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7 On Structure # 5: Reel Writing

Many thanks to the marvellous Chris Soth who agreed to play a part in my series on structure by allowing me to reproduce one of his articles on his famed Mini Movie Method of film structure on this blog. Enjoy!

Don’t you love movies about the movies? I’m not talking remakes of movies that were far better the first time around, or even worse, creatively bankrupt works that don’t purport to be remakes but ARE, inferior, watered-down versions of stories have already been done well. I mean movies like SINGING IN THE RAIN, THE STUNTMAN, A STAR IS BORN and the lesser-known BOY MEETS GIRL, THE EXTRA and WHAT PRICE, HOLLYWOOD? And sometimes, there’ll be a scene, like the beginning of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS that’ll show some incredibly exciting situation, then the screen goes white, turns out we’ve been fooled — it was a “movie-within-the-movie” and that film just ended. The screen will flicker, lights will turn on —

— and then they’ll pull back to reveal we’re in a Hollywood screening room and some cigar-chomping, hard-nosed SUIT, who’ll say something like:

“We still got a problem in the third reel”.

What does he mean? A film reel, of course. It seems like this movie insider character, a studio head from Hollywood’s Golden Era, back when such people “lived over the store”, as William Goldman puts it – back when the people who ran studios made it their business to understand quality product, quality STORY, it seems he was using jargon that touched on how he thought about story. Here, in an artifact from the period, is a clue as to how those greats, Samuel Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn and Jack Warner, approached narrative and structure. And since he’d be talking to a director character in the screening room, maybe even a SCREENWRITER character, we’ve got to assume this language and understanding was common to those types as well. He said:

“We got a problem in the third REEL.”

He didn’t say:

“We got a problem in the third ACT.”

Or the second or first act for that matter. He didn’t even think in “acts”. So, the fact that films were shot on, edited onto and ultimately projected on “reels” influenced how the filmmakers in Hollywood’s Golden Age thought about story. That was how they approached it.

But when you went to learn screenwriting, all you were exposed to was Three-Act Structure, right? Isn’t that playwrights learned? Where were the REELS?

Or maybe you’ve been watching a movie and a terribly dramatic, gripping or otherwise “important” scene will happen. Something that changes the story entirely and sends it off in another surprising direction. And MUSIC SWELLS, maybe the camera goes up into one of those dramatic crane shots, looming over our protagonist, pulling up and away until they are looked down on from God’s perspective, seemingly weak and ineffectual against the freshly expanded problem posed them by this story.

Something has just ended. Something else is about to begin.

But it’s not an “Act Break”. Those of us who check our watches in the movie theater know. It didn’t happen at 30 minutes. Didn’t happen at 90 minutes.

It’s like end of a chapter in a novel, a discrete chunk of story that propels the main story forward until it organically exhausts itself, then hands the suspense off to the next chapter. Could that something be a reel?

Could it be that a reel just ended? And another reel is about to begin?

The earliest films were only a single reel long, and silent film after silent film showed in nickelodeons, back-to-back, all day long. At first, they were only “documentary” subjects, the mere fact that moving images had been captured and could be projected in their absence was fascinating enough to hold a crowd. Then, we adjusted, as we always do, and filmmakers wanted to tell fictional stories.

And at first, they did so on a single reel. The first narrative films, most famously THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, were only 10-15 minutes long. This extends to the early silent comedy work of Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the Little Rascals and Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops as well.

I’m not including this as a lesson in film history – what’s important is this is how story evolved to where it is today. And if we are to be students of story, shouldn’t we know why it is the way it is? When Chaplin, Keaton and DW Griffith – when the filmmakers of the early 20th century wanted to tell longer stories, like their brothers in the theater, what were they to do?

Use the tool they already had. The film reel. They divided up the story they wanted to tell into smaller components, each discreet, smaller chapters that would fit nicely on a single reel of film. They shot the story and edited it onto similar reels, and added them up, sequence-by-sequence, until they had the full story.

This is how stories were told and movies were made in “The Golden Age of Hollywood”.

