fall into, it’s time for a full script breakdown! No matter your role on the project or the size, scope, or budget of your production, breaking down the script is an absolutely crucial part of the filmmaking process.

So, what exactly is a script breakdown?

Breaking down your script is the important process of tagging and organizing all of the “elements” of each and every scene to better understand and define all of the requirements needed to prep, schedule, and budget a full production. It’s essentially taking the amorphous, story-driven creativity of the script and turning it into a concrete production plan. 

On most traditional productions, an initial draft of a script breakdown is conducted by the Producer, who offers a high-level overview of the general timeline and budget for the project. Ultimately, however, the primary responsibility of creating the first comprehensive scene-by-scene breakdown and production shooting schedule falls onto the desk of the 1st Assistant Director (or 1st AD).

While the 1st AD’s script breakdown is the logistical nucleus, it’s the responsibility of every department head to conduct their own analysis of the script and create their own breakdowns. A Special Effects Supervisor, for example, will create a breakdown that outlines every major or minor “effect” that falls under their creative jurisdiction and identify any special equipment or labor required for shooting. Similarly, the Director of Photography (or DP) will breakdown the script to build a detailed shot list and pinpoint their own special equipment needs. 

What is a script breakdown blog_black and white film crew with lion

Now that you know what a script breakdown is, it’s time to learn about some of the top tips you need to know for performing the most thorough, thoughtful, and professional script breakdown possible.

Let’s dive in!

6 Tips to Help You Breakdown a Script
1. Read the Script Like It’s Your First Time
2. Identify Every Element Scene-by-Scene
3. Color Code
4. The Rule of Eighths
5. Look Out for Formatting Issues
6. Use Screenwriting Software

Tip #1 – Read the Script Like It’s Your First Time

If you’re your own writer/producer/director performing a script breakdown, this will come as second nature. For anyone else who may be boarding a project at a later stage and hasn’t already gained a deep understanding of the source materials, it’s of paramount importance to read through the script without your magnifying glass to understand the story from the perspective of a first-time reader or viewer.

Related Celtx Article: What Exactly Does an Executive Producer Do?

You may be rolling your eyes but stay with me! After all, you work in the arts, and perhaps the most fundamental and base element of every single thing we do is creating emotional connections. This applies to the emotions we strive to elicit from our audiences, but it’s just as important to foster those connections internally with the crew as well.

Whether it’s actually your first time or your tenth time reading the script, before completing a script breakdown, it’s essential to perform a top-to-bottom read through to develop an authentic appreciation for the story and to understand the emotional appeal for the viewer. Not only will this better familiarize you with the story you’re bringing to life, it will also help you better identify the myriad elements within the script that need to be highlighted and tagged.

The closer you are to the script, the better you’ll be at recognizing all of the pieces of its puzzle.

What is a script breakdown blog_hand on story index cards

Tip #2- Identify Every Element Scene-by-Scene

A script “element” is any person, object, effect, or process that requires preparation ahead of shooting. If this is a character, they need to be cast. If it’s a piece of makeup, it will need to be found and applied. If it’s the color of a particular curtain, that will need to purchased and dressed on the set.

It’s the nitty gritty process of taking ideas and turning them into actual tasks by highlighting, tallying, and tracking every part of the script page that needs to be brought to life on screen.

If this sounds very tedious…it is! But it’s also an essential and necessary phase of preproduction. Using script software like Celtx will automate a lot of this work for you, making life much easier for Producers and 1st ADs. If, however, you’re marking by hand, you’ll want to arm yourself with lots of different pens and highlighters and adhere to a strict color code or system to keep track.

What are all of the script elements you need to identify? Your project may include more of these elements, or maybe just a handful, but generally script elements include:

  • Cast/Characters
  • Extras
  • Props
  • Set Decoration
  • Wardrobe
  • Hair & Makeup
  • Vehicles
  • Stunts
  • Special Effects (SFX)
  • Visual Effects (VFX)
  • Animals
  • Sound
  • Music
  • Special Equipment

In practice, a script breakdown is essentially a collection of individual scene breakdowns. It’s important to number all of your scenes from beginning to end, and to start by breaking down the very first scene line-by-line and proceed from there.

Tip #3 – Color Code

The main objective of a breakdown is organizing all of a script’s requirements by type and department. The only way to reasonably keep track of the plethora of elements is by using a defined color coding system.

There’s an industry-standard color coding legend most professionals use — cast/characters are purple, stunts are red, costumes are orange, etc. Even if you use your own color coding system, make sure to have a defined legend, so that other departments’ script breakdowns can adhere to your same rules and the colors never get confused.

What is a script breakdown blog_color coding with highlighter close-up

With so many moving parts and intersecting departments, it’s important to protect this color coding system as you go scene by scene. Depending on your genre or project, it may be best to create your own categories with custom colors. A horror movie, for example, may need a separate category dedicated to prosthetics. A film that takes place on a farm will need a category and color dedicated to livestock.

