You did it! You actually wrote an entire script! Whether it’s a full-length feature film, a TV episode, a short story, or anything in between, completing any top-to-bottom screenplay for a complex visual medium like film or TV is a tremendous feat and you should be immensely proud.
Now it’s time to complete a full script breakdown.
A lot of writers put the proud “The End” stamp on the last page of their screenplay but aren’t quite sure how to proceed. Yes, you’ve assembled a master document of story and characters, but how are these transcribed in a way that can be realistically prepared and produced? Enter the script breakdown, the essential bridge between your pages full of words and a screen full of images.
This will automatically help format your script for you in an easy, modern and efficient manner.
The next organic step in the writing, production, or creative process is converting your proud screenplay into a production-ready blueprint that paves a logistical road for crew members to follow and execute. Think of it as a translation from “creative ideas” to “production to-do’s,” or as an adaptation from “detailed recipe” into a digestible “list of ingredients” that production managers can use to actually bring your script to life.
A script breakdown is the in-depth process of tagging, highlighting, and organizing each and every “element” of your script scene-by-scene to fully understand every requirement needed to prepare, budget, schedule, and ultimately film your entire screenplay. It’s a conversion from story-driven creative document into a concrete, accessible production plan that every member of a production crew can interpret.
Keep in mind: in the upper echelons of Hollywood, this job is rarely done by the screenwriter themselves. More often this is the responsibility of either 1) the producer, who in an effort to get your script financed and supported, needs to create a tangible and high-level plan for department heads and network/studio executives to understand, or 2) a 1st Assistant Director (or 1st AD) responsible for understanding how to actually shoot your script and delegating that shooting plan to the rest of the crew members.
So, what actually goes into a script breakdown and what do you need to know to take the next steps towards turning your storytelling passion into a production-ready action plan? Everything you need to know about script breakdowns is detailed below in our ultimate tell-all guide. Dive in!
Read (and Understand) The Script As an Audience Member
Whether you’re a screenwriter more familiar with your story than anyone else or a producer/production manager/1st AD reading the script for the first time, an integral part of the script breakdown process is performing a full, objective read-through of the script to appreciate its creative appeal as an audience member.
“But I wrote this script and I know every single word within it like the back of my hand,” says the defensive screenwriter, but that’s beside the point. Regardless of your familiarity with the source material, thoughtfully performing a script breakdown requires an objective appreciation for what makes the script appealing and how it should be represented on screen in order to make those all-important emotional connections.
After all, that’s what this visual medium is — a language of light and images designed to elicit emotion reactions, whether that’s anger, fear, laughter, heartbreak, suspense, or any combination in between. This doesn’t just apply to your potential audience members; it’s just as important that you create these connections with your crew members as well.
If they don’t understand your story’s creative value or see the bigger picture of how it can impact its viewers or convey a meaningful message, you’re stuck in a kitchen with uninspired cooks.
More to the point: read the script from an outsider’s perspective to better appreciate its end goal. Once you understand its emotional value with a fresh set of eyes, you understand the destination that you and your crew are ultimately striving for.
Only then can you begin to thoughtfully dissect your recipe and plan out your production’s ingredients to meet that creative objective.
Know Your Script Elements
The all-important ingredients. Script elements are the foundational building blocks of not only your script but of the entire production that your script informs. If you’re a chemist, script elements are your periodic table of creative possibilities, tangible items that can be labeled and quantified to help everyone better understand what is involved in order to bring your script to life.
A script element is any person, object, effect, or process that needs to be thoughtfully prepared before filming takes place. That means everything from characters to clothes to decoration to makeup and far far beyond.
The most obvious example is a person or character in your script who would need to be identified, rehearsed, and ultimately cast. Perhaps less obvious would be something like the sound of a car crash, an audio effect that would likely need to be created in post-production.
Both are examples of script elements, and regardless of whether the work needs to be done in pre-production, production, or post-production, if they require thought and preparation, they are “elements” that need to be identified in advance to ensure they’re integrated into the final product.
As you may have guessed, this involves a long list of ingredients that cover everything seen or heard throughout your production. Below is a list of some of the most common and essential elements of any script breakdown you’re performing:
- Set Decoration
- Hair & Makeup
- Special Effects (SFX)
- Visual Effects (VFX)
- Special Equipment
You may only use a handful of these elements, or perhaps your list is even longer! It all depends on the story and medium, but no matter what story you’ve written, your script breakdown will include at least a few of the elements above.
