Have you ever left the movie theater brimming with emotion but not quite sure how to describe or assess what you’d just seen and experienced?Often, we intuitively know whether a movie was “good” or not, but many of us aren’t sure how to glean deeper insights or evaluate the quality and merits of a film.1
I have a great appreciation for films (especially ones made outside the USA), and for years I have taught both individual movies and general tips on how to “read” a film for that deeper meaning. While this article doesn’t tell you everything, I hope the 10-step process below will forever enhance the way you see and understand film.
First, a caveat: these 10 steps aren’t necessarily sequential; in other words, you may perform one or more steps out of sequence or even simultaneously. Each is essential to grasping the story and message of the film.
Step 1: Determine the Genre
If possible, try to find out a film’s genre prior to watching it. There are about 25 major genres today, plus a variety of subgenres. Some genres include:
Western, education, comedy (many kinds, such as screwball, romantic, parody, satire, farce, and black comedy), sports, musical, horror, drama, science fiction, action/adventure, mockumentary, redemption, historical drama, love story, crime
Each genre has its own specific conventions in terms of setting, roles, events, and values (although these are not carved in stone). These have an impact on how you evaluate the film. For love stories, for example, the basic question to always ask is, “What’s to stop them?” and “Who are the ‘blocking characters” (the forces opposed to love in the story)?
Comedies differ significantly depending on the subgenre, which are distinguished by two factors: the focus of the comic attack and the degree of ridicule.
To the degree that a film is simply escapist entertainment, it should be viewed as such, and there will be little need for theological dialogue with it. But to the degree that a film, whether through fantasy or realism, and even when primarily entertainment, succeeds in artistically depicting life, it engages our lives. As it does, it educates, inviting our response as whole persons, including our religious convictions.
Step 2: Identify the Protagonist’s Quest & Character Arc
All films have at least one protagonist (sometimes more than one). This is the leading character—the hero or heroine who wants something. Protagonists’ journey to obtain the object of their desire (whether it’s love, justice, victory, revenge, freedom, or something else) is called their quest.
The antagonist(s) is the adversary of the protagonist; he or she (or they) tries to prevent the leading character from getting what he or she (or they) wants.
The finest screenwriting not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or for worse, over the course of the telling. In the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) film, for example, the main character arcs from a cold-hearted, Christmas-hating hermit, to a warm-hearted, Christmas-loving friend of the “Whos.”
Point of View
A movie is normally told from one of three points of view:
- Omnipotent: can go anywhere and see anything at any time (multiple perspectives)
- Over-the-shoulder of one character (a single perspective)
- First-person narration
Step 3: Identify the Inciting Incident
While stories can always be simplified into three major parts—beginning, middle, and end—I think it is more helpful to consider this five-part design:
- Inciting incident
- Progressive complications
These five parts correspond to Steps 3–7 in this article.
Known as the “big hook” in Hollwood jargon, the inciting incident is the first major event of the story, and the primary cause for all that follows. It’s what sets the story into action. The inciting incident radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life, swinging the protagonist’s reality to either the negative or the positive. The quest to restore balance forms the spine of the story, connecting the rest of the events.
The inciting incident prompts the story’s major dramatic question—and a desire to find out the answer incites and captures the audience’s interest until the last act’s climax.
Key Question to Ask
What does the protagonist want?
Step 4: Identify the Progressive Complications
After you’ve picked out the film’s inciting incident, watch for the progressive complications in the protagonist’s quest for the object of his or her desire. In other words, what makes life increasingly difficult for the leading character? More and more conflict arises as he or she faces greater and greater forces of antagonism, creating a succession of events that passes the point of no return.
The Role of Conflict
Conflict is to storytelling what sound is to music. The music of story is conflict. Nothing moves forward in the story without conflict. There are three sources of conflict (or antagonism) in a film (or any story):
- Inner conflict (within the protagonist)—most obvious in the stream of consciousness genre
- Personal conflict (between protagonist and others)—clearly seen in soap operas
- Extra-personal conflict (an externally imposed threat to the protagonist)—especially evident in the action/adventure and farce genres
Conflict may come from any one, two, or all three of these sources. Films with all three levels of antagonism offer a rich complexity.
Key Questions to Ask
How is the film creating conflict and resistance to the goal(s) of the protagonist?
Which type(s) of conflict is the protagonist encountering?
Step 5: Identify the Crisis
Crisis is the moment of ultimate decision. A protagonist’s quest has carried him or her through the progressive complications until all actions are exhausted, save one. He now finds himself at the end of the line. The next action is his last. No tomorrow; no second chance. This moment of dangerous opportunity is the point of greatest tension in the story as both protagonist and audience sense that the question “How will this turn out?” will be answered out of the next action.
