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Meet the Reader: Length Does Matter

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I’ve touched on this issue a number of times in the past, but because I have recently been receiving a large number of scripts to read and analyze that are seriously overlong, I thought it was worth revisiting.

The issue is the long-standing industry “rule” that a spec script should never be more than 120 pages in length (which should probably be amended to 110 pages, since that is the length preferred by most execs these days). I happen to agree completely with this notion, but whenever I say this, I get a lot of complaints – many I assume from spec script writers who have had their overlong pieces rejected.

As objectors to this rule often do, these complainers will cite as exceptions a number of wonderful movies that run longer than two hours and so, given the old rule of thumb that one page of script equals one minute of script time (which is, by the way, pretty darn accurate), must have had screenplays longer than 120 pages: The Godfather, The Dark Knight, Django Unchained, and so on. These objectors are correct – all of these examples are great movies whose screenplays were much longer than the accepted norm. However, they have overlooked one very important point -- none of these films began life as a spec.

screenplay length

Movies begin their journeys to the screen in a number of different ways – as spec scripts from outside writers, as adaptations of best-selling material from other media (books, plays, comics, old TV shows, etc), to which a studio or producer has acquired the rights, or as properties developed by talent (actors and directors) as projects for themselves that they then bring to a studio or other production entity. If a project begins life in one of the latter two ways, then the script “rules” tend to be loosened. If it takes three hours to tell the story of a particular best-selling novel, then a studio will let both the script and the film run that long if it thinks that doing so will make it a gigantic hit. And if a highly sought-after star or director’s pet project runs long, the studio will allow it to do so in direct proportion to how much it thinks that particular talent’s name is worth at the box office (after the incredible success of The Dark Knight, Warner Bros. had no problem letting Christopher Nolan’s next two films clock in at 148 and 165 minutes respectively). But when it comes to original pieces of material, the industry tends to hew to the rules pretty strictly (at least in the initial evaluation stage). Beside the usual concerns about budgets (the cost of a film rises exponentially the longer it runs) and the desire to make movies as short a possible (so that they can be screened as many times a day as possible and thus sell as many tickets a day as possible), there is another extremely legitimate reason for this.

A spec script is an original story conceived directly for the screen. To create a successful one, a writer needs to have a firm understanding of the parameters of cinematic storytelling. For many reasons both creative and practical, it is generally accepted that the running time of the average commercial narrative film should be somewhere between ninety and one hundred-twenty minutes, so a screenwriter needs to figure out how to tell his/her story in that amount of time.

The existence of the thousands and thousands of creatively solid feature films made over the past ninety years proves that it if you have a strong understanding and mastery of the principles of dramatic writing and of writing for the screen, it is more than possible to do so successfully. So when anyone involved in motion picture story development picks up a script that runs longer than 120 pages, one of their first assumptions is going to be that the author does not have a strong understanding and master of these principles and that – as a result – the story is either going to be poorly structured or extremely unfocused or that the script has been overwritten (and thus contains too many overly detailed descriptions and/or an excess of “directing on paper” camera and editing instruction) or has not been properly edited (and thus contains lots and lots of extraneous material). And ninety-nine percent of the time, they’re going to be right. This has certainly been my experience. I can say with certainty that the excessive length of just about every overlong script I have ever read is the result of poor writing rather than narrative necessity.

Hopefully this explains why – as far as readers are concerned – an overlong script already has one or two strikes against it before the cover is even opened. We expect overlong scripts to be bad (or at least extremely problematic) because they usually are.

Now, you may indeed have a story that truly justifies a page length longer than 120 pages and if you do, then the reader will recognize this and is not going to penalize you for running long – after all, a great story is a great story. But just make sure that you aren’t fooling yourself, because – as I have stated many, many times before – in all of the years that I have been reading and analyzing specs, I have only once come across one that ran longer than 120 pages and deserved to. The rest were structurally deficient or contained ten or fifteen or thirty pages that could have (and should have) been removed.

The way to avoid this problem is to work, work, work at your craft until you are skilled enough to tell an exciting story in the allotted amount of pages. And then be as ruthless in editing and streamlining your scripts as you possibly can. Doing these things will ensure that readers will focus on your story and not your page count.

Copyright © 2013 by Ray Morton
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