Script Breakdowns Start With Scene Breakdowns
Even though you now understand the biggest and most crucial component of script breakdowns, you can’t tackle your entire script all at once. There’s a careful methodology that governs how to proceed with a script breakdown, because if you dive right into the thick of things without a roadmap, it’s pretty easy to get lost . . . or more accurately, overwhelmed.
The name of the script breakdown game is “baby steps,” and that begins with numbering each and every scene within your script one by one. What defines a scene? Great question and easy answer: it’s anywhere in your script with a new scene heading.
While scene headings contain a good deal of information, including the geographical location of that scene and whether or not it’s indoors or outdoors, what it ultimately signifies is a different setup that crew members will ultimately have to plan and create. Within a script breakdown, this provides a macro view of just how much work your script involves.
An average feature film, for example, traditionally features at least 150 scenes, sometimes upwards of 200 or even more. Conversely, a self-contained short film may only contain a handful of scenes. This is the first metric you and your production personnel will use to gain a simplified but rough understanding of just how much work your script requires.
To move forward, simply number all of your scenes, aka scene headings, in chronological order. Your last scene, let’s say it’s scene 191, also serves as the total number of scenes that need to be “broken down” in order to create a comprehensive script breakdown.
Once you know how many scenes you’re dealing with, you can begin the admittedly laborious but absolutely essential process of completing individual scene breakdowns one-by-one and line-by-line. This effectively constitutes your entire script breakdown.
The Rule of Eighths
There’s one more essential component of script breakdown preparation that needs to be done before you start actually identifying and categorizing your script elements. It’s called the “rule of eighths,” and like many modern industry practices, this is a super old-school method whose history is as long as filmmaking itself.
“Eighths” are the industry-wide metric used to measure the amount of content and screen time that each scene occupies. In other words, it’s the closest thing we have to quantifying how long each scene requires to film as well as how much screen time the scene will occupy within the final product. This calculation is the bedrock of essential production documentation that keeps the entire crew informed and aligned before, during, and after filming, from Shot Lists, Shooting Schedules, Breakdown Reports, and more.
As with all things related to screenwriting, this time estimation varies greatly depending on the genre or content of a scene. To use an extreme example, a half-page scene with a huge shootout and explosions is going to take significantly more production time (and likely screen time) than a half-page scene involving two characters speaking in a room.
Scripts are almost never shot chronologically and are much more efficiently scheduled based on location, so the rule of eighths helps department heads and crew members understand the amount of work within any given work day. Very generally speaking, one page of your script translates to one minute of screen time, and most dramatic productions shoot around 4-5 pages of script per day, depending on the content.
Back before computer software like Celtx automated this process, producers and 1st ADs had to literally divide each page of a script by hand on 8.5” x 11” paper using a ruler and a pen. This provides a literal measurement of each scene, with some being as short as 1/8 of a page and others being multiple pages.
With this measurement, you’ve completed your breakdown preparation and can actually begin the script breakdown process. Now knowing the number of scenes within your script and the length of each scene in filmmaking terms, it’s time to dig even deeper and start your script breakdown in earnest.
Identifying and Categorizing Your Script Breakdown Elements
Let’s get back to the task at hand: creating your list of essential production-ready ingredients. Remember, the main objective of a script breakdown is to translate your script into actionable tasks and requirements so that producers, production managers, and department heads can have all of their respective ducks in a row in advance of any given shoot day.
This requires immense coordination, and the best way to ensure organizational success and track all of your various script elements is by using a defined color coding system. In other words, using a unique color to identify elements within each category outlined above (ex. characters, costumes, stunts, etc.).
An industry-standard color coding system already exists, and like most of the practices discussed so far, has been used for as long as movies have been made. Whether you rely on this existing color coding legend or use your own, the most important part is maintaining consistency with your labeling and ensuring you have a defined color legend that is strictly adhered to.
This eliminates any confusion as you identify and categorize script elements and guarantees cohesion as other department heads create their own script breakdowns and adhere to the same system.
Not to be a broken record, but again, this varies greatly depending on your genre, and it may be in your best interest to create unique categories with custom colors. An action-heavy film might have its own category and color for “Guns/Weapons” outside the bounds of a normal “Props” category.
Or a horror film might need a a category and color dedicated to “Prosthetics.” A drama film set in a zoo will need its own category and color for “Animals.”
Use your judgement and don’t be afraid to break from tradition to make your script as easy as possible to categorize. This is also where that all-important first read-through comes in handy, so that you’re aware of these unique categories before actually beginning the process of performing a script breakdown.