The crisis is the story’s obligatory scene—the moment the audience has been anticipating since the inciting incident. It’s the encounter with the “dragon” that guards the protagonist’s object of desire. This “dragon” may be literal (as in Jaws or Jurassic Park) or merely metaphorical (e.g., the dragon of meaninglessness).
The Crisis Decision
If there’s been any doubt about which value is central to the story, as the protagonist makes the crisis decision, the primary value comes to the fore. It’s in this moment that the protagonist’s willpower is most severely tested and, thus, his or her true character revealed.
Values in Film
Story values are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next in a film. (In fact, without these changing value charges, a film isn’t worth watching). Examples of values are love, freedom, truth, courage, justice, loyalty, wisdom, strength, and excitement. These may turn to hate, slavery, lying, cowardice, injustice, betrayal, stupidity, weakness, and boredom (respectively)—and back again—during the course of a film.
Step 6: Identify the Climax
Think of the storyline of a film as beginning with some type of conflict, followed by rising action (progressive complications plus a crisis), culminating into a story climax, which is followed more briefly by falling action and resolution.
Always watch for turning points in a film. These twists and turns in a story are centered on the choice a character makes under pressure. Whether they’re minor or major, turning points have a fourfold effect on the audience: surprise, increased curiosity, insight, and new direction.
The ultimate turning point in a story, the climax is a revolution in values from positive to negative or negative to positive with or without irony—a value swing at maximum charge that’s absolute and irreversible. The meaning of that change moves the heart of the audience.
William Goldman argues that the key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not the way it expects. In Aristotle’s words, an ending must be both “inevitable and unexpected.”
The climax should be appropriate to the needs of the story. It may be catastrophic or outwardly trivial. Whatever it is, it’s the moment when the events swing to an absolute, irreversible negative or positive.
Step 7: Identify the Resolution
Resolution is the final step in the five-part story structure. The resolution has three possible uses:
- To climax a subplot
- To show the spread of climactic effects (i.e., how lives were changed by the climactic action)
- As an audience courtesy (or slow curtain) to help the audience catch its breath, gather its thoughts, and leave the cinema with dignity
Step 8: Determine the Plot Type
A film’s plot can be defined as the overall plan, scheme, or interrelated pattern of events moving through time to shape the storyline.
Four common plot types are described below. These types of stories differ by the type and number of protagonists or plots, how they present the flow of time, and how they portray reality.
- Archplot: In these stories, the screenwriter and director are trying to show the audience that life brings positive change, reality has meaning, and life is good and will end well. These stories follow the classic story design outlined above. They’re built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change. (Example: The Shawshank Redemption)
- Antiplot: The opposite of the archplot, an antiplot is used to express that life is absurd, and change is random and therefore meaningless. These plots present life not in actuality but “life as thought about.” They’re intended to break the rules of the archplot, as a sort of satire or parody of the archplot, and are full of randomness and coincidence, skipping helter-skelter through time (rather than linearly), within an inconsistent and disconnected fictional reality. (Example: Monty Python and the Holy Grail)
- Miniplot: These plots bring the audience a micro or mini slice of life, relating that “life brings little or no change.” These stories are built around one or more passive protagonists who struggle against primarily internal forces of antagonism to pursue their desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causually connected fictional reality, to an open ending of unanswered questions. A miniplot is much like the archplot, except it may have multiple protagonists with internal rather than external struggles, and they often end leaving the audience with unanswered questions about life or the film’s story. (Example: Tender Mercies)
- Multiplot: Resting between the archplot and miniplot is the multiplot. It is essentially an archplot with multiple protagonists and therefore multiple plots. (Example: Crash)
Other plots types:
- Nonplot: In an effort to be original and creative, some scriptwriters push on all traditional boundaries, creating a film in which there is no story. In other words, in these films, no change occurs; there is only stasis. These writers/directors are consciously presenting a mere verisimilitude of life in their attempt to show the absurdity of life, or to present a satire of life. (Example: Leaving Las Vegas)
- Film noir (dark film): A genre that exploded in the wake of World War II (e.g., The Maltese Falcon in 1941), these films present the dark side of humanity and reflect existential angst (not even the bad guys win). They present a hopeless universe, devoid of feelings other than lust, revenge, and the will to power. Noir characters have an attitude of “kill or be killed.” The finest of contemporary film noir doesn’t revel in evil but haunts our souls by acknowledging our failings and exposing our calculated cover-ups. There is a growing genre of films that may be called neo-noir, which are a reimagination of Film Noir. They transcend a coherent story, and weave in postmodern relativism and suspicion about truth. (Examples: Pulp Fiction, Memento)
You may have wondered about the purpose of subplots, when the focus of the story is on the central plot. Here are three uses for subplots:
- To contradict the controlling idea of the central plot and thus enrich the film with irony.
