I was talking with a friend at work today, Allen, who just finished his first screenplay. It came out at 135 pages. We got to chatting about what I do to keep track of my page count. I’ve said some of this before, but I figured I’d share it again anyway.
The first thing I told him is to forget about his page count. The most important thing is that he finished his first script, which is something most people who set out to be screenwriters never do. I kept stressing that the first script is a test. If you enjoyed yourself, keep going. If you didn’t, maybe screenwriting isn’t for you. He said he had a good time, and was eager to see how to improve. That’s what I like to hear.
Allen first came to me about six months ago asking about screenwriting. I pointed him in the direction of Syd Field and Blake Snyder, and said, “Read those guys. They’ll give you a good primer on what a screenplay is, and a few ways of going about putting them together.” I then told him about, and gave him a quick demo of, Celtx, so he wouldn’t have to spend any money on his first piece of screenwriting software.
Anyway, as the conversation wore on we started to get into structure and things of that nature. I mentioned the first thing I do for any script is split each act into four separate files, Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B, and Act 3. This way, I break down page management into four smaller chunks. I know if I can keep each section under 30 pages I’m good to go simply because 30 times 4 is 120, which is the max of what you should be hitting for a script, give or take. I mean, this is for a guy like me and Allen… if you’re name is Tony Gilroy you can write however long a script as you want.
The four document thing was a concept that was easy for him to get his mind around. You can tell by page count what sections of your script might be thin, or a little to thick. If Act 1 is 22 pages, Act 2A is 24 pages, Act 2B is 36 pages, and Act 3 is 28 pages, it’s easy to know you might need to work on trimming up Act 2B, or at least pace the events out a bit more evenly between both parts of Act 2.
We talked a bit about outlining and I told him I like to follow a modified form of Syd Field’s 14 beats method (14 beats per act). When I’m done with my outline, I aim to dedicate 2 pages per beat. That gives me 28 pages to play with. Some beats will come in at less than 2 pages. Some will come in at more. But if I aim for 2 pages per beat, that will keep my sections lean and my total page count under 120 pages.
This again was an easy concept for him to grasp. Applying a general rule of thumb can give you a quick high level view of how your writing is going.
We chatting a bit about pacing. I said I’ve found it easy to break everything into 14 major beats per act. By keeping the story beats broken up, I don’t have huge, drawn out scenes… and things tend to stay pretty fasted paced. It might not work for him, but it’s what I’ve found works for me and my writing style. When I need to spend a few extra pages with a scene, I have the ability to do so, because I usually come in well under 120 pages.
Another thing I told him was that this is stuff that I figured out over the course of about six years. I’m by no means an expert, but it’s not stuff that I just figured out on my own either. I had to experiment, read, learn, ask questions, and get tips from other writers. I reminded him that at this point he’s gotten his license, and it’ll take a long time before he learns how to master driving. The more he puts into it, the better he’s going to get (ideally). I think that rule applies to everything, screenwriting or otherwise.
Until next time, keep writing!