I was a designer for knitting and crochet magazines when I began writing in the 80’s. HBO came along about the same time, and gave me something to listen to while I counted stitches and wrote instructions. I listened to favorite movies over and over, which gave me a good feel for dialogue, better perhaps than I would have garnered from watching the movie, with all the distractions that offers.
But it wasn’t long before I was consciously picking up on the fact that “something happened” in a movie about every five minutes, just as I paused to make a note about rows and stitches.
I tried to instill that in my written work.
In fact, about every five minutes is about the pace required for most movies, and runs as true for Die Hard and Gone in 60 Seconds as it does for At Middleton or Driving Miss Daisy.
However, it wasn’t until I was about halfway through Say Yes that I discovered Viki King’s book Write Your Movie in 21 Days. Irresistible title, echoed by a good many books for writing a novel these days.
From Viki, I learned something many of you already know, that one minute of movie time covers the action on one page of the movie script. Even more helpful to know, a script came in at ninety to 120 pages. The average children’s novel manuscript had the same approximate page count. Getting Near to Baby went to the publisher with ninety-seven pages and was 115 at final edit, two chapters and minor changes longer.
The really comforting thing Viki’s book pointed out to me, certain things happen in a movie at minute three, minute ten, minute thirty and so on. They could happen on the same pages in a children’s book, and just coincidentally, set the pace. Briefly:
Minute 1: who it’s about
Minute 3: what it’s about (theme, often delivered in a line of dialogue)
By minute 10: introduction of conflict
By minute 30: introduction of more characters, setting, emotional connections, backstory
Minute 45: the midpoint—a small triumph over adversity or a resounding failure, sometimes an introspective moment, or a romance blossoms
Between minutes 30 and 60: the main character has found allies, confronted several obstacles and appears to be on the brink of losing on every level, and yet he finds unrecognized strengths to try again
Minute 75: the climax
Minute 90: tying up threads
Shrink or expand to fit your page count. I've collected more books on screenwriting over the years, but few of them have been as inspiring as Viki King’s. Her method is infallible because screenplay structure is fairly rigid, even within what we consider to be outlier movies like Crash or Pulp Fiction.
It’s far more likely now that you’ll all have read a book or two on script writing than it was fifteen years ago, when there were far fewer. Go to your bookshelf and consider screenplay again, not for how much white space you can leave on the page, but for how the structure applies to what you’d like to do.
Not exactly homework, but a strong suggestion: sit down in front of a movie every evening this week, something from your own DVD collection so you don’t get distracted by just watching, and use a kitchen timer. Stop the movie every five minutes. Write down the larger event that just occurred, give it a little thought: how did that raise the stakes, how did it turn the story in a new direction, what new information might have done either or both? How did the main character (or the character onscreen) react and how did the event affect the main? How much of this was outer story (action), and how much of it was inner story (emotionally resonant)?
You really won’t get much knitting done, but your writing will advance in many ways.
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