Scoring Your Script: An Actor’s Manual

Essentially, scoring a script helps actors to clarify motivations, organize dramatic structure, and get specific with the nuances of the characters and the story. If scene partners score a script together, it can help get everyone on the same page. Largely it is a tool to help individual actors craft and focus their performances. There are many ways to score a script. Most modern American acting courses use a vernacular that breaks scripts into “beats and units” and describes a character’s arc in terms of “objectives, tactics and obstacles.” Even if this isn’t your speed when it comes to actor homework, it is helpful to know the basics of scoring a script. If nothing else, it is likely your director and scene partners will, and you don’t want to be left in the dust. Here is a quick rundown of terms and concepts it is helpful to know when scoring scripts.

Units

Think of units as “chunks” that break up and define a scene. Units change when there is a very clear shift in the scene, such as a change of topic, or the entrance of a new character. When marking my script, I usually pencil in a bracket in the left margin of the script spanning the unit. If you want to take it to the next level, number and name the units, using concise, active words.

Beats

Beats break up units. A beat is the smallest structural division of your script. Generally, I notate them as a little tick, like so: /  It can be loosely thought of as an exchange of action and reaction, but I like to think of beats in terms of when they change. Beats can shift when there is a change in subject, which is slightly different than when there is a change of topic, and therefore a unit change. (Although every time there is a unit change, there is also a beat change. The reverse does not necessarily apply). So for example, if a couple is fighting about the possibility of the wife’s father moving in, a shift of subject from the father’s grouchy personality to the lack of available space might signal a beat change. It is still part of the fight about the father, so the topic is still the same. If, however, the argument suddenly exposed the husband’s secret affair, that would probably be a unit change.

An easy way to test if there should be a beat change is to ask whether someone’s tactics have changed (more on tactics below). If the answer is yes, it is probably a beat change. In the example above, the shift in subject could actually be described as a tactic shift: the husband stopped complaining about the father’s personality and appealed to his wife’s practical understanding of living space.

Objectives and Super-objectives

This is, to put it simply, what the character wants. It is important to be clear about these because you will be fighting for them in some way or another every moment you are on stage or film. Objectives generally refer to a character’s desire within the scene. If you are looking for the big picture, a super-objective describes the character’s core desire that carries him or her through the script (and presumably beyond). A super-objective can be structured as “I need _______ by/through ________” When choosing the language of a super-objective, I always think in terms of simplifying fractions, because even math can relate to theatre if you want it hard enough. Keep asking what is underneath until you find the most basic human desire that drives your character (acceptance, control, and safety are common examples). The second half of the equation is your character’s modus operandi. Again, choose strong, active language. “I need control through alienation.”

While a super-objective rarely changes through the script, objectives change all the time. Often, an objective will carry through a scene, unless something drastic happens to change it. Strong objectives relate to the other person in the scene. “I want him to admit he’s wrong” is not as actable as “I want to wring a confession from him.”

Tactics

Tactics are the strategies a character uses to achieve his or her objective. As with objectives, tactics should relate directly to the other person, and be extremely specific. “I want to wring a confession from him by accusing him of murder.” Make a challenge of it. “Accusing” is active and direct, but is there a more evocative word, or one more specific to your action? What about denounce, slander or impeach? Make it personal.

Obstacles

Obstacles are pretty self-explanatory: they are the roadblocks. They get in the way of the character achieving his or her objective. Obstacles can be external or internal. An external obstacle comes from the environment—other characters, circumstances, or material impediments. Internal obstacles stem from the character’s own shortcomings, insecurities and psyche.

Alternatives

There are many, many ways to score a script. These are just the basics. What’s really important is to find out what speaks to you. The goal of scoring your script is to help you. If alternate methods get the job done, have at it! I once had a class where instead of scoring our scripts with objectives, tactics, and obstacles, we assigned each line the emotion we were trying to elicit in our scene partner. Some people like to color code or use imagery. The important thing isn’t to do it “right.” This is all in service of interpreting each moment of the story, so we can tell it clearly. Follow your instincts and let your technique evolve as you do.

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com