Screenplay Case Study: Lessons from Chris Sparling’s ‘Lakewood’


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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting, story analysis

The advice that reading screenplays is a great way to learn screenwriting gets it a little wrong. It’s not so much the reading that offers a way to learn screenwriting – it’s analyzing what you’ve read, finding lessons in your own reaction to the story and craft.

So in this post we’ll take a deep-dive into one screenplay. We’ll examine it closely to evaluate whether the script works, if and how it does what it needs to do to keep us engaged with the story, and where – if anywhere – it deviates from the “rules”.

Each part of a screenplay has a particular function, so we’ll look at the script one section at a time to make analyzing it a bit more manageable. You can jump straight to the section you need, if you want:

Act 1: Creating context and the screenplay’s foundation

Act 2: How to build tension with sequences & escalations

Act 3: Prompts for a satisfying ending to your screenplay

The more familiar you are with what you’re trying to accomplish, the more equipped you are to deliver a story that truly works… rather than resorting to formula, cliche, or tropes.

How to analyze a screenplay

Analyzing a screenplay might sound daunting, but basically it just comes down to asking yourself:

    • Does it entertain me?
    • Does it move me?
    • And does it frustrate or confuse me at any point?

And then thinking about where, why, and how the script does any of those things.

To make this deep dive a useful learning experience, try to forget any of the arbitrary screenwriting “rules” you’ve heard. Instead, we’ll look for what’s actually making this script work or not.

Download and read the Lakewood screenplay

It’s always a challenge to choose one movie or script for these analysis challenges. For this round I decided an unproduced movie would be best, so that your read of the script is unfettered by an opinion of the finished product.

My selection: Lakewood, written by Chris Sparling

If you want a little background, you can check out this article about the movie. (But be warned it includes casting info that may influence your read.)

Lakewood follows a mother who desperately races against time to save her child as authorities place her small town on lockdown.

Writer Chris Sparling first became widely known in the industry with his original spec script Buried. The movie starred Ryan Reynolds and premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It went on to play and win awards at several other film festivals, and then was released theatrically by Lionsgate.

Chris is a writer I’ve admired for a long time. His style is cinematic but lean, and he’s great at mining the drama and emotion in his scripts. Intrigued?

Download the Lakewood script here.

I encourage you to read the whole thing, and preferably in one sitting if you’re able to. That way you can really absorb the effects of it.

As you read the script, make note of your reactions and feelings, especially if you can remember specific locations in the script where those thoughts emerged. Try to identify if the screenplay worked or not (did it entertain you and/or move you), and where it did or did not.

Act 1: building a strong screenplay foundation

After reading the script all the way through, it’s time to take a closer look at Act 1.

Look at how it’s constructed, and assess:

    • When and how does it introduce the foundational story elements?
    • What context does it create and why?
    • How does it hook your interest, engage you, and then get you invested?
    • Who or what does it make you root for?
    • Or – does it fail to do these things? And if so, why?

Did the main character’s situation draw you in? Did it create curiosity or empathy? What about the unique way this story is told? (We really only see one character on screen other than a quick glimpse of a second character.)

If not, why didn’t you feel entertained by this script? Was it the content or the style? The character, story, scenes, and/or format?

What does Act 1 need to accomplish?

Alright, if we can identify where the script did or did not do what it ultimately needs to do (entertain), then we can begin to think about how and why it was successful or not.

Act 1 is all about context. It sets up everything we need to know in order to consume the real meat of the story in Acts 2 & 3.

Setting the foundation with the essentials

The essential context tells us what the story is about: Who wants what, why they want it, what they’re up against, and why we should root for them.

Sound basic?

It is. These are fundamentals. But if you’ve written a script, you probably recognize just how tough it can be to establish all of this context effectively, elegantly, and in a way that entertains us.

So how does Lakewood fare? I think it sets up all the essentials. See if you agree.

The Lakewood screenplay foundation

The focus is clearly on Amy Carr, the main character. (There isn’t a single scene that’s not centered on her, other than the opening establishing shots.)

