James at 2011-09-13 18:11:31:
People who take "textbooks" on screenwriting as Bible, really piss me off. "I know Snyder likes to hit the 2nd act by page 25, but I feel that maybe I’ve overdone it a little." Blake Snyder also said that modern films tend to be pushing page counts further forward and has said that he's seen acts ending as early as Page 19. Scott has pointed out that Little Miss Sunshine's inciting incident doesn't occur until page 20. I hope from these two examples people already see the massive problem with "counting pages." Ending an Act on the "right" page doesn't make the story any more or less entertaining. FYI -- Blake Snyder also says you should state the theme as dialogue within the first 5 pages of your screenplay. I'm not knocking the guy -- more the people that take his word as Bible. Are these the types of screenplays you really want to be writing? Stuff Disney channel passes on? If people took the same approach to being entertaining as they took to rigid structure, there'd be so many more great scripts to read.
pliny the elder at 2011-09-14 00:21:57:
As the great bassist Billy Sheehan said: "Before you break the rules, you've got to know the rules.". James, with all due respect, it's not an issue of a "cookie cutter" approach to writing a movie, or a question of counting pages, but more of an issue of getting some clarification and insight, from someone with true expertise, experience and craft, on the issues and techniques regarding timing and pacing of my script. Trying to seek an understanding of the nuances of structure, you know, the stuff none these tomes will tell you, that only comes through bitter experience, is not a sin, imho. My concerns were to do with pacing, or more importantly the question of whether a short, and therefore speeded up, first act causes the second or third act to drag, simply by contrast. Or perhaps a short 1st act is a danger sign, that I might not have done enough setup (I'm writing a *multi-protagonist* drama: Grandfather, Father & Son as my three protagonists). To be honest, I'm a little concerned my grasp may have exceeded my reach, with this form. I quoted Snyder, because quite frankly, out of all the books I've read (and I've read dozens), he's the only one who even remotely addresses this issue. In my mind, that's more than a little disturbing. If I were writing a symphony, or an opera, I'd be able to find dozens of books that address similar structural issues, and provide the tools that would allow me to address them. Actually, one could be highly discouraged from writing such ambitious works, without a solid foundation in the theory.
Scott at 2011-09-14 00:34:17:
James, I do think that for writers who are starting out learning the craft, it is important for them to learn there is a general paradigm for screenplay structure: three act structure, sequences, plot points, act breaks. Otherwise they will be out of sync with how Hollywood itself talks about script development. Moreover there is something to be said about stories hewing to innate narrative archetypes, that structure is not just arbitrary but arises from the universal experience of living life and creating stories to explain it. Birth. Life. Death. Act One. Act Two. Act Three. There is something pretty damned fundamental and true about those three movements. But once a writer has that awareness, I think they should do their best to keep all that knowledge on a side track of their consciousness, never to get in the way of the authentic story 'stuff' they discover in their encounter with the story and its characters. Because in the pantheon of poor writing, there is almost nothing worse -- in my eyes -- than formulaic writing. Script by the numbers. I have read plenty of scripts that hit this screenwriting guru or that's paradigm in terms of their page count for plot points, so perfectly sound structurally, but the stories have little or no life to them. Again if a young writer has to learn that to get the basic dynamics fixed in their writer's mind, fine. But that is not what we, as moviegoers, need, nor what you, as writers, should want. Take the draft of "Bridesmaids" we are analyzing this week. Lots of structural issues with it. But you know what? It has vitality to it, interesting characters, lots of humor. It is a vibrant organic story that feels like a movie. That heart, soul, and emotion helped to get that movie made, and contributed mightily to its box office success. Much preferable to write something of that ilk than a script where the primary goal is to craft eight perfect sequences, twenty two perfect steps, forty perfect beats, whatever. Stories are organic. We do what we must to wrangle them and often that involves some serious left-brain, structural thinking. But never let that stand in the way of your characters speaking to you, acting in ways that surprise you, or otherwise bringing life to your script. This has been another sermon from Pastor Myers: Old Writing Fart With An Attitude!
Teddy Pasternak at 2011-09-14 01:54:35:
Amen!
pliny the elder at 2011-09-14 03:08:06:
"Well, ain't I the fucking asshole." Here I am, thinking I'd asked a fairly straightforward technical question, and I get patronized, not once but twice. All because I made the unwritten cardinal sin of mentioning Snyder. Sad.