So what happened? Aren’t we screenwriters filmmakers as well? And don’t we still want to make films as good as they were back then? Shouldn’t we be thinking like they did back then? So why is this method lost to us now?

Because somewhere along the way, the Warners and Zukors and Thalbergs died or sold their studios or got into other businesses. And the people and corporations they sold to, at least here, a few generations later, don’t come to the business through a route that exposed them to story. They’re MBAs and businessmen who know more about marketing and the bottom line than they know about quality of story. So movies are incredibly well marketed, better than ever before, with Happy Meals and tie-ins and toys and product placement and HBO “Making Of” specials while the quality of story falters.

And why else?

This method of telling stories by reels has been lost. And why is that?

Because, like the studio heads before them, the people who made movies this way have moved on or passed on – in any case, they have not managed to pass on the knowledge. And the first screenwriting books were not written by screenwriters. Like so many how-to books they were written to fill a public desire for knowledge and mandated by publishing companies and writers who saw that need. They were not necessarily written by writers, directors or editors who were making films using these methods.

And so the first books on screenwriting used what had come before, Aristotle’s Poetics, and other books about playwriting. And they’re very good as far as they go, nothing has beaten Aristotle in more than 2000 years. But the fact of the matter is film tells story differently than it’s told on the stage, or in a novel. Movies, along with the technological innovation, changed how story was told forever.

But a generation of writers read these books and were convinced that three-act structure was the only game in town. That the two plot points at the ends of Act One and Two were the only guideposts available in the grueling journey from idea to FADE IN and on to FADE OUT.

And those studio executives? The ones that bother to learn story are exposed to the same thing, three-act structure. Yes, even those in the loop are insufficiently educated now.

So, in a way, the language of story has been lost. We set out on our journey from Fade In to Fade Out with the vast desert of Act Two staring us in the face, and every flicker of the cursor mocks us with our own mediocrity, each blink saying “YOU SUCK, YOU SUCK, YOU SUCK!”

But they used to know how to do it. They didn’t have 60 pages without a landmark stretched out before them in the middle of their screenplay. They were never more than 10-15 pages from a plot point, and guiding them from one such point to another, the story they’d decided that reel would tell.

But even most working screenwriters of today don’t have access this method. So, are there good movies, good stories? Occasionally, but a lot more rarely than once there were, and much more by accident than by design. A writer who lucks his way through act two once may not be so lucky a second time.

Is there any way then for us to recover this method of telling stories in “reels”? Adding up each reel, chapter by 15-minute chapter, until we have a full story of 6-8 of these “Mini-Movies”, totaling 90-120 minutes in length.

There is. Thankfully, Frank Daniel kept this method from being forgotten and passed it on to another generation of screenwriters through his screenwriting programs at Columbia and USC. The method is discussed in Paul Gulino’s THE SEQUENCE APPROACH, David Howard’s BUILDING A GREAT SCREENPLAY, and in my own seminar, ebook and dvd set, MILLIONDOLLARSCREENRITING.COM.

Try this method with your next screenplay. Be a “reel” writer.

Write a real story.
Thanks Chris! Buy Chris’ eBook and DVD set on The Mini Movie Method here.

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12 thoughts on “7 On Structure # 5: Reel Writing”

  1. Mmmm, and if you follow techniques offered by Jeff Kitchen in “Writing a Great Movie” you *can’t* fall into the abyss of plotlessness.

    I really should be on commission.

    Of course it’s all very well saying “the Golden Age” of movie making. But it’s a fallacy really, a lot of cr*p was also made back then, only the good stuff survives.

    Which is what will happen now, the modern dreck will disappear and the good stuff will survive.

    Same thing happens in pop music. The “great” music of the 50s, the “great” music of the 60s — there was rubbish too, it’s just that no one listens to it.

