Thursday, 4 November 2010

The 10% rule

Everyone's heard of the Ten Minute Rule, yes? This is the one where you absolutely must have your story's trigger in the first 10 minutes or people will get bored. Not always true, but why would you go against it when it's true usually?

I was shocked and stunned (literally, my mouth dropped!) to hear someone I respected as a writer-y person say that you have to have your trigger in the first 20 minutes. This was when talking about a 60 minute drama.

First 20?! 20???!!!

Yep, twenty. To which I say - bollocks! Even as a kid I had a 15 minute rule (still do) - if a film doesn't interest me in the first 15 minutes, I'm gone. Ok, so character development may be interesting and needed, yes. But it doesn't grab me. What grabs me is a character doing something - that's how we learn about who they are, by seeing what they do.

We find how who Captain Miller is in Saving Private Ryan by how he commands his men in battle. We find out who Maximus is in Gladiator he commands his men in battle. We find out who Jack Sparrow is by how he arrives into port. What they do.

In my opinion, it should be a 10% rule. This means that if you're writing a 100 page screenplay (which most of us are), your trigger should appear by page 10. This also means that if you're writing a 60 minute TV drama, your trigger should be there by page 6.

Think about it - people sit down on a Friday night at about 11pm. "It's too late to start watching a movie," they say. So they're flicking through the channels and they see something just about to start that is an hour long. "Ah, an hour is perfect," they think. "Just what I need."

Because this person is only willing to invest an hour into this story, this also means they're most likely to only invest a small amount into the story's setup. Your audience is there - make sure you keep it! As Kurt Cobain said - "Here we are now, entertain us."

If your trigger comes in at 15 minutes in a two-hour film, that's 1/8 of the way through. Fair enough. But if it's 15 minutes into an hour piece, that's 1/4 of the way through. 1/4, 25%.

So I've wasted 25% of this story just finding out whether it's "my sort of thing". Boring.

So yes, the 10% rule is what I go by, but always falling back on the 15 minute rule as well. If you're writing a 90 minute piece, make it 9 minutes in. An hour = 6 minutes. A 25 minute sitcom = 2.5 minutes.

Not only do you keep the audience interested, but you also force yourself to get into the heart of the story as soon as possible, meaning you are able to fully explore its potential.

That's all. Disagree? Let me know. I'm always up for a good debate.


The Kid In The Front Row said...

I think this is tricky. I think it is good to know these rules, to absolutely get why they exist, and then break them if you need to.

These rules and guides are there to help us begin, as writers-- otherwise the field is so lose that we end up writing 200 page screenplays with no action until page 120. So these rules need to be there, but; far more important, is following the natural flow of your story, I feel.

Also, it's impossible to look at this from any perspective other than your own, through your own instincts. i.e., it's clear I think through the things I talk about and the advice I give that, I love characters and the connections between them; and in my writing and the writing/films I admire the 'action' might be really subtle; whereas if you're writing a big budget blockbuster, those rules don't apply, and you literally do need a major changer on page 10.

But your advice as a specific rule is, I think, problematic. Because who are you talking too? ALL feature writers? You think every screenplay should get catapulted at the 10% point? I'd rather see a great screenplay where it outrageously fires on page 1. Or another where it teases but confuses until we have to wait until page 40 before we figure out why they're doing what they're doing and where they're heading.

Following these rules can lead to years of fixing, and perfecting, and tons of development-- but a great script that dares to follow its own natural process is often catapulted to the top of a pile. But again, it depends on your goal - are you talking about writing for film studios? Or for a low-budget feature? Or for European production? There are so many variables, and I think we need to be careful with these rules!

Janet said...

It makes sense to me, 20 minutes is a long time to wait to find out what the story is about. Character development should be happening at the start, but not without some introduction to the story.

Neil said...

@Kid - I think you're definitely right, it does depend on the story you're telling and the medium it's for. But what I should have stressed is that this is the basics of stuff. I suppose I'm talking to people wanting to learn that basic rule. When you're starting out, I don't think you're experienced enough to go against it - "you have to master the rules before you break them," as they say.

And in terms of British television (which is what was in my mind at the time), I really think you need to stick to that rule. It would be like someone trying to write Memento before mastering story structure. It would simply fall apart.

But I take your point - if you stick to these rules entirely, no matter who you are and what you're writing for, you will be massively restricted. I personally like them a lot. Maybe in 20 years time I'll write something that deliberately subverts them in an extreme case (like Memento, Magnolia etc), but for now, I'm mainly interested in perfecting the structure by writing various things.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

I agree with what you're saying :)