The Destructiveness of Formulaic Screenwriting

Question: What's the worst screenplay-writing advice \r\nyou've ever heard?
 
Robert McKee: That there are \r\ncertain points, certain pages in fact, in which certain things must \r\nhappen.  You got 120 pages—although screenplays are getting shorter, \r\nbecause the emphasis on spectacle becomes greater and greater... And so,\r\n anyways, say 100 pages.  And properly typed in the right format, a page\r\n is equal to a minute of time.  And so they say, at a certain page, \r\ntherefore at a certain minute, more or less in the film, there must be a\r\n major turning point of some kind, or expositional point, a revelation \r\nof some kind perhaps.  And that the worst advice is to—many, many books \r\nthat say certain events must happen at certain pages in a screenplay.  I\r\n mean, that is the most destructive possible thing to say to a young \r\nwriter.  And to actually destroy a young talent by actually convincing \r\nhim that he has to pretzel his work into these page counts, that is just\r\n terrible. 

But there is a rhythm, and in order to reach \r\nanything like a satisfying limit of experience for these characters, \r\ngenerally, you need a minimum of three major reversals.  Okay?  And you \r\nspread those... it could be four or five, I mean “Raiders of the Lost \r\nArk” was in seven acts.  It could be seven, eight, nine acts structures,\r\n I mean in “Speed,” if you counted the major reversals in a chase film \r\nlike “Speed” or whatever, it's probably nine.  Every ten minutes \r\nsomething explosive happens.  Right?  But three is a minimum.  And if \r\nthe film is, again, 100 minutes long, and you’re going to space those \r\nthree out in some kind of fashion, then clearly one of these is going to\r\n happen, perhaps at the very beginning.  There may be another one \r\nsomewhere in the middle and maybe one toward the end, or it could be the\r\n first one happens like 30 minutes in, and the next one happens like 90 \r\nminutes in, or whatever.  Okay, so you can have, obviously if they have \r\n100 minutes of storytelling, you can’t have three major events happen, \r\nbang, bang, bang, in the first 15 minutes and then leave 75 minutes \r\nworth of resolution.  Okay?  Nor can you make somebody sit there for 75 \r\nminutes in which nothing happens and then bang, bang, bang three things \r\nhappen in the last 15 minutes.  So, obviously these events have to be \r\ndistributed with a certain rhythm.  Exactly what that rhythm is, is so \r\nidiosyncratic to the nature of the story that is being told that you \r\ncannot predict, or demand that they happen on certain pages, but you can\r\n point out to the writer, of course that there is a rhythm and that you \r\nhave to hook the audience’s interest, hold it, and progress it for up to\r\n 120 minutes, two hours, even more in many films.  And to do that you’ll\r\n need at least three major reversals and then you’ve got to work out how\r\n to distribute them.
 
So, there’s certain forms.  There’s a \r\nform, but by the page is a formula, and that formula kind of thinking is\r\n very destructive.

Don't try to put plot points on specific page numbers, says the screenwriting guru.

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