When a painter wants to capture an image on canvas from a photograph, he typically will divide the picture into quadrants in order to focus on the detail and maintain proper proportions. Filmmakers do something similar by dividing their story into 8 sections.
The question most often asked is “why 8?” when the story is based on a three-act structure. The answer comes from history. In the early days of the cinema, 20-minute reels were delivered to theaters with about 15 minutes worth of film on each reel. When the reel was played, a little dot in the top right corner of the film would appear toward the end of the reel to notify the projectionist it was time to switch to the next reel on a second projector, giving the audience a seamless uninterrupted experience.
The camera manufacturers built their equipment with 20-minute reels knowing the cinematographer would get about 15 minutes of story out of each reel. When television came along, the 15-minute standard was adopted and videotape was designed for about 15 minutes of programming on a 20-minute reel or cassette.
Directors and editors found themselves constantly working in 15-minute increments in order to tell their story, so they quickly adapted to the standard and learned how to tell stories incrementally through a series of sequences. Even television directors got on the bandwagon and tried to heighten the last scene on every reel to keep the audience riveted in hopes that they would continue watching after the commercials.
The typical 2-hour movie is therefore made up of 8 sections of 15 minutes each. Since dramatic screenplays are written in a way that one page equates to one minute of screen time, the average 2-hour movie is 110 pages in length. There is also an average of one scene per minute of screen time, which gives the screenwriter 12-15 scenes per sequence in order to tell the action plotline. A mixture of shorter scenes and sequences gives enough room to salt in an additional subplot or two.
Act 1 is comprised of two sequences. Act 2 is divided at the midpoint creating two sequences in Act 2A and two sequences in Act 2B. And, Act 3 is also made up of two sequences. In between each Act is a turning point that sends the main character in a different direction than expected, which catapults the viewer into the next segment of the story.
I recently wrote a coming of age story titled, “The Tree Jumper.” It’s about Jeremy, who is a geeky X-game enthusiast who falls in love with the head football cheerleader, Brianna. He struggles to understand the unconditional love that his blind grandmother teaches him that Brianna deserves, compared to the conditional love she receives from her quarterback and football MVP boyfriend.
Here is how the story unfolds in 8 major sequences:
S1: Jeremy uses his X-gaming skills to “soar” anonymously through the trees to save the MVP’s life during the football team’s team building rafting disaster.
S2: Jeremy becomes infatuated with Brianna and encourages her to enjoy “flying” in her cheerleading maneuvers, rather than being confined to the bottom of the pyramid by her fears.
S3: Jeremy learns that Brianna is dating the MVP and awkwardly tries to learn what it takes to court a girl so he can say and do the right things to win Brianna’s love away from her uncaring boyfriend.
S4: Chloe adores Jeremy so much that she agrees to help him win Brianna based on who he is, not old customs from days gone by.
S5: Jeremy becomes confident enough that he shares his love for Brianna publicly and brings the wrath of the MVP down on himself.
S6: The MVP and key players from his football team go out of their way to stop Jeremy from winning Brianna.
S7: Jeremy realizes that true unconditional love would free Brianna to choose whomever she desires to love and would honor her choice. He walks away so the MVP can continue his relationship with her.
S8: The MVP takes Brianna on a joy ride to help her break her fear of heights in his family Cessna and crashes in the trees hanging precariously over the gorge just out of the fire department’s reach. Only Jeremy, the tree jumper, can get to the plane and saves both Brianna and the MVP. Brianna has a blast “soaring” through the trees to safety and realizes that Jeremy’s love for her isn’t conditional like the MVP’s.
Each sequence breaks the story into manageable bites and is structured to fit the new 8-segment format for a movie of the week. It also establishes the proper parameters and durations for the three-act structure that feature films use. All because someone delivered 15 minutes worth of film on a 20-minute reel just shy of a hundred years ago.