Every production is different, so create a list of categories most relevant to your project. Just ensure that your color system is clear and protected!

If you’re conducting your breakdown by hand, you’ll want a wide variety of colored pens and highlighters as you read and identify elements. Alternatively, screenwriting software with breakdown capabilities, like Celtx, can help you more efficiently organize elements by simply dragging and dropping them into categories.

Tip #4 – The Rule of Eighths

Breaking down each and every one of your scenes into 1/8ths is an overtly old school Hollywood method still used industry-wide today. It’s our industry’s most reliable and commonly used metric to measure the amount of content, production time, and screen time for any given scene and, by extension, shoot day.

As the name suggests, this process involves literally dividing each page of your script into eights. On a normal piece of  8.5” x 11” paper, that usually amounts to about 1 inch for each eighth. Once that’s done, it provides a literal measurement of the length of each individual scene, where some will be as short as 1/8th and others multiple pages.

Soooo…what’s the point?

It’s the best determinant we have for calculating the screen time and shooting time of every single scene. Think of it as way of quantifying and measuring the length of each scene so that every department remains aligned on the extent of their involvement on any particular shoot day. This metric plays an overt role on every important piece of production documentation, from scene breakdowns, breakdown reports, Day Out Of Day (DOOD) Reports, Shot Lists, Shooting Schedules, and more.

What is a script breakdown blog_black woman uses notepad and computer

Like everything, these rules depend on your particular genre, but very broadly speaking, one page generally represents one minute of screen time, and most dramatic productions (dialogue-heavy films with little to no SFX, VFX, stunts, action, musical performances, etc.) can shoot around 4-5 page of their script per day.

Because productions are scheduled outside of chronological order and are most often dictated by location, the rule of eighths metric helps you easily calculate the amount of work in a given shoot day. Let’s say, for example, your film has 4 scenes that take place inside of a bank. Two of those scenes are really short, just 2/8ths of a page and 3/8ths of a page. The other two are much longer, standing at 2 and 6/8ths pages each. That means you’ll need at least two full shooting days and will want to organize your shooting order to balance those days out as evenly as possible.

Back in the day, the 1st AD would use a pen and ruler to actually measure each eighth of the script. Today, software like Celtx does all of this work for you.

Tip #5 – Look Out for Formatting Issues

Once you’ve completed your first full read-through of the script to breakdown all of its elements, it’s time to go back through and double-check for any formatting errors. These are very common – easily made screenwriting mistakes can unknowingly cause elements of the script to fall through the cracks or be mislabeled entirely.

This is particularly problematic when using scheduling software that relies on strict formatting rules to properly sort and organize all of your script elements.

These are some of the most common formatting errors you should look out for during your script breakdown:

  • SCENE LOCATIONS: make sure these are phrased consistently throughout your entire script. Labelling the same bedroom as “ANDREW’S BEDROOM” and “MASTER BEDROOM” will register it as two separate locations.
  • CHARACTER NAMES: similarly, consistency is key to ensure there is no confusion in the breakdown. Even if a character called “ANDREW” starts to be nicknamed “ANDY” in the context of your script, it’s important that the character name remains “ANDREW” so it’s registered as the same person
  • SCENE HEADERS: there is only interior (INT.) or exterior (EXT.) or day (D) and night (N). Your scenes may very well transition from inside to outside mid scene, or take place at dusk. Either way, it’s important to give these scenes black and white labels to organize them cleanly. Within your breakdown, you can further segment into INT./EXT. or specific times of day if need be.
  • SCENE NUMBERS: make sure these have been generated beforehand and cover every single scene in chronological order. If a scene isn’t numbered, it won’t be categorized or broken down by your script software.
What is a script breakdown blog_silhouette of guy with camera

Tip #6 – Use Screenwriting Software

Make life a lot easier on yourself and let tried-and-true script software do a huge portion of this work for you. 

There are dedicated scheduling softwares like Movie Magic used by industry professionals, but most common screenwriting software, including Celtx, have built-in functionalities for breaking down your script that can help you easily identify and sort elements as well as automate your scene numbering, 1/8th measuring, color coding, and more.

There’s definitely utility in doing a manual read-through of your script, perhaps reminding you of more prominent aspects you want or need to prioritize.

On the whole, however, script applications can do a majority of the tedious heavy-lifting for you.

Quick Note: If you already have a script written and ready to be broken down, you can easily import it into Celtx and get started (for free) today!

Conclusion

In essence, the process of breaking down a script is the left side of the production brain formalizing and defining all of the right side’s ideas so that you’re able to identify every single technical and creative requirement for every department. It’s an essential bridge between pre-production and production that allows a schedule to be set, a budget to be defined, and every department head to gain a clear understanding of their department-specific requirements.

It’s turning a laundry list of creative ideas into an achievable plan, and represents a pivotal step on the pathway towards production. 

Get excited: though much work may lie ahead, this is how you quite literally turn your storytelling dreams into a production-ready reality.


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