As exemplified by aspiring actor Mia’s multiple messy attempts in Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” reading a script in preparation for an audition can be overwhelming. Though it will never be easy, learning how to read a screenplay properly can make things a little easier. To prepare for an audition, you need an open mind, an analytical eye, perseverance, and extensive practice. Here are the tips and techniques you’ll need to read a script and bring your best on audition day.
Before you read a movie script, it helps to understand how they’re formatted.
- Scene heading/slug line: This section indicates where and when a scene takes place, formatted to indicate interior or exterior, the specific location, and the time of day. For example: “EXT. PARKING LOT—NIGHT.”
- Action lines: Beneath the scene heading, you’ll find action lines, which describe what happens nonverbally in a scene.
- Character: Characters are almost always introduced in capital letters, followed by a brief description. For example: “Enter JOHN DOE (40s), bearded and disheveled.”
- Dialogue: Centered beneath a character’s name, dialogue consists of the lines spoken out loud in any given scene.
- Parentheticals: Right below a character’s name in a dialogue block, parentheticals indicate any extra context or directions for line delivery, such as “(sarcastic)” or “(confused).” Parentheticals can also denote the location of a character’s dialogue, such as “(VO)” for voiceover or “(OS)” for offscreen.
- Transition: These notes specify how one scene moves to the next. Popular examples include: “CUT TO,” “DISSOLVE TO,” and “FADE IN/OUT.”
“Promising Young Woman” Courtesy Focus Features
A script has arcs, acts, scenes, and beats. Together, these create the complexity of a filmic narrative. The definitions of these elements, along with correlating examples (and inevitable spoilers) from Emerald Fennell’s film “Promising Young Woman,” are:
Character arcs track how a character changes throughout the course of a film. It’s necessary to understand the internal transformation of a character to create an emotional experience that audiences can connect with.
- Example: In “Promising Young Woman,” Cassie moves from wanting revenge for the rape and death of her best friend to hoping for a life outside of her revenge fantasy—including a romance. However, when she discovers her new love interest was present at the time of her friend’s assault, Cassie is willing to give up everything—even her life—in order to punish her friend’s assailant and those complicit. This arc gives the audience a glimmer of hope that Cassie can find happiness—before dealing the devastating, emotionally compelling blow of her death.
Generally, most scripts follow a three-act structure: Act 1 to set up the story, setting, and characters; Act 2 to follow those characters through the conflict of the story; and Act 3 to resolve the story and conclude the main character’s arc. Gaining familiarity with acts in a script means gaining a strong understanding of plot and structure.
- Example: In Act 1 of “Promising Young Woman,” Cassie is traumatized and filled with grief years after the death of her friend Nina, who died by suicide after being raped at a party. She pretends to be drunk, lets men take her home, and then reveals that she is sober once they try to take advantage of her. Act 2 begins when Cassie meets with Nina’s mother and decides to abandon her revenge plans. She begins a romance with Ryan, a former classmate. In Act 3, Cassie discovers that Ryan was a bystander during Nina’s rape and goes all-in with her revenge plan—ultimately leading to her death, as well as vengeance against the men who wronged her and Nina. If someone only read the second act of “PYW” without reading the first and third, they might erroneously believe it to be a romantic comedy.
Scenes are the basic units of a script that take place during a specific place and time. It’s helpful to think of scenes as interlinked but disparate segments.
- Example: In the film’s most divisive scene, Cassie is alone in a room with Al, the man who raped her friend, during his bachelor party. She has handcuffed him to the bed before he realizes her true identity. Cassie has a scalpel in her hand, ready to carve Nina’s name into his skin. However, Al manages to overpower her and smothers her to death. In the scene prior, Cassie, dressed as a stripper in a nurse’s uniform, performs for the partygoers. And in the scene after it, Al and his friend Joe try to cover up the murder. Although each scene is distinct, their connection creates a narrative about sexual objectification, risk, and disposability.
