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The Lost Language of Story: The "Reel" Writer

Million-Dollar Screenwriting


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 books were not written by screenwriters. These books were written in response to a public need for information, and publishing companies wanted to fill that need. Read more...

Scriptologist Insider
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Final Destination 3

The screenplay for Final Destination 3, a supernatural thriller, uses story elements such as fate and mystery to weave a tale about several teenagers who temporarily escape death.

In the film, high school student Wendy Christensen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) convinces several of her schoolmates to leave a roller coaster after she has a premonition about the coaster crashing and killing them.

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Screenplay Formatting
How To Format Flashbacks In A Screenplay

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The purpose of flashbacks in a screenplay is to give the audience information that is needed to move the story forward and to clarify the actions of the characters. They should only be used when absolutely necessary. Read more...

How To Format Dialogue In Different Situations
Sometimes dialogue in a screenplay doesn't involve one character speaking to another character face to face. Instead, there might be off-screen dialogue, telephone dialogue, or voice-over narration. Read more...

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