It’s Christmastime. Of course we’re all counting the minutes.
I’m also counting the minutes until John Carter comes out, but that’s another story entirely.
You know who else counts minutes? Script supervisors. It’s one of those credits you see in film and television that a lot of non-industry people don’t really know what it means.
Very simply put, the script supervisor (often called the scripty) keeps track of things. He or she’s the one who notes exactly what’s been filmed (what shots and sizes and angles and lines) from each scene. Like lots of other key folks on set, the script supervisor does their own breakdown of the script. And the scripty’s breakdown is all about time.
The standard estimate for a screenplay is a page a minute If you talk to most script supervisors, they’ll tell you it’s actually closer to fifty-odd seconds (I want to say fifty-three), but a page a minute is a solid estimate. There’s always going to be some wiggle room, of course, especially when you’re dealing with action. As I’ve mentioned here before, the lobby scene in The Matrix is less than half a page. According to Hollywood legend, the chariot race in Ben Hur was just one line in the script.
This is why most professional readers groan when they get a screenplay that’s 140 or 150 pages long. That’s two and a half hours. Any script that long has a major strike against it before the reader’s looked at page one. I read two scripts this year that the writer had “squashed” to make them shorter, but I could tell they were both over 200 pages, easy. That’s close to three and a half hours. Possibly even more if they’d had action sequences in them. Which they did.
If you’re a screenwriter, look at your script. If you’ve got a solid page of dialogue, that’s a minute of talking heads. A minute is a brutally long time in a movie.
Don’t believe me? Try this. Look up at the ceiling and count off ten Mississippis. Don’t cheat, don’t rush... just look up and count them out in your head nice and steady like you’re supposed to. Go on. I’ll wait.
That was ten seconds. Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin pointed out once that ten seconds can be an eternity on screen.
So think about how long some of those character monologues are. It may be brilliant on the page, but there’s a good chance it’ll be torturous to watch. It’s important to understand the distinction between how long something takes on the page and how long these actions and conversations will actually need (or not need).
This goes for prose writers too (just so you don’t feel left out). I’ve mentioned the pacing issues that can happen if action gets stretched out too long. Certain things happen at certain speeds, and if they get slowed down with dialogue, descriptions, or excessive action they’re just going to look silly. Not in the good way.
And when something reads silly, people put your manuscript down in the big pile on the left.
Next time, I wanted to tell you a story about telling you a different story.
Until then, go write.