The “what does she want” is created mainly as a function of the two major plot points in this act: the Inciting Incident and the Break into Act 2. They create the “what does she want” by showing us a problem (or need), and a course of action to deal with it.

In Lakewood, Amy’s problem is that there’s an incident requiring police involvement at her son’s high school. (It turns out to be an active shooter, we learn by the end of Act 1. Which makes sense, because it’s context for the rest of the story.) The course of action is trying to make sure her son is safe.

I think it’s important to point out that I’m not looking for the script to follow the “rules.” I’m not focused on what happens on Page 12 or 15 or any other arbitrary number. Instead, I’m trying to look at whether the script achieves its goal of telling me an effective story. And part of that is creating the essential context so that I know what direction this story is headed, and I care enough about it to go along for the ride.

What’s the conflict?

If a screenplay is built on conflict, then it makes sense that one goal of Act 1 is to set up the conflict that this particular story relies on. The conflict we’re going to watch play out for the rest of the script.

Conflict happens when effort meets opposition or obstacle.

So, what does Amy want? She wants to make sure her son is safe. That’s the goal she’s going to pursue for the rest of the movie. (For a screenplay, it’s important that there’s effort, not just desire. We need to see a character doing things to get what they want, otherwise the movie will be pretty boring.)

Amy trying to make sure her son is safe is the main path of action. That’s what we’re watching in this movie: a desperate, stranded mother, whose son is in danger, and she’s doing everything in her power to make sure he’s okay.

What’s the opposition?

Remember – for conflict, effort has to meet opposition or obstacle. In other words, what is preventing Amy from achieving her goal?

There are a lot of external circumstances (she’s stranded far from Noah, she can’t reach him on the phone, etc.). These are obstacles and help keep the tension going from scene to scene.

And we need those mini tensions to keep our interest. Because the main, overarching conflict in the story is between Amy and the active shooter – Amy wants to keep her son safe, the active shooter’s efforts oppose her goal – but they don’t interact directly in Act 1 (or for most of the script).

An interesting detail: we don’t know the identity of the active shooter for most of the script, which is an additional obstacle that Amy’s up against.

What’s at stake?

Noah is at school and there’s an active shooter there, so we believe his life is in danger. That’s high stakes.

But in addition to those concrete, external stakes, we’ve learned that there’s some unresolved stuff between Amy and Noah. That means if Amy fails at her goal, the worst happens, and Noah dies, Amy will lose the chance to heal her relationship with her son. And that gives the stakes even more meaning.

What happens in the Debate section?

After the problem presents itself and before Amy embarks on her course of action, we have a section of script commonly called the Debate section. And it’s a part of the script that can give writers a real headache. Especially in a script like Lakewood.

Because writers try to approach this section as a debate about what the character should do. (It’s not the writers’ fault; this is the way the Debate section is commonly described and taught.)

But think about it – in a script like this, there isn’t a lot of question about what the character’s going to do. She’s going to try to help her kid.

What happens in the Lakewood Debate section?

If this Debate section only explored the questions of what the character should do next, it would have been veeerrrrrrrry thin, and perhaps fail to keep us engaged in the story as a result.

But Chris Sparling’s Debate section does what it needs to do to bridge the story from problem to course of action, continuing to build our investment along the way. It does this by showing us:

  • how tough the problem is and/or what the protagonist will be up against,
  • what she’ll gain if she succeeds,
  • what’s at stake and why those stakes matter enough to the protagonist to embark on the Act 2 Adventure.

These are just a few of the things the Debate section can do to keep us engaged and entertained, which is always the bottom line. When you’re developing or writing your own project, it’s less important to follow the “rules” and more important to figure out what your particular script needs in order to effectively tell the story.

What about the character arc?

Another thing Act 1 should ideally do is set up the “before picture” of a character’s arc. Basically, we want to show how they are before they go through the transformational experience this movie is about. And we want to show why they need the lesson this experience is going to teach them.

If we don’t set up a starting point, we can’t measure what’s changed.

In Lakewood, what we see is that Amy and her family are dealing with some kind of trauma that’s occurred within the past couple of years. How do we know this? The people closest to Amy are worried about her, are inquiring about how the kids are managing, and their questions give us a few necessary details (again, context).

