When you first learn about screenwriting, one of the first general rules you’ll learn is that one page in the script equals about roughly one minute of screen time. Of course, that’s not always the case, Veep‘s first script being around 45 pages long but coming in at 30 minutes on screen. However, if you haven’t “made it” in the industry, you’ll likely have to face the reality that your script won’t be accepted many places if it’s over 120 pages or under 90. It’s the same as with first-time novelists who have to keep their pieces around 75,000 to 100,000 words in length and is seen as a way to prove you can tell a story in the standard amount of time.
This at first can be frustrating. What if your film idea really needs to be 160 pages long? So many films today are reaching three hours in length that it seems like the limit would be changing. But the truth is, in order to become a great storyteller in any form, it’s important to learn how to master a simple story even if you don’t feel that’s your style. It’s the cliched idea that if you want to break the rules, you must learn them first.
Additionally, should you decide to make your first script ever 160 pages or so, you’ll be missing out on some key structural lessons in screenwriting that you can carry on with you to other mediums, something the Storytelling System is all about. However, it’s worth noting that there are many different ways to structure a screenplay and approach writing your own. While some may be frustrated by writing their story around big minute marks, other may find it helps them remember to work towards a goal.
So, what is “writing by the minute?”
Called “the Western Dramatic Structure” or the “Minute-by-Minute” method to some, writing by the minute is the highly structural approach to writing a feature film based on the three-act structure as taught by Blake Snyder, the author of Save the Cat.
If you’ve watched a lot of films, especially Hollywood ones, you’ll notice they all have a certain formula to them. While that word may have the artistic side of you cringing, the formula has existed since stories have existed, it’s just been adapted to the script in what is arguably the most engaging way to tell a story for a wide-range of people. As discussed earlier, each page in a script is roughly one minute of screen time, so that when you “write by the minute” you are often forced to start thinking like screenwriter. Without this structure, you might find your script has eight-page scenes and at page fifty we still haven’t even meant the antagonist. And while this mistake may be totally acceptable in prose, with films people are far less patient. so you’ve really got to get the ball rolling otherwise people will turn off your film. That doesn’t mean you have to write an action packed film. You can write a slow piece using this method. It’s just about creating an awareness to move the plot forward and writing by the minute enforces that well.
Who is this method for?
While I encourage everyone to try this method to organize their script, the approach may be stressful to some, especially those who might get too obsessive with hitting the exact page number every time. For those people, I would recommend the Eight Sequence structure (blog post coming soon). However, if you often write ten page scenes and forget that you need to continuously advance the plot, trying out this method might be a way to keep yourself oriented and focused on the story.
What’s the structure?
Now that I’ve yacked your ear off defining what it means to write by the minute, it’s time to finally learn the beats to a feature length film. It is worth mentioning once more that this method is by no means a method I created, but something I learned in school and by studying screenwriting theory and am writing about for the sake of introducing the formula to those who are new to the medium or feel intimidated by it. See this as a recap of Snyder’s beat sheet for those feeling lost, but please do not mistake these beats for my own original ideas.
Act One is usually around 20-30 pages long depending on the length of your film. Within the act we set up the world, introduce characters and the main conflict. In Aristotle’s three act structure, this is the exposition phase.
10 minutes: At ten minutes in, the inciting incident occurs. By now the main characters and world have been introduced. Until this plot point, everyone in the script has been living their normal lives, whether they are happy or sad ones. But then once the inciting incident occurs, a conflict has been introduced. This serves as a set up for the rest of the movie and should be something that if it were not introduced, the story could not exist. For instance, in Harry Potter, the inciting incident is Harry realizing he has magical skills.
17 minutes: Floating around fifteen to seventeen minutes in, the main character usually has a point where they debate whether to go on the journey or address the conflict introduced at the ten minute mark. With Harry Potter, this is when Hagrid shows up on his 11th birthday and Harry learns about the wizarding world.
30 minutes: This is where the hero decides to go on their journey, where the couple decide they should go on a date, where Harry finally goes to Hogwarts. Your hero is now past the point of no return and must now go on their journey, whatever it is.
Perhaps the most difficult section for a screenwriter to fill, Act Two is about raising the stakes higher and higher to prepare for the climax at the end of the act. Here the hero learns the skills she needs to overcome the main conflict, she gains allies and overcomes small obstacles to prepare her for the final one.
45 minutes: While the rising action begins shortly after the exposition, is it at this point that another complication is introduced. In the space between the thirty minute mark and the forty-five minute mark, new characters and subplots are introduced, some of which may aid or hinder the future plot points.
