Narrative Time and Stakes

I’ve been thinking about stories much more than usual this semester. I attribute that to my screenwriting class. This whole semester I’ve had to work through one story and write the first act in a screenplay, roughly 30 pages (not standard pages, screenplay pages are much shorter). But, to write the first 30 pages you have to have a good idea of what you’ll do for the next 60. One of the first things you really have to figure out before writing is how much time you want your story to take place in. Now every movie is different, they have different structures, stories, and stakes. But, one of the best screenwriting books I’ve read has a “rule”: when at all possible, have the narrative action take place over a day.

Now at first, this sounds incredibly restricting. How are you supposed to tell a full story over the course of 24 narrative hours? But that’s not really the point of the rule. Like any rule about writing, it is purely a guideline, by no means a commandment. What this rule really means to me, and how it has helped me, is to think of it like this; a day is arbitrary, most often stories are told over the course of much more time than just a day. But what distinguishes a good from a bad story, is how much time is wasted. Films have a cut-off time if you want anyone to actually watch it. There’s a reason most movies don’t go over 2 hours and 15 minutes. It’s because people don’t like to sit and watch one thing for that long. So with a screenplay, economical writing is the best writing.

Have your story take place over a day, really doesn’t mean 24 hours. It means this; tell your story in just as much time as you need. No more, no less. Come into a scene as far into the action as you can, don’t meander on pointless bullshit, like greetings or entering rooms. Trim anything superfluous. It’s really not restricting at all, it’s focusing. What is so important in any film is the stakes. What is the why behind the action? What is the what-if ahead of the action? These are the questions audiences have been conditioned to ask. So you need to make sure you have real stakes. Stakes that matter. And one of the best ways to do that is to set a story with a time limit. If things happen over too long a time the stakes can seem low, boring, uninteresting. Of course, many movies don’t have insane stakes, but they still have their own version. Some films meander, but only if the story is about meandering. Keep only what you need and forget the rest.