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“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” — Alfred Hitchcock

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Since tip #3 focused on the one main person in your story,  it makes sense to address the other numbers related to screenwriting. Numbers play a key part in every production from the slate that keeps track of takes to you keeping track of your mileage for expenses. Screenplays are not exempt from the numbers game.

When you were a child the chances are pretty good that somewhere along the way you used one of those paint by numbers kits. If the number was one, you were supposed to use blue, number two yellow, and so on. And when you finished painting in all the numbers you actually had a decent little painting—for a six year old.

That’s actually not a bad way to approach writing––no matter what your age. I know it sounds cold, calculated and superficial, but hang with me for a moment. When I first started writing I was confused about the numbers game. Advice I got in books and magazines seemed conflicting and confusing.

Screenwriting by numbers is simply basic story structure and demystifies the process. Think of it like playing or watching a sport. It helps if you know the rules of the game. What are the boundaries, how high is the net in basketball or tennis? How are points scored, how long is the game played?

It takes nothing away from your originality. It takes nothing away from the story you have a burning desire to tell. It does not diminish the status of a great athlete just because he shoots a basketball at the same ten-foot hoop everyone uses, it enhances it. The limitations show his greatness. 

“Limitation stimulates the imagination.” — Milton Glazer

This is my favorite chapter to talk about because it’s like pulling back the veil on the main part of simplifying the screenwriting process. It’s easy to grasp and easy to follow, yet it’s a hangup for many writers because they miss it. If you don’t like the sports analogy think of it in terms of cooking or whatever field of expertise you have.  As Clint Eastwood says in Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Part of knowing the limitations is knowing what form you are writing for. For instance how long can a short film be and still be eligible for an Oscar? According to the Academy “A short film is defined as a motion picture that is not more than 40 minutes in running time (including all credits).” The total run time of a 30 minute sitcom is 22 minutes.  A video for You Tube cannot be longer than ten minutes. And to point out the obvious if you’re writing a 30 second commercial you have 30 seconds.

How long should a feature film script be? A coy response would be—as long as it needs to be. In the feature film world (especially for the new screenwriter) the real answer is most films fall between 90 and 120 pages.  

You can rebel against that all you want (go ahead point out the exceptions) but in reality, at a page a minute, the majority of movies made fall between an hour and a half and two hours in length. Why fight that? There is great freedom there.

A mighty river is powerful only if it has banks to contain it. (Just to sneak in an Iowa reference here and remind you that the mighty Mississippi River flows along eastern Iowa. Part of the Third Coast.) Look at these great films from a variety of genres that fall within the 100-120 minute parameters:

Finding Nemo 100m.

Casablanca 102 m.

The African Queen 105m.

Psycho 108m.

On the Waterfront 109m.

Sunset Blvd. 110m.

Citizen Kane 119m.

Raiders of the Lost Ark 115m.

Pretty Women 117m. 

The Bourne Ultimatum 115m.

That’s a pretty good list of films, but what about those under 100 minutes? You’ll find more comedy and horror films here because if you can scare people or make them laugh for an hour and a half you’ve done your job. You’ll also find low budget films here because it’s simply cheaper to shoot a film closer to 90 minutes than one that’s two hours. Films with limited sets also are common in this time frame as well.

Annie Hall 94m.

When Harry Met Sally 95m.

Twelve Angry Men 95m.

Halloween 91m.

Reservoir Dogs 99m.

Juno 96m.

Monsters, Inc 92m.

There are examples of films that are even a little shorter than 90 minutes. Generally, today these are limited to youth oriented films.

Bambi 68m.

Toy Story 80m.

Stand by Me 89m.

The Gold Rush 82m.

High Noon 84m.

She’s Gotta Have It 84m.

Stranger than Paradise 89m. (By the way, I just saw yesterday that Jim Jarmusch’s film is now out on DVD as part of  The Criterion Collection. Worth getting just to see a film done in master takes.)

Perhaps, you’re stubborn and you want to point out all the great films that are well over the two-hour mark. Let’s deal with them.

The Godfather 175m.

Dances with Wolves 181m.

Titanic 194m.

Lord of the Rings (3) 210m.

Ben Hur 212m.

Gone with the Wind 222m.

Longer films tend to have a built-in audience which justifies the extra expense. In the case of these listed five were best selling books first and one was based on a well documented historic event. But even those fall between basically the 3 and 4 hour mark. A long limitation, but a limitation nonetheless.

It’s hard enough to get any film made much less one over two hours, so if you’re really interested in getting produced why not improve your odds by writing a 90 minute screenplay? Keep in mind that low budget producers are trying to keep cost down so less is more there. And in Hollywood there are readers who get paid by the scripts they review. Human nature says they’ll choose the 90-page script before the 150-page script.

Embrace the limitations.

90 Page Script

So let’s say you’re setting out to write a 90 page script. Now what?

1-3 page scenes

Here’s an interesting observation I’ve made simply from reading scripts and watching movies. Most scenes are between 1 and 3 pages in length. So if that averages out to 2 pages per scene and you have a 90 minute movie you have 45 scenes.

45 Scenes

Do you see the freedom here? Most of you could stop reading this blog right now and write down 45 scenes from your childhood or odd things that have happened to you at work. I’m not saying you have a screenplay yet—but you may have an outline. 45 scenes. That’s doable, right? There’s nothing magical about 45 scenes, but it’s a good number to shoot for. I hope you’re beginning to see the freedom in writing by numbers.

When I first started writing I wondered how you kept track of all your characters. Believe it or not readers have the same problem in reading scripts. Which is why most screen plays only have four main characters. There’s just not room to develop characters beyond that. 

1 Protagonist/ 1 Antagonist

Limit yourself to one protagonist and one antagonist.

As I’ve said before, when you write your script either your protagonist or antagonist should be in every scene. (Or have a really good reason why they’re not there.) Once I tuned into this I have watched movies with awe how some writers include the protagonist is in ever scene. It’s so easy when to go off on little tangents and side characters. 

Lots of White Space

When you read a screenplay of your favorite movie the chances are good that there will be a lot of white on the page. Meaning that top screenwriters write sparingly. You generally don’t find big chucks of scene descriptions and thick lines of dialogue.

The Law of 3

I’ve read many a great scripts that basically applied what I call the law of three. As you watch movies from now on I think you’ll see the truth here. 

3 Lines or Less of Dialogue

Dialogue: Most lines of dialogue are three lines or less.                      

3 Characters (or less) Per Scene

“It’s difficult to have a lot of characters.”– Francis Ford Coppola

Most scenes involve three characters or less. There may be other characters around but the main conversation is limited to three characters. The main reason behind this is I think it is hard to write—and hard to follow—more than three characters talking.

Three Subplots or Less 

Generally you are limited to three subplots in a story because again you have limited time to develop them.

There you have it the basic numbers you need to contain your story.  As you watch films with this perspective in mind I think you’ll find that they are generally followed pretty closely. I hope this fires you up to write. How long does it take to write a screenplay? Well those numbers are all over the place but if you want some motivation to write quickly I’ll leave you with a quote from Sylvester Stallone: 

“It took me about three and a half days to write Rocky.” 

Copyright @2008 Scott W. Smith 

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