The most important theme here is consistency. Use as many categories and colors as you want (within reason) and as best suits your story. So long as you’re consistent in your color coding and your crew is unified under the same color cording system, you’ll be right as rain . . . which would fall into the “Effects” category 😉
If you’re conducting your script breakdown by hand, make sure you have an arsenal of colored pens or highlighters at your disposal as your read, identify, and highlight various script elements. If you’re opting for a screenwriting software with script breakdown capabilities like Celtx, you’re able to easily drag and drop elements into pre-defined categories even more efficiently.
Beware of Formatting Issues (Especially When Using Automated Software!)
Completing a script breakdown by hand is a labor intensive process no matter which way you cut it. Fortunately, there are a bevy of screenwriting softwares that automate and streamline this exhaustive but necessary process for you, including yours truly Celtx.
In both cases, whether you’re using software or a good old-fashioned set of colored highlighters, there’s one major breakdown boogieman that can throw a big wrench into your plans: formatting errors.
After your first full read-through and before embarking on your full script breakdown quest, it’s imperative that you double check for any formatting errors.
These are super common and easily made screenwriting mistakes that can have a domino effect on your scene numbering, script element count, and more by causing elements to be mislabeled or slip through the cracks. What might be a small oversight during this phase could turn into a major gaffe on the actual shooting day, which is why the utmost diligence and thoroughness is necessary.
This is arguably even more important when using screenwriting software reliant on strict adherence to formatting norms to accurately count, sort, and categorize your script elements. If you’re exclusively reliant on software and not performing a breakdown with your own two eyeballs, you may be even more susceptible to these armor chinks.
Keep a keen eye out especially for some of these most common formatting errors before performing your script breakdown:
- CHARACTER NAMES: Sometimes characters adopt nicknames during your story and/or change identities altogether. Whatever the case, it’s important that the character name remains consistent within the script throughout its entirety. Otherwise, screenwriting software will register the different names as different characters, which can cause inaccurate counts and casting confusion.
- SCENE LOCATIONS: For the same exact reasons, scene locations need to remain consistent throughout your script as well. Repeat labelings like “BASEMENT,” “CELLAR,” or “ANDREW’S BASEMENT” will all be registered as separate locations, causing confusion and misrepresenting the accurate number of locations.
- SCENE NUMBERS: As we’ve discussed, it’s crucial to generate scene numbers for every single scene in chronological order before conducting your breakdown. If a scene isn’t numbered, it won’t be recognized as an independent setting and therefore won’t be audited or categorized by your software.
- SCENE HEADERS: As a general rule, use only interior (INT.) or exterior (EXT.) or day (D) and night (N) within your scene headers, even if the light transitions or characters move from inside to outside mid scene. Adhering to binary labels makes your initial breakdown much cleaner. Later, you can further segment into INT./EXT. or specific times of day.
A Script Breakdown is Everyone’s Responsibility
Whether you’re a novice writer keen to make your screenplay as production-ready as possible or a 1st AD responsible for creating an initial shooting schedule at the onset of pre-production, there’s an important theme to keep in mind: everyone is responsible for conducting their own script breakdowns and adhering to their rules and codes.
In practice, every single department head needs to conduct their own analysis of the script and create breakdowns for their own department. Yes, the producer or 1st AD will have provided a full script breakdown and general outline for the entire crew, but department leadership will need to provide their own dissection to ensure all of their elements were identified and can be prepared in advance. This will inform budget, timelines, priorities, and more.
A Costume Supervisor, for example, will need to identify every article of clothing within their creative jurisdiction so that the proper materials can be budgeted, purchased, and/or fitted ahead of time. A Stunt Supervisor will need to know every single physical effect and fight move ahead of time in order to cast, choreograph, and rehearse each and every punch.
This trickles down to every member of leadership on your crew, so while it may be you, your producer’s, or your 1st AD’s responsibility initially, it’s up to everyone to conduct their own script breakdown. Only then can each department be sufficiently prepared and held accountable for the elements they’re responsible for.
A script breakdown may not be the most exciting part of the screenwriting process, but it is a natural part of its evolution. While the fun may be contained to storyboarding ideas and throwing a bunch of creative spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, the only way to transcribe all of your ideas into an actionable plan is by performing a script breakdown.
This bridges the gap between creativity and practicality, and enables every other essential stage of the pre-production and production processes — defining the budget, creating a reasonable shooting schedule, hiring a sufficient number of crew members, and so much more. It also unifies every crew member under a clear understanding of department-specific requirements.
So get excited! Now that you know everything that a full script breakdown entails, you’re ready to take the next step towards turning your screenplay into a tangible reality.