With that as background, we see that there’s some kind of rift between Amy and her son, Noah. She can’t bring herself to communicate with him about something. And again – we don’t need to know everything in Act 1. We’re just setting up that thing that needs to change. Here, Amy knows her son’s not doing great, yet she doesn’t know what to do about it. But if she wants to help her son and heal their relationship, she needs to do something differently than she is right now.

How to build tension in Act 2 (with sequences & escalations)

Act 2 really IS the movie.

That’s important, so I’ll say it again: Act 2 IS the movie!

The “meat” of the movie sandwich, as I’ve (embarrassingly) said a few times, Act 2 is the part we anticipate when we hear about a movie. It’s where the concept and genre are exploited. It delivers the “promise of the premise”.

In short, Act 2 is the stuff the audience wants to see! The lure of Act 2 is usually in some way what makes them choose this movie over others.

But what does Act 2 do?

Act 2 is the escalation portion of the story. It comes after the context has been established. It takes us on an entertaining and moving journey by escalating the story’s external and internal conflicts and stakes. And then everything resolves in Act 3, hopefully to our satisfaction.

Each “movement” or section of story builds on the last. We have to establish the context in Act 1 before we can escalate in Act 2.

When conflict and stakes escalate in Act 2, it keeps your audience leaning in. We re-engage and re-invest each time things get harder or more meaningful for the protagonist — but only if we’ve engaged and invested in them to begin with (in Act 1).

What is the screenplay escalating?

Act 1 establishes the story’s foundation, which tells us everything that will then escalate in Act 2. Remember, you can’t escalate what hasn’t already been established. All the context around the conflict and stakes has to be created in Act 1, otherwise Act 2 can’t do what it needs to do.

In Lakewood, the main conflict comes from Amy trying to make sure her son, Noah, is okay while there’s an active shooter at Noah’s school. That’s Amy’s goal and the over-arching, main story conflict.

What’s at stake is her son’s safety, potentially his life. That’s the external stakes.

Internal stakes give the story meaning

But there’s also internal stakes, which give the story deeper emotion and meaning. As the script establishes in Act 1, there’s a rift in Amy’s relationship with her son right now. He’s struggling to deal with a trauma and she doesn’t know what to do for him, doesn’t know how to talk to him.

If she can’t protect her son today, she’ll have to live with the guilt and regret over failing as a parent in general. She’ll never get a chance to make things right. To be there for her son. To help him through his trauma.

(And, as we learn later, she feels guilty over having caused the trauma in the first place. She feels she may be responsible for the way everything is unfolding now anyway.)

As a foundation for Act 2, that’s what you’re going for: strong conflict, and real and meaningful stakes.

The four sequences of Act 2

When I help writers plot out Act 2, we often use sequences as a starting point because it’s such a nice, simple framework for thinking about the vast expanse of Act 2. You can think of the sequences of Act 2 as four steps that take the protagonist from the big plot point at the Break into Act 2 to the big plot point at the Break into Act 3.

The four sequences of Act 2 roughly break down like this:

    • Sequence A starts at the Break into Act 2 and lasts about the first quarter of Act 2
    • Sequence B picks up there and ends with the Midpoint
    • Sequence C launches off of the Midpoint and takes us another quarter of Act 2
    • Sequence D goes from there, through the low point, and ends with the Break into Act 3

And remember: Act 2 is all about escalation. Escalations happen when things get either harder (escalating the conflict) or more meaningful for the protagonist (escalating the stakes).

So basically, you can think of Act 2 as a progression of steps that escalate along the way.

Lakewood Act 2 sequences and escalations

In Lakewood, Act 2 breaks down into these four steps (the sequences):

    • Seq. A: Amy frantically tries to find out where her son Noah is and to reach him, but she’s stranded.
    • Seq. B: Amy learns her son is at school and still struggles to get there, while information unfolds that he is a suspect in the shooting.
    • Seq. C: Amy despairs over her role in it until Noah is cleared, only to finally hear his terrified voice and learn the shooter is there with him.
    • Seq. D: Amy uses illegal means to make contact with the shooter, but only makes things worse.

