Reading scripts. Absolutely critical to learn the craft of screenwriting. The focus of this weekly series is a deep structural and thematic analysis of each script we read.
Today: A scene-by-scene breakdown of the script for the movie Lone Survivor.
Here is my take on this exercise from a previous series of posts — How To Read A Screenplay:
After a first pass, it’s time to crack open the script for a deeper analysis and you can do that by creating a scene-by-scene breakdown. It is precisely what it sounds like: A list of all the scenes in the script accompanied by a brief description of the events that transpire.
For purposes of this exercise, I have a slightly different take on scene. Here I am looking not just for individual scenes per se, but a scene or set of scenes that comprise one event or a continuous piece of action. Admittedly this is subjective and there is no right or wrong, the point is simply to break down the script into a series of parts which you then can use dig into the script’s structure and themes.
The value of this exercise:
* We pare down the story to its most constituent parts: Scenes.
* By doing this, we consciously explore the structure of the narrative.
* A scene-by-scene breakdown creates a foundation for even deeper analysis of the story.
You may download the script for Lone Survivor — free and legal — here.
By Melinda Mahaffey Icden
PDF p.3–4: MARCUS LUTTRELL explains in voice-over the unrelenting drive of Navy SEALs as medics work on his dying body in Afghanistan.
PDF p.4–6: Five days earlier, 12 Navy SEALs — including Luttrell, Commander ERIK KRISTENSEN, newbie SHANE PATTON, DANNY DIETZ, MATT AXELSON and MIKE MURPHY — fly over the Hindu Kush mountains in a military helicopter, discussing tactics and talking about a horse for Murphy’s fiancée.
PDF p.6–8: Afghan warlord AHMAD SHAH, his number-two TARAQ, and CREW make their way through a village. They search for a local man believed to be aiding the Americans and then execute him.
PDF p.8–12: Eight hours earlier, at sunrise on Bagram Air Base, the four main characters — Luttrell, Dietz, Axe, and Murphy — wake up. We get some insight into their personal lives from photos on the bunk-room walls and their talk. Luttrell finds out that “Red Wings” is a go that night.
PDF p.12–18: Murphy and Dietz race each other outside in full body armor as Luttrell keeps time. Murphy wins, but his celebration is short-lived when Kristiansen announces that Red Wings is a go that night. Patton very much wants to know if he’s going to get to go.
PDF p.18–25: The SEALs, 30 of them, sit in a makeshift control center discussing Operation Red Wings, targeting Ahmad Shaw and his group of about 10. Dietz, Axe, Murphy and Luttrell are going in first on reconnaissance to positively identify Shah, while everyone else waits at J-Bad overnight. Dietz says not to worry about them until the foursome misses two windows.
PDF p.25–34: Lead-up to the night’s mission
- As the foursome eats dinner, Dietz stresses about goings-on at home
- Shane Patton goes through a lighthearted initiation rite, which includes dancing and the recitation of a SEAL mantra
- The SEALs dress for combat
- As they wait for the helicopters to arrive, the foursome continues to discuss Dietz’s problems at home
- The helicopters arrive and the SEALs load up
PDF p.35–38: The helicopters drop Luttrell, Dietz, Axe, and Murphy onto a steep, dark hillside. Using night-vision goggles, they begin walking to the lookout point along a thin, tricky path. The other SEALs track their progress.
PDF p.38–40: The foursome arrives at the lookout point, 2,000 feet above an Afghan village, after sunrise. However, their view is partially blocked. Dietz tries to radio back to J-Bad. The signal is weak, but via HASSLERT, Kristensen eventually gets the message and boards a helicopter for Bagram, leaving MUSSLEMEN in charge.
PDF p.40–41: The foursome decides to move further down to see if there’s a better vantage point. At J-Bad, Hasslert tells Musslemen that the four should be hunkered down in place.
PDF p.41–43: The new lookout spot is good, but Dietz can’t get through to radio in the change of location. They count 40 Taliban men down in the village, many more than expected. Murphy spots Shah, but Luttrell says it’s too far to shoot and Dietz can’t get the radio working. They begin building their hiding spots.
PDF p.43–50: They hunker down, discussing horses again, among other things. Eventually everyone sleeps, with Dietz on watch.
PDF p.50–54: Dietz is still on watch and hears a noise. It’s the sound of bells. A herd of goats comes into view, followed by three locals — a BOY, TEENAGER, and an OLD MAN. When they get too close, the SEALs pop up and subdue them. Murphy tries to use a translation machine to communication, but it doesn’t work. They don’t know who these men are and can’t reach J-Bad by radio.
PDF p.54–60: Murphy unhappily uses the unsecure satellite phone, afraid the lengthy calls (due to bad connection) give away their position. Eventually, after a lot of back and forth, Kristiansen gets to the phone, but the connection has been lost, and no news has been relayed.
