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SIGNIFYING NOTHING
by Patrick Storck

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How many times have you watched a movie, and come out thoroughly impressed, only to look at your watch and be surprised at how early it was? Plenty happened, the characters were well fleshed out, you had lots of fun, and most importantly, you feel you got your money's worth. Somehow, all of that was achieved in under two hours.

Conversely, how many movies have you seen where your ass is numb, you've had to go to the bathroom for what seems like weeks, and really can't articulate much of a plot or substance?

The first point to this article is that the length of your movie isn't as important as how you use it. Truth be told, if Martin Scorsese wanted to set up an 8mm camera in a rock tumbler and point it at toilets around New York for 3 minute reels, put together 60 of them, and take up 3 hours of your time, he could do it. Being who he is, people would watch it, discuss it, and try and find themes and expressions in it. He has established himself as somebody who is worth a little trust. Does that mean the 3 hours would be entertaining? Not at all.

You can have art, and if you're only going for art, you need to do what you're going to do. But if you want somebody who has absolutely no clue who you are or why they should care about how you see the world, remember that the more time of theirs you waste, the more they will resent you.

Sam Raimi used to believe that all of his movies should be under an hour and a half. That way, even if you hated it, he hadn't taken away your whole evening. It may be self-depricating, but until you have a rabid fan base, you should at least not rule out that you might not find an audience.

Start with his limits, or better yet a page count, and try and fit your story into it. I usually say no shorter than eighty pages, no more than one hundred. With the rule of a page per minute, I'm hovering ten minutes on either side of the hour and a half mark. Add in complex sequences that may be much longer on screen than described, like a long suspenseful tracking shot or a fight scene, a montage, or so forth. Tack on your opening titles. You've already padded out the runtime a little more. If there's improvisation on set, you'll have room for it. Second unit and establishing shots? You're covered. And you're still under two hours.

Something else to think about when getting close to the two hour mark is commercials. If you want to be shown on any sort of television station like Sci Fi, TBS, your local affiliates, or CSPAN, should they start showing movies, they will need about twelve minutes on average per hour for commercials. That's how they operate. That means every minute your movie runs over ninety six, you're getting a minute trimmed for runtime. It's not common practice for you to be the one to decide what gets snipped. It's also rare for a movie to get a three hour chunk on the schedule without a damn good reason.

You ever watch a movie that was well under two hours, but you feel like it took forever to get through? That it was too long, even though it barely took any time? Strange, considering how many movies run well over two hours but feel like they breeze right by. It's the same principle you can apply to work. If you have nothing to do, the day will take forever to get through, but if you're swamped it seems like you're leaving before you get a chance to get started. Time moves much faster with activity.

Dialogue is so very important to screen writers. It's their voice. It's their wit. It's their chance to show off how clever and educated and verbose they are. It is also their downfall. Take the start of this paragraph. Lots of words really hammering home the point. A point you already got, so the rest was just showing off words like "verbose."

It's really easy to write snappy, fun, enjoyable, or heartfelt dialogue. Just pick an idea you want to explore, then keep countering your own thoughts as you go. Have a one-liner or insult? Drop your setup in a little earlier. Want somebody to be tough? Have them drop the f-bomb a lot and threaten to shove things up people's asses. It's a standard gimmick. Feel free to riff on pop-culture like you do with your friends. It's easy to write dialogue. Just don't think that makes it good dialogue.

This may be one of the most important things you can know as a writer: Dialogue is exposition in disguise. That's it. If dialogue does not reveal information about the plot, scenario or characters, nor does it physically or emotionally advance the story, nor motivate said advancement, it is worthless to your story. It's great for a DVD extra, maybe.

If you think a chunk of dialogue is wonderful enough that it needs to be in the script, but it serves none of the above criteria, are you sure this is the script it needs to be in? Is there maybe another story you have where the exchange could actually be a catalyst for change, or a humanizing moment? If you're so happy with how your characters sound, why not have them sound that great talking about their immediate situation?

Try writing a draft in which only directly relevant things are discussed. I still say a good thick outline is the best way to start, or at least a massive pile of notes and ideas, but we're talking about a draft. Not even first, neccesarily. Rewrite with just generic dialogue, but any detail you need action wise.

INT. POLICE PRECINCT - DAY

Our hero storms into the office, looking worn out and beaten. His Captain is keeping his composure, his face showing his reluctance to do what he knows he has to.

CAPTAIN
You're being investigated.

HERO
I've been framed.

CAPTAIN
I have to suspend you.

HERO
(something personally insulting)

The hero throws his gun and badge on the table and storms out.

Now you can move on to the next scene. If you get to the end and you've only got twenty pages, you only have that much story and the rest is filler. Fluff. Passing time until something else important happens. If that's the case, find places to complicate the lives of your characters. Add sub plots. Look at your themes and ideas, and what else can explore them.

Once you get to above forty pages on plot method, that allows room for your dialogue to explore the situations. Keep an eye on the page count. Once you get to eighty pages, that means your script is around half filler. You've doubled page count, but more than doubled dialogue, since a lot of the original forty is direction, location, and so forth. If you're at eighty pages and not close to done filling in the dialogue, go back and examine how wordy you're getting. What is being said in twenty words that can be said in six. Where were you just writing to figure out how to make a point, and when you finally made it you didn't go back and clean up?

The idea of writing a movie can be daunting, and often one single script becomes a dumping ground for all ideas the writer has, whether they belong there or not. Many of these ideas, if excised and set aside for a time, can gel into their own separate narrative. They can also make fun shorts to work on. To leave them in a movie where they don't belong is a disservice to the ideas, the feature, and your audience. And look at this. I've run long again myself. Lots of noise, signifying nothing.

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Other Columns
Other columns by Patrick Storck:

That Should Be In a Movie

2010: A Year We Could Make Contact

Bad Movie Christmas

Suggested Reading

Thanks again!

All Columns


Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.


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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Patrick Storck by clicking here.


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