The Mini Movie Method

Posted on February 24, 2010

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I never tire of hearing the Hollywood screenwriting gurus speak. They all have their individual take on storytelling and they all make good writing and storytelling sense. Le raconteur du jour is Chris Soth who teaches his mini-movie method.

Most screenwriters are taught the conventional three act structure in terms of storytelling. Very briefly, the three act structure was built around theatre, most notably by Aristotle in Ancient Greece (prior to their debt crisis). It was a harmonious union between drama and the physical and technical constraints of theatre. Playwrights needed to work out a way of getting the audience to return after forced intermissions, when sets needed to bumped in and out, while retaining dramatic structure. Hence the act breaks or turning points.

With the advent of cinema in the early twentieth century, the constraints changed from theatre sets to film reels. Believe me, reels weigh a ton. And you couldn’t stuff an entire film onto a single reel. Most reels contain about eight to ten minutes of footage.

The pioneers of cinema therefore created “mini movies” or self contained sequences to accommodate these forced breaks. In many ways it’s similar to five or six act structures in telemovies to allow for commercial breaks. I learned to edit film on a Steenbeck, with a splicer, tape and a projector. Much like my forebears, I was disinclined to edit between reels.

Typically a mini-movie or sequence is about ten minutes in length and there are eight to ten sequences in a movie. This refreshing paradigm also aids the writing process since it’s easier to write ten pages in a writing session than 25 pages for a single act; double that for act two. This is also how the “write your movie in ten days” theories work, by forcing you to set milestones for your script. Despite technological advances which allow film makers to film hours of footage on a single disk, it’s still worthwhile breaking down your script into manageable chunks.

I also love the mini-movie method because many screenplays (particularly at first draft stage) sag in the middle; much like a tent after a storm. Writing discrete action sequences abates this, and it also helps you write more efficiently since there are self imposed page limits to cover the story points in a sequence.

The mini-movie method blends with the three act dramatic structure in terms of introducing the hero’s journey, rising action and conflict to a climax and a resolution. The mini-movies are therefore distinct yet interdependent, much like the components in a computer which work together to allow it to function.

Try it out and see how much more manageable the screenwriting process becomes.

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