Thursday, February 17, 2011
What's The "Right" Length? (For A Script! Quiet At The Back)
It seems every time I think The Format One Stop Shop (a list of all the format/script convention issues I see most at Bang2write) is finished, someone comes up with a question or I get a bunch of queries that make it necessary to update it again.
Just recently I've had some enquiries about what I think of as MONSTER screenplays - the shortest was approximately 142 pages; the longest over 300 pages. Now, whilst most writers know nowadays a feature length MOVIE script is *typically* between 90 and 120 pages, but the confusion appears to have arisen here regarding TELEVISION SCRIPTS. At least two of the scribes in question told me they thought they needed to write the entire series as ONE script for a producer to want to look at it. One was even of the opinion a producer *couldn't* want to look at a series without knowing the ending.
The good news however, is you don't have to write the entire TV series. But even if you do want to (and why not?), you probably don't want to send the whole caboodle out straight away. The most frequent approach I see is this: ONE x TV drama pilot (of roughly 60 pages), plus a series bible of *technically* any length you want, though my recommendation would be 4 or 5 pages, maximum. You can read more about TV writing (and episode structure) and series bibles in The Required Reading List, it has its own section.
Whilst we're here then, just a couple of other points I frequently discuss with Bang2writers about script length:
The shorter the better. Just because a feature *can* be as long as 120 pages, doesn't mean it NEEDS to be. In fact, it's very often desirable to be MUCH shorter and as close to 90 pages as possible. As someone who has read literally thousands of screenplays, I am of the firm belief that *generally* very often the SHORTER the screenplay is, the BETTER it is in fact. Now that's just my personal opinion (based on reading lots of scripts), but even if you think that's a load of guff, consider this: a script reader will probably pick your script up and be DELIGHTED it's on the shorter side (because most are in the region of 105 pages it seems at the moment). What a great first impression.
Script length seems to follow fashion. A couple of years ago, I was getting a lot of movie scripts in the region of 85-93 pages, whether from spec writers or commissioned writers. Just recently, I've seen that page count go up as mentioned in the last section and loads go up as far as 105 now. However, I have ALSO noticed parentheticals creep back in to feature length screenplays after a long absence and there is no doubt in my mind this is contributing to the added page counts. Since parentheticals are useless or at least rather distracting to read (plus actors are taught to ignore them anyway), does your movie script need these added pages? I'm unconvinced.
Spec TV pilots need to be roughly 60 pages. Or 90. There's no real in-between. I often see TV scripts at really odd lengths, anything between 45 pages and about 75 pages. Typically, a spec TV pilot needs to be about 60 pages based on the "minute per page" rule because generally, TV dramas are approximately sixty minutes long. You DON'T need to worry about advert breaks or even act breaks over here in the UK, it's a spec. Similarly, if your TV pilot is feature-length for the first episode or part of a mini series (and there's no reason it can't be, it's a spec) then make it 90 pages on the same basis.
Shorts are often not as short as they *could* be. I'm a big fan of the "micro short" - the short film that's five pages or under. This is because, in recent years, I've seen many, many short films that "drag" in terms of conflict because they're simply too long, either on the spec pile, or as produced shorts online or at film festivals. That's not to say ALL shorts are too long - some lend themselves really well to ten minutes or more - but I feel scribes really need to ask themselves during development whether their story NEEDS to be. It seems to me many shorts of ten pages or more start off rather lethargically, with much of their action "back ended" for a big twist or realisation in the resolution. It's a short, writers have limited time to make the impact their story needs. Be absolutely ruthless in your approach.
It's usually dense scene description that contributes to "overly long" screenplays. One thing that has not changed in all the years I have been reading is this one. If one's script is simply "too long", it's usually because it has WAY TOO MUCH description. When I think of all the scripts I've read, the ones that fly by are those that know economy is everything and that the "best" scene description pushes forward the story and/or reveals character, rather than paints a picture of how the scene LOOKS. My ol' mucker JK Amalou writes brilliant scene description and one of the reasons I was drawn to Deviation all those years ago was because its description was so lean and yet utterly devastating as Amber contemplates her fate in that horrendous car journey with Frankie.
If it's not scene description making your script "too long", it's *usually* a structural issue. Act 2 seems to be a real issue with scribes; I've had many describe it as a kind of wasteland they need to fill, but aren't always sure how to, so they end up sticking extra stuff in they may not need. But Act 2 is not a wasteland at all, but actually the MOST IMPORTANT PART of your script, the CONFLICT. This is why I like to think of structure as "climbing walls, each higher than the last", with each wall an obstacle in the path of the protagonist's goal, especially in this section - it stops your characters from "running on the spot".
Of course, we all start writing overly long screenplays - my very first script was 129 pages, which whilst not *that* long, is a far cry from the length of scripts I usually write (in the region of 88 to 95 pages, usually). And my record monster screenplay I've received over the years via Bang2write OR initiatives or screen agencies still stands at a whopping THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY ONE pages. It was a feature called AS I WALK IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY OF DEATH and I got it in 2002 and then again in 2004! Thought the second time it was slightly shorter - 304 pages. How long was your first script?