Natalie at 2011-09-14 05:39:18:
Pliny I don't think Scott's patronising you, he's just pointing out that when we first start out most of us tend to need that structure but once we get into the groove those things aren't as important to our writing process as getting the story down the way we want it.
Atlanta at 2011-09-14 09:05:34:
I loved reading this post, thank you so much for submitting the question. I think impassioned response more indicative you've hit a nerve, substance over structure (hitting those basic structure marks just enough so folks get what you're saying, hear the story you're telling). Favorite reader question in a while, keep 'em coming.
Scott at 2011-09-14 11:07:23:
I reviewed your question, my answer and follow up comments. I'm not picking up a patronizing tone. Indeed had I wanted to be patronizing, Pliny, I would have simply ended my response with the very first paragraph I wrote: "Hollywood readers do develop an instinct about the timing of a script’s Plotline points and act breaks. So you are right to be mindful about this. And I could go the easy route and tell you point blank, 'Yes, your first act definitely has to be 25 pages long.'” However I thought your question was a good one, indeed, an important one as it speaks to a major concern, not only of myself as someone who interacts with many writers every day, but anybody who works in the script acquisition and development business: How to write a technically sound and organically alive screenplay? Perhaps you thought I was referring to you when I went on with my comments about "script by numbers." I wasn't. I was generalizing about the writing community as a whole and making what I think is a prescriptive point for all of our benefits -- including myself -- to remind us to strive to write flesh-and-blood stories with heart and soul. I said not once, but multiple times that there is value in structural paradigms, they have their place in the story development process. "...it is important for them to learn there is a general paradigm for screenplay structure." "We do what we must to wrangle them [stories] and often that involves some serious left-brain, structural thinking." "Find a structural paradigm with which you are comfortable to help your story development process..." However I think the value of my larger point stands: "But never let that [structural paradigms] stand in the way of your characters speaking to you, acting in ways that surprise you, or otherwise bringing life to your script." "...but always carry the awareness that stories are organic in nature." So, Pliny, not trying to be patronizing at all, rather I gave a thorough answer to your specific question, then provided a response to a larger issue your query raised.
Lazzard at 2011-09-14 11:07:34:
Pliny, the reason people come to this place is to discuss and learn. Your attitude ain't going to help your career much. The only person who called you an 'asshole' was you - Scott, on the other hand, offered you the benefit of his experience. There are plenty of places where you can get the opinions of various format/paradigm nazis who'll tell you which 'line' things should happen on. Most of them without a single writing credit to their name. It's not like that here.
pliny the elder at 2011-09-14 12:17:30:
Thank you. I appreciate it. To be honest, it was James, rather than you who set me off. So, apologies on my part. Moreover, I don't diagree with a single thing you wrote in response, but I thought it was tangential to the core of my question. My fault, for not being more precise in asking. Here's the thing: for me, film isn't just a visual medium, it's also a temporal medium, and many great stories can get lost through structural timing problems (we all have that friend who just can't tell a joke, because they have no timing). Consequently, what I was really hoping for was actually a response that expanded on the first paragraph of your reply. It seems to me, that although I didn't think I'd done anything wrong, that my short 1st act is a warning sign of *something*. And I wanted to find out what those might be. I think it's so important to understand, but nobody ever talks in detail about timing, flow and pacing, and how films can drag or rush, or flow unevenly, if you don't get those things right. For example, Crazy Stupid Love is a flawed movie to me, simply because there's a *major* conflict and resolution in the last ten pages, which feels forced and unnatural. That's the kind of thing I'm trying to avoid. Aronson aside, I'm constantly frustrated in trying to find in depth discussions on some of the more technical aspects of screenwriting (i.e the equivalent of music theory), because without that it's difficult to pose the problems, reason about them properly and solve them. Syd Field, for example, completely bypasses the issue of pacing with his approach. For those of us not yet experienced enough to have groked the craft, technique keeps you afloat when imagination abandons you.