PDF p.60–70: The Afghan boy bolts. They get him back, and Murphy presents their options: tie the three up, let them go, or kill them. After much debate, Murphy, as leader, decides they will pack up, let them go, and make for the peak so they can use the radio to call for a pick-up.
PDF p.71–72: At J-Bad, there’s confusion about priorities, and the two Apache helicopters take off for another location/mission.
PDF p.72–74: The foursome releases the three Afghans, and the boy sprints down the hill. The SEALs slowly start heading up the mountain in full gear. Axe stumbles and sprains his ankle.
PDF p. 74–75: The kid reaches the village and promptly informs the Taliban men, who go into the woods and gear up. The foursome crests a hill, only to discover it’s a false summit — and the radio still doesn’t work. Murphy pulls out binoculars and scans the town, which appears quiet.
PDF p.75–77: Murphy makes the decision to hunker down for the next 60 minutes, until sunset, where they are. Axe has first watch.
PDF p.77–79: Thirty minutes pass, and Axe spots movement. They assess the area — they’re nearly surrounded by Taliban. The foursome preps their weapons and positions.
PDF p.79–83: Luttrell takes the first shot, successfully, and it erupts into a major firefight. Dietz and Murphy attempt to communicate using the radio and satellite phone. Dietz gets shot in the hand, Axe in the shoulder. As a group, the four SEALs push right, shelter behind a boulder. Dietz, Axe, and now also Luttrell get hit.
PDF p.84–85: At Bagram, Kristiansen debates what to do now that the team is close to missing a second communications window, decides to wait a little longer.
PDF p.85–87: The Taliban begin firing RPGs. Murphy takes a bullet in the stomach. Under relentless attack, the four decide to fall back and pitch themselves off the 50-foot cliff behind. It’s a hard fall, and they hit trees and rocks on the way down.
PDF p.87–91: There’s some contradiction in this scene set, but essentially, the four survive the 300-yard tumble, while the Taliban begin a slower climb down. The RPGs set the trees on fire. Blood pours from Murphy’s stomach, while Dietz is seriously wounded. The SEALs take cover in the burning trees as the Taliban continue to fire at them.
PDF p.91–93: The Taliban get closer, into better positions, and Murphy and Dietz get hit again. Murphy tells them to move left. Axe and Luttrell begin moving, but Dietz is having trouble. Murphy manages to get him going.
PDF p.93–94: The SEALs claw their way across the landscape with difficulty, trying to escape. But they can only get so far before they collapse, out of breath. Murphy tries again to get a sat phone signal.
PDF p.94: Now that two communications windows have been missed, Kristensen calls his commanding officer.
PDF p.94–96: From their resting spot, the SEALs hear voices, getting closer. However, they’ve managed to lose the Taliban men, but then Dietz — who’s losing it — speaks in a loud voice, giving away their position.
PDF p.96–100: The Taliban begin firing, and Murphy decides they’re going to do another drop, their only option — it’s 80 feet down. Taraq and six fighters come charging, and Axe and Murphy leap off. Luttrell has Dietz over his shoulder, and just as he’s about to jump, Taraq fires, hitting both SEALs in the neck. Luttrell drops Dietz and falls backward off the cliff.
PDF p.100: Kristiansen tries to contact them again.
PDF p.100–102: Axe, Murphy and Luttrell debate what to do about Dietz as explosions go off around them. Luttrell seems to believe he’s dead. They decide to try and get Dietz, above, and then move down to flat ground. They move out.
PDF p.102–106: Dietz, barely alive, tries to get to his feet but is kept down by Taraq. Murphy and Luttrell attempt to climb the steep pitch, while Axe covers them. But it’s useless. Murphy pulls out the sat phone and gives his spare ammo to Luttrell.
PDF p.106–107: Murphy charges up the hill, taking bullets, until he gets a phone connection. He reaches Hasslert at J-Bad and requests air support. Murphy fires at the Taliban soldiers until he himself is killed, as Luttrell falls back to Axe.
PDF p.107–110: SEALs and Marines at J-Bad and Bagram prep. Two helicopters from Bagram, with Kristensen aboard, take off. The helicopters from J-Bad are grounded at the last moment because the Apaches (their air cover) are elsewhere. It’ll take 15 minutes for the Apaches to arrive.
PDF p.110–111: Axe and Luttrell hide behind some rocks. Axe wants to know where Murphy is and if he made the call.
PDF p.111–120: Potential rescue:
- Kristiansen’s helicopter pilot agrees to put the men on the ground, even though he’s not supposed to without Apache support.
- Axe and Luttrell climb down to the village as Taraq tracks them from above.
- Apaches arrive at J-Bad and the helicopters take off.
- Taraq is just 100 feet away. Axe is afraid he’s dying from a head wound, and Luttrell says they just have to grit it out for 15 minutes.
