There are many hard and fast rules about scriptwriting which writers seem singularly incapable of following. Time and again writers break rules which were laid down to ensure their scripts are readable, if not actually good.
One of those rules I see broken over and over again is length:
- Action description shouldn’t be longer than four lines. Shorter than three is preferable.
- Dialogue should never be longer than four lines. Again, less is preferable.
- Scenes themselves should never be longer than three (ish) pages without a damned good reason. Find yourself north (or south?) of five pages and you’re in big, big trouble.
The problem, of course, with these rules are they’re utter bollocks.
Well, not utter bollocks. Mostly bollocks. They’re just not rules. Guidelines, maybe? Rules ofs thumbs.* Suggestions, perhaps?
Action should be short – yeah, I see that. Doesn’t really matter but it does make it far, far easier to read. And, if broken up properly, may bring your page count closer to one page=one minute.
Since most scripts are written with gaps between action lines then reading one without them is hard. Why make it harder to love your script?
Dialogue should never be longer than four lines – yeah, maybe. It does make sense because people rarely talk for that length of time without being interrupted.
Unless they’re giving a speech. Or lecturing someone. Or are really angry. Or boring. Or … well, lots of reasons really.
Part of the problem with long speeches is what do the other actors do while someone’s banging on?
Listen? That would be some very polite characters. People don’t tend to listen much. They tend to interject or change the subject or just wander off to make a cup of tea.
Except when they don’t.
Bad actors can’t stand and listen. Probably because it’s quite an unnatural thing to do. If you’re writing low-budget, cast fucking anyone who’ll accept, movies then you might want to consider both the quality of the actor listening and the ability of the one delivering it to maintain the same expression for that length of time.
Plus, it does slow things down. Actors love dramatic pauses.+ They fucking love ’em. Give an actor a one-page speech and you’ll end up with five minutes of footage.
Which may or may not be the director’s fault, I suppose. I don’t know.
This, of course, depends on what the scene’s about. A one-page rant will move faster than a one-page stare-mournfully-into-the-distance-and-recount-the-moment-where-it-all-went-wrong speech.
Both can work. Both can go horribly wrong.
Scenes should never exceed three pages – who the fuck thought that one up?
Okay, so again there is an element of truth in there. Long scenes can, sometimes, slow the pace. If everything’s meant to be fast paced and buzzy, then seven pages of people bantering about shoes may well slow it down again.
Or it may not. Depends on the delivery, I guess.
The Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk schtick helps with this. Get the characters moving, get them doing something and people won’t get bored.
Except when it’s done badly and after five minutes of fast-paced walking you start to wonder how fucking big this newsagent’s is and why they’ve gone past the Chocolate Hob Nobs seven times.
Personally, I get nervous when a scene hits five pages – usually it’s because there’s a lot of irrelvant banter in the middle or because the scene’s trying to do too many things and needs to just wind its bloody neck in.
Three pages feels about enough for most of the stuff I do.
So, you know, it doesn’t hurt to think about limiting action, dialogue and scene lengths … just in case.
Except when you shouldn’t. Except when it’s scenes like this from Doctor Who – The Zygon Inversion.
DON’T WATCH THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE EPISODE!
I love that scene. I fucking loves it, I does. I love the length, the staticness^, the wordiness … it’s just amazing.
To me this proves any rules about length are really there to disguise dullness in a script. Make a scene crackle, make it tense, make it have immediate and terrifying stakes and all the rules can just fuck off.
Limiting the length of things is probably a good rule of thumb@ … but it’s just that. Sometimes your scene can blow all that away with it’s sheer awesomeness. When you’ve got a scene which demands page-count … go for it!
I guess the real skill in writing comes from knowing when it’s appropriate.
* I didn’t know how to pluralise this so I just went all out.
+ Possibly while they scramble to remember the next massive chunk of dialogue.
^ Real word or not? Probably not.
@ Except for thumbs. Don’t limit the length of your thumbs.