Each step makes progress in the plot, that’s clear. Can you also see the escalations?

Escalation in the Lakewood screenplay

At first, Noah might still be safe. Amy’s goal seems more possible to achieve.

Then she learns he’s at the school, where the shooter is, which escalates the conflict; it’s now harder to achieve her goal. Amy also learns that Noah himself may be the shooter, an escalation on the internal stakes.

Then that escalation is resolved but replaced with another: Amy hears Noah’s terrified voice saying, “he’s here”. The immediacy of this creates urgency and raises the external stakes.

In the final sequence of Act 2, Amy makes progress toward her goal but things also get harder (escalate) as she is unable to reason with the shooter, and then loses all contact with Noah.

Yikes. Lakewood does a great job of stretching out the tension, and when you look at these escalations you can see the framework for creating that experience.

3 prompts for a satisfying ending to your screenplay

We’ve reached Act 3. The climactic part of the story.

And yet, it’s the part of the screenplay that seems to get overlooked the most. Not just by writers, but sort of in the general conversation about screenwriting.

Seriously, have you ever noticed that? If you look up screenwriting books, there are several (at least) devoted to every aspect of a screenplay… except Act 3. (I think I’ve only ever seen one.) And often, discussion about Act 3 ends after, “It’s the climax,” or the “it’s the final battle.”

Those points are both true, of course. But let’s expand on them just a bit, think about what Act 3 actually needs to do, and look at how Lakewood meets those goals.

What does Act 3 need to do?

There are a few key things Act Three needs to accomplish in order to stick the landing, and identifying those targets is our first step toward making sure your screenplay is hitting them. What are they?

    • Act Three answers the question posed in Act One.
    • It satisfies the audience emotionally.
    • It shows proof of the transformative experience.

Often the ending carries more weight than the rest in terms of our overall feelings about the movie or screenplay. Thinking about your ending from the perspective of those three prompts will help you figure out what your audience needs in order to ultimately feel satisfied by your story.

For example, think about your reaction to the Lakewood screenplay – Act 3, specifically. When all was said and done, did the story feel complete and did you feel satisfied? That’s the bottom line.

The three prompts listed above are aimed at creating exactly that result. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

Answer the question posed in Act One

In Act One you set up a question – you might hear it called the Dramatic Question, or Central Dramatic Question, or even Main Tension. It’s a question about whether the protagonist will achieve his story goal – the main thing he’s trying to accomplish by the end of the movie.

In Lakewood, the question that’s posed at the end of Act 1 is something along the lines of: Will Amy make sure Noah is okay?

(That’s how I’d pose the question, anyway. There are surely other ways to phrase it.)

We know that’s the story goal she wants to achieve and we’re rooting for her to succeed. In Act 3, after a tense journey, the question is answered. From the script:

Amy’s head raises when she ostensibly hears something… 

A flash-flood of relief and unbridled joy when she sees —

— Noah. Alive and unharmed.

Amy leaps from her chair. Races to him.

So in this moment Amy finally sees Noah before her and knows he’s safe and sound, which answers the Act 1 question for us.

When to answer the question of Act 1

One thing you might note is that the moment where the big question is finally answered happens at the bottom of page 95, in a 97-page script. Every script is unique and some scripts may need a bit more wrapping up once the dramatic question is answered, but – in general – when the question is answered for the audience, it feels like the story is over. We’ll watch some wrapping up of lingering sub-questions, if there are any, but too much will test our patience (and likely lessen the impact of the ending you’ve created).

In Lakewood, there aren’t really any outstanding subplots or other questions we need to address. The script draws out the tension and suspense as long as possible, not even answering the dramatic question until the scene after Amy has taken her last action to achieve her goal.

When the script finally answers the question, the thing we’ve been waiting to find out all this time, that’s really all we need. After that there’s about a page and a half that eases us out of the intense emotional moment when mother and son reunite, and speaks to the theme of the story. (In effect, the last scene buttons the protagonist’s emotional arc.) But that’s it. There’s no need for any other scenes after that.