- To resonate the controlling idea of the central plot and enrich the film with variations on a theme.
- To complicate the central plot (i.e., as an additional source of antagonism).
One key into the heart of a story is to determine which one of four angles is being emphasized in a film:
*Character-driven: These stories emphasize character and portray issues of human need or potential. They deal with the question of human nature by offering paradigms of possibility. What is it to be human?
*Plot-driven: In these films, the plot is more prominent than any single character.
*Atmosphere-driven: These movies find their center of power and meaning in the story’s atmosphere, the unalterable given(s) against which the story is told and the characters developed. Atmosphere is more than just the prevailing mood; it’s the unchanging backdrop against which the story is played out.
*Point-of-view (POV)-driven: In these films, the implied narrator’s attitude toward the story’s subject and audience is most prominent. Achieved at many times by voiceovers or monologues, POV can also be conveyed through the movie’s editing, photography, composition, music, pace, and lighting.
Step 9: Identify the Controlling Idea
The controlling idea is the film’s main idea or message that it is attempting to convey. It should be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.
This is not to say that a story can be reduced to a rubric. Far more is captured within the web of a story than can ever be stated in words—subtleties, subtexts, conceits, double-meanings, richness of all kinds.
The controlling idea of many love stories is, “Love triumphs because the lovers sacrifice their needs for each other.”
Here are three basic categories of controlling idea progressions:
- Idealistic (happy ending): These are “up-ending” stories expressing the optimism, hopes, and dreams of mankind, a positively charged vision of the human spirit; life as we wish it to be. The emotional charge of the film’s premise starts negatively, moves positive, then makes increasingly more intense alternating positive and negative charges until the crescendo, the last act climax, which is positively charged. Here, the protagonist gets what he or she wants. (Example: The Lord of the Rings trilogy)
- Pessimistic (sad ending): These “down-ending” films begin with a positive emotional charge, but then move negatively; they make increasingly more intense alternating positive and negative charges until the crescendo of the last act climax, which is negatively charged. Screenwriters here are expressing cynicism, despair, a sense of loss or misfortune, and dark dimensions of life. This is an accurate portrait of reality, they feel. (Example Chinatown)
- Ironic (happy-sad endings): Optimism/idealism and pessimism/cynicism merge in these films. Rather than voicing one extreme over the other, the story says both. Up/down-ending stories express our sense of the complex, dual nature of existence, a simultaneously charged positive and negative vision; life at its most complete and realistic. This pattern, particularly used in a redemption plot,2 gives rise to an ending rich in irony: at climax, the protagonist sacrifices his dream (positive), a value that has become a soul-corrupting fixation (negative), to gain an honest, sane, balanced life (positive). (Examples: Rain Man, Schindler’s List)
Step 10: Determine the Worldview
A worldview is simply the way a person views truth and reality. When determining the particular worldview of any movie, you need only ask yourself two questions: (1) What does the film say about God? and (2) What does the film say about human beings?
What does the film say about the nature of God?
Although opinions abound, there are really only three basic answer options:
- There is no God (atheistic or naturalistic worldview)
- There is a God and He is a personal being (theistic worldview)
- There’s a god(s) but it is an impersonal spirit or force (monistic worldview)
Examples of films with each are Dead Poets Society (atheistic), Les Misérables (theistic), and the Star Wars movies (monistic).
What does the film say about the nature of mankind?
In particular, what does the film say about our nature as humans, our origin, and our purpose? Here are the options:
- Human nature: (a) People are basically evil/sinful; (b) people are basically good; or (c) people are like a “blank slate” (neither good nor evil but may be shaped one way or the other).
- Origin: (a) Created by a personal Creator (i.e., the God of the Bible); (b) originated from an impersonal agency or force; or (c) evolved (e.g., from impersonal forces of time plus chance, as the Darwinists teach).
- Purpose: (a) Others-centered (relationships); (b) self-centered (self-actualization/getting our needs met); or (c) survival or autonomy (no ultimate purpose; the strength survive while the weak perish).
Overview of 10 Steps to Reading a Film
Identify the …
2. protagonist’s Quest and Character Arc
3. Inciting Incident
4. Progressive Complications
8. Plot Type
9. Controlling Idea
Check out Ken’s list of recommended films with moral/spiritual themes here.
Also, consider expanding your movie-watching world to include some of these top-ranked foreign films.
Check out part 2 of this article series:What Makes a “Good Movie”?
- This article has been adapted from part of a presentation coauthored by Ken Boa and Bill Ibsen.
- Recognizing the innate human longing for redemption, many films carry a theme of redemption. But redemption may or may not be carried out from a Christ-honoring worldview, so it’s important to evaluate the film’s worldview (see step #10).