Monday, August 24, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) part 86 – Does Page Count Really Matter?

If you go back and read the archival Writing Weeks and some of our other more writing-centric posts, you’ll probably see a lot of talk about page count. We also talk about it a lot amongst ourselves in the League; “what page are you on?” “Do you think 85 pages is too short?” and that sort of thing. Sometimes, the discussion seems to lean so heavily toward page count and position that I wonder if we’re proving ourselves to be amateurishly focused on the wrong thing.

When we Leaguers were in school, we were taught basic three-act structure. A script is (supposed to be) 120 pages long. Act One is 30 pages long; Act Two is the next 60, and Act Three is the final 30 pages. Even while we were in school, I remember noticing a collective shift away from a 30 page third act. If a script came in at 105 pages, chances are Acts One and Two were pretty true to form, but Act Three was shortened. I actually don’t know if I’ve written a 30 page Third Act in years. Probably haven’t. And of course, depending on the genre, a script might be as short as 90 pages. I personally still aim for a 25/50/25 percent act balance when writing, no matter the page length. (Disclaimer before I go on, I know a lot of people have abandoned act structure for the sequencing method; I haven’t yet, so apologies to anyone who isn’t a fan of Three Act Structure.)

Last night, after working with notes from my producer and manager on the post-Apocalyptic spec, my perfectly nailed 30 page first act dropped to 25. I got to thinking, does that really matter? The five pages of cuts I made speed the story up, eliminate some of the darker and more macabre elements that were making this a tough sale earlier, and get to the heart of the plot much faster. Bottom line, they’re hard to disagree with. Yet, my first act is under what I normally consider to be a full Act One.

Ultimately, I think that the answer is: page count (in situations like this) doesn’t really matter as long as the script is strong. Act One is generally thought to be between 25 and 30 pages, with those being the respective lower and higher markers. The reason I bring it up, though, is that as a reader, I remember looking specifically for that big plot point right on 30. A bit before? Ok. Too much before; well, we might have to talk about this. Similarly with screenwriting competitions; I’ve entered at least one competition where part of the grading criteria listed on the website specifically mentions Act One ending on page 30.

As writers, page count shouldn’t seem like the end all and be all, but there’s enough out there to support my theory that within at least certain parts of the industry, the 30 page first act is still sacred, and to violate that could mean a step closer to disheartening rejection. My advice – know what the industry standard is (not only for page count, but for formatting and any technical part of the craft) and where you can and can’t bend that.
As a new writer, i.e. an unproduced one, I’m already enough of a risk. If I break all the rules in my first industry spec, and especially if I fail when trying to break new ground by abandoning the standards, then I’m not doing myself any favors. Page count does matter, and while it’s not the first thing worth focusing on, it is very much a part of League discussions because it’s something we have to be aware of and is elemental to further displaying our knowledge of the craft.

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