  2. There’s no way to objectively quantify the number of great films made in a year, but for all the limitations inherent in any system, 30s and 40s Hollywood made a lot of successful films, many of which deserve to be revived more often than they are — the bulk of quality stuff is simpy too great, only something like American TCM can get anything like full use out of just a couple of the studios’ film libraries.
    But remember, execs only talked in terms of reels when dealing with a film that had been shot and cut. Because that was obviously the best way to deal with the material before them.
    However, I’ve heard Scorsese dismiss “acts” as a theatrical term, arguing that in film we have “sequences” and there can be as many as you like. I think both terms have their uses, and maybe act structure has been overhyped at the expense of sequence structure. Certainly good filmmakers through the years ahve used both.

  3. They’re all ‘tacked on after the fact’ analyses. None of these books or theories really help you do the job. If they did you could just buy the book, apply the approach and voila.

    Still, it keeps people off the streets and earning money so it can’t be all bad.


  4. I disagree slightly with anonymous. Screenwriting books won’t do the job for you, and you won’t find the solution to all your writing problems in them, but reading a few of them, and writing a lot of scripts, works to increase your sense of where problems and pitfalls may lie, and what to do about them. The mistake would be to rely on just one book, since they are all flawed, partial, incomplete, and no one book suits any one screenwriter’s needs.
    The real problem with these books is that they are read by execs and used as blunt instruments — old-fashioned studio bosses were great for the industry because they worked with instinct; they read stuff, and liked it or disliked it in exactly the same way an audience member likes or dislikes a film, without getting scientific. But the writers of those films drew upon a knowledge derived from plays, radio, newspapers and fiction.

  5. Ha Anonymous is DD well-known for his disagreement with book-learnin’ (I left school at 3, look at me now!).

    There is a vast abyss of difference between “writing by numbers” (which doesn’t work) and learning and using successful techniques.

    You learn some theory, you try it out, does it work? (Or, more acurately, does it work *for you*?)

    Nothing can replace talent in producing quality stuff, but (in my ever-so humble opinion) talent needs training too.

    Unfortunately much of what is “taught” is pure snake oil — but not all of it. And to throw the non-snake out with the oil is as foolish as swallowing the snake-oil whole.

    (I think that concept got away from me somewhere along the line.)

  6. Hmmmm, I can’t work out if I agree OR disagree.

    On the one hand I don’t read screenwriting books. At all.

    On the other hand, there are loads of ideas out there that really help people and if they help people, then surely that’s a good thing?

    And on another hand (presumably on another body or at least the alien version of myself), there are some ideas, like the Mini Movie Method, which I actually like ‘cos it makes sense and is an interesting alternative to the way I approach stuff. Plus I like Chris.

  7. I use the sequence method to outline & write my scripts. It’s not just an after the fact analysis but a useful tool. Recommend every screenwriter study & use it.

    I agree with David C about books. They are fine for picking up tips but that doesn’t mean you have to follow any one formula being espoused.

    You can’t get everything from one book or one source. You need to keep your eyes open, grab what is useful, & leave the rest.

    Sequencing isn’t a “formula” or “writing -by-the-numbers”. It’s a very open, fluid technique, & at the same time gives you a “structured” jumping off point for your story.

  8. Why would you not read screenwriting books? i mean, experimentally, just to see if they can help? If you don’t read them, how do you know whether you SHOULD read them?
    I’ve read a whole bunch and found it somewhat helpful, though probably the wisdom gleaned could be summed up in one, very short, book. I’m not looking to read any more unless one comes along that is clearly of superior quality, which I’d discover because I do glance at them in bookshops.

  9. Laura – I think of Sequencing, Mini Movie Method etc etc as being just another way of presenting The Three Acts personally.

    On “not” reading books – I probably put that the wrong way David. It’s not that I DON’T read screenwriting books – I have (all the usual suspects: Story, Make A Good Script Great, The Technique of Screenplay Writing, Teach Yourself Screenwriting, etc etc) and probably will again. However, I put more stock in working through problems, issues, stories etc by myself, finding my own methods of working, problem-solving and general stuff with an array of ways, usually dependant on things like philosophy like Poetics, readers, articles, opinions of random people etc etc. In other words then, I just wouldn’t say that I think a book has ever helped me DIRECTLY, more indirectly.

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