Satisfy the audience emotionally

The audience is waiting for you to make good on the emotional ride you’ve taken them on. To resolve the tension you’ve been creating throughout Act Two, and to pay off their emotional investment in the story.

And in order to truly satisfy, that emotional payoff needs to feel in line with and proportionate to what the character and the audience have experienced in the rest of the movie.

So, in addition to paying off that tension and answering the dramatic question in a way that feels satisfying to us, the experience of it – the way the story’s resolution is dramatized – should feel satisfying too.

How does Lakewood satisfy our expectations?

Lakewood is a tense and emotionally gripping journey. But even though it’s about an active shooter and a hostage situation, that’s not where the camera lens is pointed. We stay with Amy, with the tension coming largely from her frustration and helplessness at not being at the scene – where the action is taking place.

The climactic sequence involves a SWAT team taking down the shooter. There’s a commotion. Gunshots are fired. But we’re not there – we don’t see it happen. As is in line with the rest of the movie, we stay with Amy.

On its face that might seem like a weird choice. If the movie is about a hostage situation in a school, why aren’t we there, on the scene? Especially for the “final battle” – the big climactic confrontation!

But just think how jarring it could have felt if we’d spent 90 minutes with Amy, in very close perspective with her, only to then cut inside the school to be in the midst of the SWAT officers bursting onto the scene and taking down an armed suspect… exactly where Amy isn’t, at the moment it all peaks.

Instead, we stay with Amy, the character we’re most emotionally invested in, as the tension peaks and then resolves.

The writer (Chris Sparling) chose a very particular angle on this school shooter story – indeed, it’s what makes this script unique – and the ending of Lakewood stays in line with that vision and the story he’s telling.

Show proof of the transformative experience

We like our movies to be about transformative experiences, and Act Three is where you’ll ultimately show us proof of the change that’s occurred in your story.

This final key thing goes hand-in-hand with both of the first two. Seeing the protagonist come to the smarter, wiser, healthier way of being can be a big part of an emotionally satisfying ending. And the change the protagonist experiences will contribute in some way to how he resolves the plot.

In addition, the transformation is the primary way the theme is conveyed to the audience.

The transformation at the heart of Lakewood

In Lakewood, Amy’s arc is somewhat subtle, but meaningful. In the beginning of the story, she’s lost faith in her abilities as a parent. She doesn’t know what to say to Noah, doesn’t know how to help him, and so she says nothing. When faced with an opportunity to approach him, she runs (literally) the other way. Not because she doesn’t care, but because she fears making another misstep.

In the middle of the movie, Amy’s confronted with her feelings about her parenting. She’s forced to look at the extent to which she’s lost touch with her son. The distance she’s let grow between them. And how much she feels she’s let him down. She struggles to know what to do. And then to do what she knows she must: to not be silent anymore, to simply be there for her son.

By the end of Act 2, Amy sees “the lesson of the theme.” She knows she’s the parent and she has to step up; Noah is just a kid and he needs her. She can’t run the other way. She can’t do nothing any longer.

In Act 3, because of this new information or mindset shift (the thematic lesson) we see Amy try to do what she now knows she must. Even when it’s scary and overwhelming, even when she thinks she’ll probably screw it up. Even when the stakes are impossibly high.

Amy does everything she can to be there for her son, and this is proof of her transformation. She’s embraced the lesson of the theme. And because of that mindset shift, her actions in Act 3 are different from her actions in Act 1. She has changed, and her behavior shows us that.

Make screenplay analysis work for you

Whether Lakewood is a movie you’ll choose to see or not, I hope reading the script and our discussion here has been useful.

As you know, I’m always looking for ways to help you learn screenwriting. Reading screenplays and sharpening your analysis skills is a great way to do so, and that’s what this exercise was intended to do. To take a close look at one script and analyze whether the script works, and if and how it does what it needs to do.

Each section of the story has a purpose, a function to fulfill. But we’re not talking about arbitrary rules. As always, we’re looking to understand how a story works on an audience – how does it achieve the ultimate effect of entertaining and moving us.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.