Story beats help structure a narrative by noting intentional shifts in tone within a scene. Knowing how to identify story beats as an actor helps to modulate your performance to fit a scene’s various twists and turns.
- Example: In that same scene, one beat happens when Al realizes who Cassie is and what she represents; another happens when she pulls out the scalpel; and another happens when Al begins to overpower her. These purposeful tonal shifts create immense tension within the scene.
Although it is possible to read a script without breaking it down into its basic elements, having the vocabulary means having a more comprehensive understanding of how—and why—a script works.
“Sorry to Bother You” Courtesy Annapurna Pictures
A solid grasp of script analysis is also imperative when figuring out how to read a screenplay. These techniques will help you engage with and examine the text.
1. Make yourself a blank slate
Try to do away with any preconceived notions you might have about the genre, production, writer, and the script itself. These biases might impact your reading of a screenplay that ends up being vastly different than what you anticipated—for example, Boots Riley’s film “Sorry to Bother You” begins as a workplace dramedy, but it takes an unexpected turn, ending in horse-human-mutant surrealism. Of course, we can never break completely free of our expectations; but keeping an open mind means giving yourself the opportunity to get lost in the story.
2. Read through the entire script
This allows you to understand your character’s motivations and arc, as well as the narrative’s themes, messages, and tone. This in turn will allow you to act the part with greater truth and depth. During the initial read, you should:
- Make notes: Keep a piece of paper nearby to jot down any initial observations. You only get one first impression.
- Track the narrative: Follow along with character development and storylines. It can be helpful to create a visual map tracking the script as you read it.
- Interrogate the script: If any parts confuse or intrigue you, make a note. According to character acting legend Stephen Tobolowsky, it’s the performer’s job to infuse anything in a script that isn’t fully fleshed out with “something—hopefully something truthful.”
3. Break down the script
Once you’ve finished your initial read (and taken a break), reread the script and break it down scene by scene.
- Consider arcs: Does your character change from unassuming to heroic, like Frodo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings” films? From an empathetic protagonist to a monster, like Walter White in “Breaking Bad”? Or is their character arc more nuanced, like Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice,” whose evolution involves an internal shift in perspective? Understanding character arcs means delivering a more convincing performance.
- Identify the acts: Knowing when a script’s acts begin and end means understanding its foundation, world, stakes, and emotional throughline.
- Master the scenes: It can be helpful to make a list of all the script’s scenes to understand its structure, patterns, and themes.
- Note the beats: Think about the changes that take place in a scene, and make a note of the moment when it happens. This could be when a character enters or exits a scene, a situation shifts, or a character changes their actions.
4. Read your lines
Now that you’ve read through the script several times and have a solid grasp on its story and structure, it’s time to start studying your lines. Keep the entirety of the script in mind as you make decisions about your delivery. For example, does it make sense for your character to be sad over the end of their relationship, or are they secretly pleased about it? How much and what type of emotion should be injected into different scenes? Read your lines out loud to see how they feel.
5. Record yourself
To get the best idea of your delivery and any changes you should make, film yourself performing your lines. Watch the recording, take notes, and adjust accordingly. It can also be helpful to ask friends to provide feedback.
6. Read with others
If possible, do a table read with friends. Hearing the script out loud brings it to life in a more complex way than simply reading it does. See if your acting decisions fit well with the story as a cohesive whole, or if there are parts you should revise before your audition.
7. Analyze, but be ready to change things on the fly
When it comes time to perform, the more prepared you are, the better. Even if your interpretation of your character is slightly different than the writer or producer intended, they’ll be impressed that you put in your full effort. Be ready to “improvise, adjust to a director’s notes, and have a good time,” Tobolowsky advises. Remain open to feedback, and heed any requests for changes. If your initial analysis is off, that’s OK; your attempts to get into your character’s head and a comprehensive understanding of the script means you should be able to make adjustments as needed without causing major complications.