A couple years ago, my friends at scriptfrenzy.org asked me to write an article on screenplay structure, and to break down five “key points” that writers should consider in the development of a well-honed script (see “Article: Screenplay Structure” in the Writer’s Resources section of this website). Well—there are many key points in a screenplay: the midpoint, both act breaks, the inciting incident, the nadir, the climax, page 10, the ending, and so on and so forth--all of which I've discussed in previous posts. Choosing the most crucial FIVE was tricky, but at one key-point immediately rose to the very top of my list:
Page 17 is so important that I would have named this website page17.com if some forward-thinking domain-name broker hadn’t already snapped it up, then offered to resale it for hundreds of dollars…
Here’s what I said about page 17 on scriptfrenzy.com:
Page 17. Next time you watch a DVD, pause it 17 minutes into the film. Trust me—any film. What’s happening at that point in the story? Most likely, the essential character conflict has just been laid out. A teenage Indiana Jones runs to his father for help, but is shushed instead. Shaun convinces his girlfriend to trust him in Shaun of the Dead. Captain Renault asks Rick why he came to Casablanca. On page 17, your audience should realize what the film is really about. It’s not about finding the Holy Grail, Indy—it’s about learning to forgive dad!
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Page 17 happens exactly, er… 17 pages into your script, and it is the point in which the emotional core of your HERO’S JOURNEY is clearly laid out. Sure—the inciting incident must be resolved (see the post: The First Ten Pages), and it is your hero’s path toward this eventual resolution that will define your screenplay’s PLOT. But imagine for a second what a classic film like Star Wars would have been like if Luke Skywalker had left his family farm, hitched a ride to the death star, discovered the force, then taken-on the empire ALL BY HIMSELF. It may sound farfetched—but come on—this is science fiction. You’d still have the epic battles, the cool effects, the pistachio-nut bad-guy helmets... But it simply would not be the same film. Star Wars, at its core, is REALLY a film about disenfranchised “rebels” pulling together as a TEAM to defeat the status quo. Isn’t it? And that’s why we love this movie—the characters, and Luke Skywalker’s indoctrination into a motley crew of brave misfits, is what makes Star Wars a great and memorable film.
So—page 17. You may be surprised by what happens seventeen-minutes into Star Wars (1 page always equals 1 minute of screen-time). It’s not the moment Princess Leia is captured by the empire OR the moment when Luke leaves his family farm for the very last time (that’s the first act-break). Page 17 in the original Star Wars film is the scene in which Luke Skywalker first purchases R2-D2 and C-3PO. Think about it—this is the first time that Luke is united with members of his future TEAM. This is the beginning of Luke’s EMOTIONAL JOURNEY, and it goes directly to the heart of what the movie is really about.
If you look for it, you will find that nearly every screenplay EVER WRITTEN contains a scene on or about PAGE 17 that captures the emotional core of the script, and its main characters. In Edward Scissorhands, it’s the moment Edward leaves his home and rides shotgun through suburban America for the very first time. In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, it’s the scene where Han Solo is set-free and the rebel-team is reunited. A couple of weeks ago, I re-watched one of my favorite films of all time—Annie Hall—and was surprised to find that the scene I most love, and that I most associate with this movie fell exactly at the seventeen minute-mark. Any guesses? It wasn’t the scene in which the main two characters meet, or their first date… It was the lobster scene. A scene that goes right to the soul of this movie, and most authentically captures (in my opinion) the newly born, genuine love between Alvie and Annie.
So—give it some thought. What is your page 17? What scene are you gonna stick there that says something authentic about your characters?
A great page 17 will give shape to the emotional journey of your hero, and focus your entire script.