The Lost Language of Story: The "Reel" Writer
By Chris Soth
Films like Singing In The Rain, The Stuntman, A Star Is Born, Boy Meets Girl, The Extra, and What Price Hollywood
depict the early filmmaking process. Sometimes, during this process, a cigar-smoking producer in a Hollywood screening room would say: "We've still got a problem in the third reel".
The producer's reference to the film reel touches on how storytelling was traditionally
spoken of in the film industry. Producers such as Samuel Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn, and Jack Warner defined story structure in relation to the time it encompassed on a reel.
A film reel can therefore be compared to the first, second, or third act of a screenplay.
The fact that films were shot, edited, and ultimately projected on reels influenced the way producers in Hollywood's Golden Age of film thought about storytelling.
But screenwriters have always been taught the three-act story structure. So, too, have playwrights.
How do reels factor into the writing process? Like a chapter in a novel, a reel encompasses a discrete chunk of action that propels the main story forward until it exhausts itself and
hands the suspense off to the next chapter.
The first films—silent films— were only a single reel long. At first, they were only
documentaries. The mere fact that they contained moving images that had been captured and could be projected was fascinating enough to hold the attention of audiences.
Then filmmakers began to tell fictional stories, or narratives, that were a single reel in length. One of the first narrative films, The Great Train Robbery
, was only 10-15 minutes long. The silent comedic films showing Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Little Rascals, and the Keystone Kops were also only a few minutes long.
When filmmakers wanted to tell longer stories, they segmented their stories into small chapters. Each chapter fit nicely on a single reel of film. Filmmakers shot and edited stories
onto separate reels. Together,
the reels told an entire story.
Unfortunately, the method of telling stories as reels has been lost. Why? Because filmmakers from the Golden Age of film have moved on or passed away. And many screenwriting
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