We have rules and we have tools. Writers use story hacks to break the rules. Let me explain:
Do we not have rule upon rule? We’ve rules of our buildings, our cities, our nations, our cultures and religions. Are we not taught from the time we can walk that rules are made to be broken? And are we not also taught that you need to understand the consequences of breaking the rules? The lesson of course is, if you can’t do the time don’t commit the crime.
Tools are different from rules. Tools are invented in our mind to make our work easier. And in order to break the established rules of storytelling and screenwriting a good writer needs the very best tools to execute the story hacks I’m exposing below.
The 90-120 page rule
Scripts written in proper screenplay format average a page per minute. A feature is roughly an hour-and-a-half – two hours long. Thus the 90 – 120 page rule. Screenwriting books and expensive screenwriting gurus will all tell you that scripts should fall within the 90-120 page rule.
The context behind the 90-120 page rule
Life has some pretty basic and underlaying rules we jsut need to abide by. Traffic rules for instance.
One of the most tedious but rigid rules of screening is the 90-120 page rule. Here’s why:
When your script arrives at an industry reader’s desk the first thing that’s checked is the length. A script longer than 120 pages is almost always rejected. It is not true that a finished film will translate directly into the number of minutes relating to the screentime. A recent movie I produced, Deadly Vitues, has a 92 page script but the finished film was about 84 minutes, for example. As we know, a page of dialogue can run in half a minute, whilst a page of descriptive action can easily run over a minute in length.
Here’s the problem writers have: readers assume the approximate length of the movie is roughly equal in minutes to the number of pages. So how can we hack this if your script is longer or shorter?
Just about every movie rule has a basis in the business side of the industry. Cinemas need movies. They also need to make money. A two hour movie can be shown fewer times per day that a 90 minute movie. This means fewer tickets, and less popcorn and concessions sold. And less profit.
A reader who sees your script come in at 129 pages will start to think it’s an epic, even if it’s not. And if it’s under 90 pages, they will think it’s made directly for online or DVD release – and too short to merit the attention of a cinema release. So – bingo – you are straight into the reject pile unless you use one of these six story hacks.
The film industry’s red flags for screenwriters
The sheer quantity of screenplays in circulation is daunting. The consensus is that there are about 50,000 new scripts circulating the industry at any given time. Development aims of film production companies need to filter out 99.9% of the scripts on the market. In order to do this, the industry has developed a series of red flags that are designed to warn the reader that the script they are reading is either poorly written, not ready for development or just not up to par. One of those red flags is the 90-120 page rule.
6 Story Hacks Professionals Use To Break The 120 Page Rule
In my life as a script reader, I read scripts up to 180 pages long. It is one of the most obvious signs of a novice screenwriter. Professional screenwritiers use these story hacks to keep their scripts under 120 pages:
Story Hack 1: Simplify the detail
New writers often confuse detail with good writing. The misconception is that the more detail, the better the writing will be. Suddenly your screenplay is mushrooming out of control. While detail might work in a novel, the opposite is true in the movies. Too much detail can confuse the readers. The trick is to paint a word picture.
For example, here’s the opening scene of a movie I was editing a while ago:
Here we have a very dense and over-written description that will turn a reader off straight away. it also prescribes a certain architectural style of house that might not be readily available.
The trick with description is to create a word picture. I suggested this two-line rewrite:
Hopefully everyone from the script reader to the location manger will get an idea of the sort of building that fits with the story.
Story Hack 2: Simplify the character count
Often new writers will populate their story with a multitude of characters. This is a very sure sign of a writer who lacks experience and discipline. If you make a list of your favourite movies, you will notice that many have as few as half a dozen principal characters.
Every time you add a character, your script will bulge with the extra introductions plus the different actions they will take. Commercially successful films generally hone down the character (and cast) count. This is why I champion our Deep Characterisation class with Kira-Anne Pelican. Characterisation is crucial.
Even though IMDB lists 20 or more actors in Pulp Fiction, most are incidental characters. There really are just five major characters in this movie – a story full of convoluted twists and time-line mashups.
Story Hack 3: Don’t write dialogue
This is likely the simplest way to shorten your screenplay. Don’t write dialogue! And of course you need to write dialogue. Here’s the irony: dialogue that mirrors action is pointless and overwritten. It will make your script unwieldy and long. It will also make you look like a rank amateur.
Here’s an example from another script I consulted on:
Do you see how that action directive is totally unnecessary? And how Bob doesn’t need to say he’s doing to take a sip of coffee?
Remember the showbiz maxim: Show don’t tell.
Story Hack 4: Minimise storylines
Readers and audiences are easily confused. And nothing creates more confusion than a multitude of storylines. My advice would be to do as the professionals: Prune and thin your storylines down to one strong thread. And remember – if you have too much story for your film you’ll have enough left over for a sequel!
Story Hack 5: Write the emotion
No one remembers information – you only remember emotion. When I was a kid in Africa, I once had a cobra dash between my legs. I will remember it’s hooded head and forked tongue for the rest of my days. But I can’t remember the scientific description of the snake.
Take this introduction to a sci-fi feature written by one of Hollywood’s most prolific authors, Bill Martell:
Don’t you just get the tingles reading this? And how succinct and brief this is.
Story Hack 6: Useful formatting cheats
OK. Suppose you have edited and adjusted the line spacing on your formatting software and no matter what you do, your script ends up as 123 pages. If I were you, I’d call page 37 page 36A and so on until the last page is numbered 119.
Or if your script ended up too short, lets say at 87 pages, i’d insert a blank page in an appropriate spot, say, after page 27 and call it page 28 and at the top write something like: car chase, three pages, yet to be written. Or, romantic love scene, four pages, yet to be written – and then number out the pages until it ends at 90 or 91 pages.
Of course for every self-appointed sage like me, there is always going to be exceptions to the ways to break these rules. Please let me know in the comments box below! And keep writing.
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