The Business of Screenwriting: Page Count

The mysterious science of what happens when and where in a script.

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It’s 1987. I have recently stumbled my way into Hollywood after selling a spec script. My introduction is a mystifying experience and as ignorant as I am about the ways of The Biz, I know this much: Having had zero formal training with screenwriting, I need to download everything about the craft as fast as I can.

Which is why I find myself in a Westwood movie theater watching a mindless action movie with my writing partner and a few of his USC grad school buddies.

One of them has a wristwatch he keeps consulting, pressing a button that lights it up so he can register the time. It’s pretty distracting, but I have learned enough to know what he’s doing: Tracking plot points.

Well into the movie, he leans over to me and says, “This is where they fuck.”

I blink. He nods at the screen: Just watch.

I do. As I recall, Maria Conchita Alonso is in the movie. Or maybe another bosomy brunette. In any event, the current bit of rock ’em, sock ’em action onscreen resolves itself. Then the very next scene, sure enough… the Hero and the Girl start undressing and mashing to the strains of a sultry saxophone.

Afterward in the lobby, I buttonhole the guy.

“How’d you know…”

“Simple. It was minute 75.”

He goes on to explain to me that in these type of genre movies, after a big action scene in which the Hero and the Girl almost get killed, they manage to escape, then right before the shit hits the fan at the end of Act Two, they always bed down.

“Like clockwork,” he says with a shrug, then turns away to join in trashing the movie with his pals.

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I confess I’m not much of a fan of the genre, but over the next few years I find myself plunking down cash to buy tickets to big dumb 80s action movies, Jean Claude Van Damme and the like, and sure enough… at minute 75, the couple copulates.

Welcome to the wonderful world of screenwriting page count. We may not like it. It may scream “formulaic.” Creatively it seems really, really stupid. But the fact is when people in Hollywood read a script, each of them has their own mental ticking clock. There are markers in the page count which suggest that certain things should be going on. However people learn it, conscious or instinctive, everyone has a page count system — and it affects how they assess and respond to a script.

Here is my own personal list of what I generally expect to be going on:

P. 1: A compelling start to the story, bonus points for something visual and active.

P. 5: The end of The Opening whereby at least some key characters have been introduced, hopefully in an interesting way.

P. 10–15: A significant event that twists the plot and poses some sort of question or opportunity to the Protagonist: What will they do?

P. 20–30: Events propel the Protagonist out of their Ordinary World and into a New World.

P. 50–60: Some sort of plot and tone-changing Transition event.

P. 80–90: A big setback to the Protagonist in which it appears All Is Lost.

P. 100–110: A Final Struggle.

P. 110+: Denouement.

Obviously there are multiple other plot points to fill in the narrative, but these are the most basic page count markers operating in my mind, both when I’m writing a script and reading one. And I’m not alone. Everyone has a page count.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about. In 2008, I interviewed a professional script reader. Part 4 of that Q&A is here. Here is her page count at work:

–As I start reading, the first page tells me a lot. Does the tone clearly signal what kind of movie I’m in for (genre)? Does the script have me hooked yet? Or am I confused? Indifferent? Bored? Or am I intrigued, excited, amused, unsettled and, in other words, emotionally engaged in some way?

–By page five, if something hasn’t hooked me yet, I’m scribbling peevish notes on the margins such as “what’s going on?” “what’s happening?”

–By the end of act one, if I’m still not hooked, I’ve already formed enough of an opinion and am starting to write the comment for the coverage.

–As I read, I circle major characters and plot points. To be honest, I’m reading so quickly that I’m not always paying attention to whether ALL the major story pillars are in place. I don’t break down your script’s structure, but I am reacting to whether or not it’s essentially sound.

I do pay attention to four major pillars and these are the ones I usually circle as I read: inciting incident, end of act one, midpoint and end of act two. I’m not saying to myself, “okay, here’s the inciting incident…here’s the ‘all is lost moment.’” But what I’m thinking as I read is, “something interesting has just happened to the main character (inciting incident/catalyst). “ “Ah, the central question or core problem is raised (end of act one). “ “Oh shit, everything just got more messed up (midpoint),” and “Oh shit, the protag is doomed, but let’s see how he/she get out of it (end of act two).” If I’m thinking “huh? What’s the central question? What’s the main character’s problem? When the heck is something going to happen?” — that means the story pillars aren’t in place, I’m bored and the script will get an easy “pass” (and probably a line in the coverage that reads something to the effect of “not enough happens in the plot to sustain audience involvement for the duration…” etc.).

Every person involved in the script acquisition and development process has their own page count. I suspect mine pretty much aligns with the norm.

Should you feel free to divert from these markers. Yes. But there’s this delicate balance that happens when we write: We strive to tell a story that is fresh and evolves organically from our creative process, and yet we have to be mindful of the page count. We try not to be formulaic, but we know that readers will be assessing the material based on their perception of where things ‘should’ happen in the plot.

So the simple message: Be aware of page count. If your story goes diverts from prevailing expectations, fine. Just make sure your reasons are tied to the advancement of the story and it works on the page. Because a script reader is operating with a page count.

And for an action movie, that may include a couple screwing around P. 75.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

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