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Posts Tagged ‘Screenwriting by numbers’

Last week I was asked this question:

“I’m trying to write more with ‘looks,’ more action, and less dialogue. I find very little advice for how to write these looks into the narrative without ‘directing’ the scene. Also, screenwriting books frequently state that narrative sections rarely get read by readers early in the process. That they typically read through just the dialogue. Have you read/heard this too? Curious if you have any thoughts. Thanks!” —Cindy

The short answer is you want to tell a great story. That is what everyone is looking for. A story that people are willing to invest money, talent and two or three years of their life trying to get it made. You want to write something that frightens the horses. By some accounts 99 out of 100 scripts fail to stir the imagination.

To paraphrase that great line from Walk the Line, “If you only had one story to tell before you died, what story would you tell?”

Now Cindy’s question is about the nuts and bolts of what the script looks like and I have written a lot on that and will supply some links below. The main one is Screenwriting by Numbers. I’m not saying it’s the law, but it is what the majority of good scripts that made good movies look like. The scripts are tight with a lot of white.  Brief description, little dialogue and a lot of white on the page.  Sure there are exceptions to the rules, but I said majority—not all.

Perhaps the reason for that is movies tend to flow quickly from one scene to the next and screenwriters are trying to get reader to imagine the movie. If writers wanted write a pure literary experience then a short story or a novel would be a better choice. But speaking of the reader, let me pass on a quote that I think is an important aspect of screenwriting that is often overlooked.  It comes from screenwriter Pete Chiarelli who wrote The Proposal starring Sandra Bullock. Chiarelli spent ten years being a development creative executive before he turned screenwriter so he has a unique qualifications to tell you who your first audience really is from a studio perspective.

“I definitely have a thing from being an executive and reading so many scripts that I’m always afraid of kind of boring the reader. When you’re writing these screenplays for the studio system…the people reading it are overworked, they’re coming home with ten scripts in their bag—and it’s not so much the first ten pages, it’s about when they’re reading the script they have to put it down, go have a sip of coffee, come back, play Donkey Kong, come back…Or are they going to be sitting there flipping pages? I just think of me on a Sunday night—like those rare scripts where you just sit there and go wap!, wap!, wap! (sound of quick page turning)— that’s the sound that I want. So constantly keeping the story moving and keeping the pace up is something I that I always have in the back of my head. And there’s things that I learned in screenwriting class—things like ‘never write anything that’s never going to be on the screen,’ that it’s a cheat,  which I get, but the thing is your audience at the beginning is a studio executive—they don’t care about that. So if you have to be a little more obvious in your scene description that will help point them along that’s something you should do. Write for your audience, and your audience is a 24-year-old overworked creative executive.”
Pete Chiarelli
Interview with Jeff Goldsmith
Creative Screenwriting Podcast (Friday June 19, 2009)

Descriptive Writing—Part 1 (tip #22)
Descriptive Writing—Part 2 (tip #23)
Descriptive Writing—Part 3 (tip #24)
Descriptive Writing—Part 4 (tip #25)
Descriptive Writing—Part 5 (tip #26)


Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday I was reading David Bordwell’s book The Way Hollywood Tells It which as the subtitle says is a look at Story and Style in Modern Movies. Bordwell taught film studies for several decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (I think he recently retired.) Roger Ebert has said, “David Bordwell is our best writer on the cinema. I find this book simply astonishing.”

There is much I’d like to write about Bordwell’s book but the one thing I want to mention today is his research on the average length of a movie scene. Over the years of watching movies and reading scripts I had come up with a rough estimate of most movie scenes in American movies lasting between 1 and 3 minutes in length. (I covered this some in “Screenwriting by Numbers.”)

Well, Bordwell has come up with a more definitive answer and points to when this shift began.

“From 1930 to 1960, most films averaged 2 to 4 minutes per scene, and many scenes ran 4 minutes or more… In films made after 1961 most scenes run between 1.5 and 3 minutes. The practice reflects the contemporary screenwriter’s rule of thumb that a scene should consume no more than two or three pages (with a page counting as a minute of screen time). The average two-hour script, many manuals suggest, should contain forty to sixty scenes. In more recent years, the tempo has become even faster. All the Pretty Horses (2000) averages 76 seconds per scene, while Singles (1992) averages a mere 66 seconds. One reason for this acceleration would seem to be the new habit of getting into and out of the scenes quickly.”

David Bordwell
Page 57-58

My guess is the average length of the scenes in Crank: High Voltage that opened this weekend is probably pretty quick.

For more information about Bordwell check out his website on cinema.

Update 2/11/2011: Can’t you have a 5-6 minute scene that just has two people talking? Of course, The Social Network started with a 5-6 minute scene and was nominated for an Oscar. To pull off a 5-6 minute scene of two people talking it helps if your name is Aaron Sorkin.

Scott W. Smith

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