Atlanta at 2011-09-14 13:31:53:
Of possible use to you, Pliny, and anyone still trying to suss out the deep underpinning of story, an awesome post by bitterscriptreader here, comparison of structural philosophies. Looking for that remembered link, also found this fun surprise, pdf comparing seven different story paradigms here, from dramatica. You know how plants can have three different names? Scientific, botanical, and one for the rest of us. Three different ways of looking at the same thing, all containing truth and insight. Know 'em all, you can really glean what the heck the plant's about. My hope, by knowing as much as possible about what others have gleaned about story, I'll be able to feel that rhythm and tempo in my gut. Yeah, so we'll see :-). Write, write, write.
Scott at 2011-09-14 13:37:20:
Pliny, could you email me? Perhaps I can be of more help.
DAF at 2011-09-14 15:06:10:
It's an excellent question, Pliny. One I often wonder about myself. A related question: the act break matters for proper set up reasons but does its timing matter for pacing? As I think we discussed in re: both Dark Knight and Gladiator, those were both long films with longer than 30 minute first acts (I'm assuming minutes=pages for convenience here.) It doesn't seem unusual for the major sequences of longer films to hit in 20 minute intervals leaving one wondering whether the first act actually ended on the 20 minute point or the 40 minute point or whether it matters. My sense is that the overall pacing issue depends less on where the act break is than on how often/effectively one is getting those big emotional moments (drama) or battle scenes (action) or suspense moments (horror/thriller.) As I think we discussed earlier, there's the whammo theory that says you need to get a big action every 10 pages/minutes. But as we discussed, there are other more character-based jolts one can use. I too would love to hear more on this subject. I've also always assumed that because one creates larger and larger obstacles for one's characters as one goes along that one has SMALLER BUT MORE obstacles in the first 60 minutes and LARGER BUT FEWER obstacles in the second 60 minutes. One example of this is Michael Mann/Stuart Beattie's Collateral. Vincent has to perform five murders. He's done with three by the 45 minute mark. But the last two stretch over the entire second half of the movie. So in many movies, there's almost a slow-down in the information given out in the second half even as the action itself speeds up. As you yourself say, my instinct is that it's as much about how one builds expectations and those big pivot points than the exact number of pages in each act. It is very difficult to talk abstractly about these issues though. And masterful directors/good scripts can make even the most unexpected combinations work. As for rushed endings, yeah, I feel like that may have less to do with pacing per se than with either logic problems or simply insufficient set up. For example, a lot of people took issue with the third act of the recent film THE DEBT. My suspicion is that that wasn't a pacing or timing issue (the flow of action in the film feels fairly smooth) so much as it was a logic and "flow" issue. They simply didn't prepare us as well as they could have for the direction the film takes at the end. I assume that's also how you felt about the end of Crazy Stupid Love? (Questions, questions, we all have questions--smile)
James at 2011-09-14 20:15:51:
My comment wasn't a personal attack. I come off as abrasive, I know. I agree with you -- that people are looking for signposts. How to break a story. Where the acts should go. My point was -- you can't find that in a book. You have to do the gruntwork. "As the great bassist Billy Sheehan said: “Before you break the rules, you’ve got to know the rules.”. This comment is flawed. It implies that there is a set of rules that must be followed. There isn't. That's my point. You need to find what works for you and your story.
James at 2011-09-14 20:29:16:
@ Scott -- Sounds to me like we're in complete agreement. I come off a little more forceful about this subject because I think making that transition from worried about structure to worried about CONTENT is a HUGE jump for an early writer. The faster they realize this the better their writing gets. Not exaggerating, it is night and day. It's the difference between an immediate pass and a consider. I also think that a lot of these books do a disservice by preaching a specific "method." While some people may find them useful, others may try to follow them completely obliterating their natural style, pacing, and voice. I urge all writers to embrace their gut instincts BEFORE turning to some paint by the numbers textbook. The only difference I see between what we are saying Scott -- is I am saying learn the FUN stuff first. You're saying, learn the structure first. I see/read more scripts that have flawless structure that seem to forget how to have "fun" with their idea. I'm also not saying, don't read these books. But when a question comes up that is something as trivial as page count, I already think the writer has gone offtrack.
James at 2011-09-14 20:41:03:
For the record, any question that strives at improving one's self is a good question. Despite what a jackass some people can be when they try to get their point across. Like me, for example. Sorry about that. All I wanted is to offer an alternate suggestion to these screenwriting "How to" books. Not to belittle anyone's opinion. Sorry.