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!
THE LOST LANGUAGE OF STORY: BE A “REEL” WRITER
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.