- Axe and Luttrell separate, head off in different directions into the woods. Fire fight for both. They hear a helicopter overhead.
- As the pilot tries to drop the SEALs — who include Kristensen and Patton — the Taliban fire an RPG, and the helicopter explodes. The second helicopter pilot refuses to put down.
PDF p.120–121: Luttrell watches from a distance as Shah’s men shoot at Axe, hitting him twice in the throat. RPG ammo explodes near Luttrell, knocking him down the mountain, and he hits his head on a rock, nearly knocking him out.
PDF p.121–123: The SEAL lieutenant in the other helicopter demands the ramp be opened, but the pilot refuses. At Bagram, troops mobilize. Intercut scenes of a dazed and nearly deaf Luttrell trying to make his way down the mountain as the J-Bad helicopters approach and the Taliban take cover. Luttrell hides himself in a rock crevice and then falls asleep.
PDF p.124–126: The next morning, Luttrell wakes up and takes stock. He resets his broken shin bone. From behind some rocks, Luttrell surveys the village. He sees Taliban there and makes his way to a trail leading away.
PDF p.126–127: ARMY INTEL GUY relays the status of the mission while a special-ops team secures the area around the downed helicopter.
PDF p.128–129: Luttrell struggles along in the woods, desperately searching for water. He finds a freshwater pool and falls in, deliriously happy.
PDF p.129–134: He senses something and looks up to find three Afghan men and a boy watching him. Luttrell pulls the pin from a grenade, but GULAB puts his hands up and says, “not Taliban.” Taraq and his men appear, and the three hide Luttrell. Meanwhile, the rescue teams are tracked from Bagram.
PDF p.134–137: Luttrell is helped into Gulab’s village and house. Luttrell writes a note and gives it to Gulab’s father, who goes to find the Americans. Taraq and five men arrive in town and find Luttrell. Taraq is questioning him when armed villagers save him. Taraq says they’ll come back and slaughter the entire town.
PDF p.137–141: Gulab’s father continues his trek while Taraq calls in reinforcements and the villagers debate what to do. Luttrell tries to communicate with the boy and asks for a knife but receives a duck. Gulab brings a knife and they watch as Luttrell takes bullets out of his leg before passing out.
PDF p.141–143: The next morning, Shah, Taraq and 50 heavily armed men surround the town. At Bagram, MARINES receive word there’s been a letter from Luttrell, and a plane takes off. Luttrell wakes up, and Gulab and the boy feed him. He thanks them just as an RPG explodes into the side of the house.
PDF p.143–145: As a Taliban man strangles Luttrell, the boy hands Luttrell a knife, enabling him to free himself. But Taraq is seemingly winning the bigger battle until helicopters arrive, decimating the Taliban fighters. Both Luttrell and Gulab take aim at Taraq, and they kill him.
PDF p.145: Helicopters land to pick up Luttrell. He wants Gulab to come, too, but they are separated by AIRMEN, and he’s too weak to resist. The helicopter takes off.
PDF p. 145-end: Luttrell’s voice-over from the first scene continues as the medics work on his wounded body as they fly over the Afghan mountains. He explains how he both died and lived on that mountain, as the monitor changes from flatline to heart beat.
Writing Exercise: I encourage you to read the script, but short of that, if you’ve seen the movie, go through this scene-by-scene breakdown. What stands out to you about it from a structural standpoint?
If you’d like a PDF of the Lone Survivor scene-by-scene breakdown, go here.
Major kudos to Melinda Mahaffey Icden for doing today’s breakdown.
REQUEST: We have some incredible scripts in the GITS library which we have yet to analyze including 12 Years a Slave, Frozen, The Wolf of Wall Street, and many more.
I am looking for volunteers to read a script and provide a scene-by-scene breakdown for it to be used as part of our weekly series. What do you get? Beyond your name being noted here, my thanks, and some creative juju, hopefully you will learn something about story structure and develop another skill set which is super helpful in learning and practicing the craft.
The latest volunteers:
Birdman — Doc Kane
Dallas Buyers Club — Devin Dingler
Gone Girl — Ashley
Looper — Michael Perkins
Nebraska — David Joyner
Nightcrawler — Marija
To see examples of scene-by-scene breakdowns, go here. Part of the goal is to create a library of breakdowns for writers to have at their disposal for research and learning.
You may see the scripts we can use for the series — free and legal — by going here.
To date, we have analyzed 43 movie scripts, a great resource for screenwriters. To see those analyses, go here.
Thanks to any of you who will rise to the occasion and take on a scene-by-scene breakdown.
Circling back to where we started, reading scripts is hugely important. Analyzing them even more so. If you want to work in Hollywood as a writer, you need to develop your critical analytical skills. This is one way to do that.
So seize this opportunity and join in the conversation!
I hope to see you in comments about today’s script: Lone Survivor.