60 minutes: Halfway through the film is the midpoint. Usually here there are some complications and the main character is tested in some way. Internally, they realize or learn something that changes their approach to the situation. Oftentimes at this point in the story a new, essential character is introduced who can help the protagonist achieve their goal, pushing them to take an active role in achieving their goal.
75 minutes: Here the character achieves their goal and gets what they want. Only they come to realize that what they wanted all along was not what they needed. Often for romantic comedies, it’s where the couples who just wanted to have sex realize they really wanted a relationship.
90 minutes: This is the lowest point in your story. This is where characters who seemed essential die or where the couple breaks up. At this point in the story, things seem hopeless for the character to achieve their main goal. To use the Harry Potter example, this is when Harry realizes Dumbledore is gone and Voldemort is going to restore his powers that night, putting Harry’s life in danger.
Because the final act can be wrapped up in as little as ten pages, there is no specific outline for this act. Instead, there are two main things to focus on in the order presented, the final act usually having no more than 20-30 pages.
Climax: Occurring after the characters address the low point from the end of Act Two, the climax is the most exciting moment of your script. For instance, with Harry Potter this is when Harry defeats Voldemort. Leading up to this moment were several scenes to add the tension and prepare for final battle, and oftentimes there is a twist right before the climax.
Falling action: This is a reaction to the climax, or as Aristotle called it, the falling action. It’s when Harry Potter wakes up in the hospital with Dumbledore after destroying the sorcerer’s stone and Gryffindor wins the house cup.
Denouement: Here everything is wrapped up and resolved, though this does not always mean every single question is answered. We see how the main character has changed since the beginning and the lessons learned. And it all ends happily or not-so-happily-ever-after. Harry finally has a home, and it’s Hogwarts.
Put it into practice:
EXERCISE: Turn on your favorite movie or a movie that structurally matches one you want to write. Open up a word-processing document or get out a piece of paper and be prepared to pause – often. As you watch the movie, every time there’s a scene change, pause the movie, write down the time elapsed, and what happens in the scene. Then continue to watch until another scene change and repeat. Don’t worry about the three acts or anything else, just focus on what happens in every scene and the time the scene lasts. This structure is something I learned to do in film school and you’ll be amazed as to what you internalize about how to write a screenplay just from doing this. For instance, you’ll notice most film scenes aren’t longer than about three minutes, even if they feel very long or you’ll note how much information a writer can reveal in just a thirty second shot.
After you’ve done this, go back and read your minute-by-minute analysis of the film. Compare it to this writing by the minute post and see where the big act breaks are or turns in the story. You’ll notice that even if the Act One break doesn’t happen exactly thirty minutes in, it happens somewhere near it and that every story has a low point occurring near the 90 minute mark. You’ll find the more familiar you are with this structure, the easier it will be to power through boring movies as you’ll be able to look at the time passed and say, “Well, we are getting to the midpoint so something bad should happen soon to make things interesting.” However, besides sounding like a film snob, you’ll also gain a solid foundation for the way all mediums for storytelling flow just by studying this structure and internalizing.
What This Method Teaches You About Other Mediums
As you know, based on the Storytelling System, I am a big believer that even those who don’t consider themselves screenwriters can learn something from the medium, and therefore even this exercise. Listed below are some ways you can take this approach and use it in other mediums.
Playwriting: This is the easiest to adapt since plays and screenplays are often similar in length. Take a play you’ve written and compare it to this writing method. From there you can see why certain parts of your play feel slow or fast and adjust the speed based on the page count.
Prose: Since with prose, pieces are measured by word count instead of by page count, you can easily adapt this same method to word count with simple math. If you have a 120,000 word novel, when editing all you have to do is say that by 10,000 words you’ll have introduced the inciting incident. Of course, prose can have a much slower pace than plays or films do, but applying this method to your novel when writing can also just keep you focused on telling your story instead of lollygagging about.
Video game writing: Because quests and video games all vary enormously in length, it is far less intuitive to try writing a story by the minute. However, what you can do for your overarching story is plot out each minute point in your story so as to ensure your story is full and lacking in no major plot points within each act. It doesn’t matter nearly as much for video games that your story is spaced out in a certain way since people follow the story in their own order, but it is essential that your major storyline contains all the beats in that a feature film would so that players feel motivated to follow the story all the way through, given that only 10% of players finish the video games they start.
Overall, what makes writing by the minute so great is its ability to help you see clearly your story without having to read the entire thing. Whether it’s for a feature or some other medium, the method allows you to look at the big arcs first before you tackle the small details and serves wonderfully as an outlining form. And once you have an outline, you have a full-fledged story you can tackle whether you fly by the seat of your pants or plan ahead for months before putting pen to paper.