Bang2writers have been asking me how to analyse a story to help their writing. It’s something I recommend, because it gets us into the analytical frame of mind. This in turn helps us think about our own stories and what they need. You can read all my #B2WReviews here.
But how do we get into this mindset? It’s worth remembering that emotion and anticipation go together. This means, the more you know (or thinkyou know), the more likely you are to be disappointed by a story. It’s just the way it goes.
Disappointment can breed negativity and that’s rarely productive for our writing. Analysing a story is neither about emotion or anticipation. Here’s the dictionary definition:
Analyse (verb): to study or examine something in detail, in order to discover more about it.
There are some obvious key words there, in bold. Analysing a story is to look at all its parts and make a decision on how successful it is, based on the evidence available to us. Let’s go!
1) Empty Your Mind Of Preconceptions
If you want to analyse a movie, book or TV series effectively, avoid doing lots of research about it beforehand. Try not to watch trailers, or get into lengthy threads about it in advance. Empty your mind of preconceptions. Show up solely for the story and characters.
Obviously in the age of social media this will be more difficult for some stories than others. But don’t forget you can ‘mute’ key words and users. I do this all the time. I must have had about 100 social media accounts and sites muted in the months running up to Avengers Endgame being released!
2) Engage With It Alone The First Time
Lots of writers watch or read stories ‘for work’, then don’t actually do any work.! They let the story wash over them while they’re on the phones, talking, eating etc. They don’t give the story their undivided attention. OI, WRITERS, NO!
But we need to concentrate if we want to analyse. It helps then if you engage alone, at least until you get into the swing of analysing stories. If you really must go to the cinema or stream something with a friend or partner, make sure they know you’re working.
By the way, on social media watch parties, tweet-alongs and book debate threads are a thing. These are fun and the discussion they create can be really useful … IF you have watched/read the story before. Try not to do them the FIRST time, though.
3) Watch/Read In One Sitting
If you’re watching a movie or TV episode, this is obvious. Try and stay ‘in the moment’. That doesn’t mean peeing your pants if you’re desperate, but try not to leave the cinema or pause your Netflix.
The same goes for reading screenplays. Books are more of a challenge. Most need between four and six hours’ reading time, sometimes even more. If you can dedicate that amount of time, great. Do it. If you can’t, that’s obviously okay, but do try and keep your reading bursts close together so you can stay as connected to the story as possible.
4) Make Notes
I don’t mean write in-depth observations, just reminders. Stuff like:
- Character names and role functions
- Interesting and impactful scenes or moments
- Genre or plotting conventions or twists you notice
- Snippets of dialogue
- When you feel bored
Whatever you like. The key is not to get carried away, just write ‘notes to self’ for later.
5) Initial Thoughts
With the story still fresh in your mind, take another look at your ‘notes to self’ from watching. Now is the time to write down any strong emotions you feel about the story, positive or negative. I like to do this straight after finishing the movie, TV episode, script or book. Some people like to wait an hour or two. Try not to leave it any longer than this though, so it doesn’t affect the next step.
6) Revisit Those Initial Thoughts
Any strong emotions you felt about the story have probably dissipated by now. You may have changed your mind completely, or you still like or dislike it. You may discover you feel neutral. Ask yourself WHY your feelings may have changed, or stayed the same. Anything that occurs, along with anything else that may seem relevant now.
7) NOW Do Research
Now is the time to do some research on the story you’ve just watched or read. You may want to consider things like …
- Craft. How does it bring concept, character and plotting together? Is it ‘good writing’? If so/if not, how do you know? What evidence can you provide? Maybe it is ‘bad writing’, yet it is still dramatically compelling or interesting. Maybe it breaks those supposed writing rules, but in a good way. Or maybe it appeals to some kind of universal ‘thing’ people can’t resist. What is it?
- Who is this for? Perhaps you have watched or read something that is not ‘for’ you. But just because you did not enjoy it, does not mean it has zero value. So consider who it is for, instead. Why would the people in that target audience enjoy it?
- Thematics & voice. What is the message, theme or point behind this story, do you think? Why o you feel this way? Is the writer well-known for a particular type of story, style or message and if so, why?
- Production /Writing. Were there any problems in the production or audience reception of this story? If you liked it and others hated it (or vice versa), what were their reasons? Are these reasons backed up with emotion, or analysis? Were there any big changes or constraints that meant writers and filmmakers had to go another way from what they first intended?
8) Make Your Conclusion
Those who have taken B2W’s Breaking Into Script Reading course will know I believe there are two essential questions in script reading. These are ‘What’s working?’ and ‘What needs further development?’ I think this is a useful way of thinking about produced and published content, too.
With the above in mind then, I ask myself:
- Do we know what this story is supposed to do?
- Is it successful at what it’s supposed to do?
- Why / why not?
I then utilise my ‘notes to self’ and initial thoughts and research to make my conclusion.
To Analyse = Evidence over Emotion
Obviously I am not saying you can’t get emotional about storytelling. As writers, we love movies, TV and books. It would be nonsensical to say we have to leave our emotions at the door. They are the lifeblood of all good storytelling.
But good analysis is about reason, not emotion. If you want to analyse a story of any kind, you must resist the urge to get angry or squee all over the place. Instead, you must collect the evidence and make a conclusion based on these things. Only then can you analyse effectively.
Here’s some B2W movie analysis to help you get into the swing of it:
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