Q & A: Act Breaks
On the subject of structure, I've just finished the first draft of a feature screenplay and I'm struggling with act structure: when the act should end as concerns page count. This draft runs 130 pages -- yes, too long.Okay. I don't think I've ever written about this directly before. But one thing I have written about is that I'm not someone who believes in arbitrary rules of screenwriting. When I read a screenplay, I'm only occasionally even conscious of the page number I'm on, so I certainly wouldn't be checking to see if your Act break took place on a specific page or not. In fact, if I'm reading for a company (as opposed to when I read to give feedback to a writer), I don't even usually take note of the Act breaks themselves.
Lew Hunter is a stickler for precise act breaks: Act 1 should end on page 17, etc. Other script gurus take a more organic approach, saying the story should dictate the structure as long as there is rising action and it grips the audience.
My Act 1 runs 35 pages and I'm really trying to avoid "killing my babies" because what happens there is crucial to the rest of the story -- bet you've heard that one before. I can blame trying to make the script vertical for adding 5 or so pages to that act. The rest I can blame on me not being able to find a more succinct way to set up my protagonist's journey into Act 2.
I know there are certain screenplay conventions I have to follow. I also know that there are writers out there such as Charlie Kaufman, Paul Haggis and Christopher Nolan who push the envelope. I'm just trying to tell a linear story but I am concerned that I may be blurring the rules.
What are your thoughts on this and how do you deal with it?
But at the same time, I feel all of these things intuitively. If an Act break comes in too late, the script will feel like it "takes a long time to get started." If it comes too early (and I'm actually somewhat surprised that Hunter says page 17, because that actually seems early to me), the film will often feel like it needs more development, or more likely (in weaker scripts) will bog down in the second act.
How do you know if your Act break comes too late? Either read it with an open mind, or get others to read it for you. Don't be concerned with whether they mention your Act breaks or not. Instead pay attention to any other comments they make about pacing, and translate those comments yourself to relate to Act breaks.
Also, be aware that page numbers as points for act breaks are somewhat artificial in their own right. They are set in relation to a 120-page script, but some of that will need to be adjusted when your script is another length. I typically find 120-page scripts that I read to have been forced into that length. In fact, I feel the ideal length for a spec submission is somewhere between 101 and 115 pages, depending on the genre. 90 feels too short and skimpy. 120 feels too "by the book." 120-130 is acceptable, though there had better be a good reason. Anything over 130 and it better be one kick-ass perfect screenplay at that length.
So, in terms of your own screenplay, page 35 does sound a bit late. Typically, I'd say anything in the 20-30 range can work well, if done properly. And that is the key phrase. It is more important whether it works in your screenplay than if it matches a specific page number. I'm sure there are some script readers out there who check page numbers incessantly. We call them anal retentive. They are unlikely to be in the majority, and probably are also less experienced with the job.
Don't worry about a specific page number, but use it as a guide. The page numbers for Act breaks are there because they work there. And if you stray too far, it will probably be noticed. One thing you might consider trying, if you don't want to "kill your babies" too much (though you'll probably have to kill some to shorten the script overall) is consider pushing some of your Act I info into Act II. Do we need to know all of this up front, or could we (and perhaps would we be better off) with some of that info held back for a later part of the film?