Filmmaking Directory




Screenwriting,Filmmaking, and Acting
Scriptologist Blogs


Message Board

Message Board


Irony in a Screenplay

The Lost Language of Story: The "Reel" Writer .....3/14/06

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.


The first books on screenwriting used what had come before film: books and essays about playwriting. But the fact is that films tell stories differently than plays.

A generation of writers read screenwriting books and are convinced that the three-act structure is the only game in town.  These writers believe that the plot points at the end of acts one and two are the only guideposts available in the grueling journey from story concept to script.

And modern-day studio executives are often exposed to the same three-act structure that aspiring screenwriters study. Yes, even those in the loop are insufficiently educated now.

So, in a way, the language of film has been lost.

But filmmakers used to understand story structure. They understood that there should never be more than 10-15 pages between plot points. Every 10-15 pages should contain a story that fills a reel of film.

But most working screenwriters don't use the method of the reel to tell stories. So, there are very few good films. A writer who successfully completes act two of a screenplay may not be so lucky with act two in his second script.

Is there any way for us to recover the method of telling stories in reels? Yes. Frank Daniel, a knowledgeable film professor, has passed this method on to another generation of writers in his screenwriting courses at Columbia University and the University of Southern California.

I discuss this method in my
seminars, e-book, and DVD, which are entitled,
Million-Dollar Screenwriting. I call this method The Mini-Movie Method. It shows that each reel of film is a 15-minute story. When 6-8 of these stories, or Mini Movies, are combined, they become a full story that is 90-120 minutes long.

Try this method with your next screenplay.  Be a "reel" writer. Write a real story.

Chris Soth's movie,
Firestorm, was released in 1998. He has worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood ever since, teaching at USC and UCLA. He privately teaches his screenwriting technique, 'The Mini-Movie Method,'  in his ongoing series of seminars and in his e-book and DVD, Million-Dollar Screenwriting.



Site Map   About Us   Q&A   Directory   Classifieds   Contact Us   Bookmark Us   Article Feeds Article Feeds

©Copyright 2003-2006 Portable Shopper, LLC. All rights reserved. Copyright Notice  Privacy Statement