Screenwriters typically break a screenplay into three Acts, but it’s actually more accurate to divide a movie into four Acts as follows:
- Act I — Exposition
- Act IIa — Positive rising action
- Act IIb — Negative rising action
- Act III – Climax
With four Acts, each Act lasts approximately 30 minutes so you have a total of 120 minutes for a typical two hour movie. If you divide each Act even further, you can get two 15-minute segments, but if you divide those up even more, you get 7.5 minute segments. Each Act (30 minutes) tells a story, each 15-minute segment within each Act tells another mini-story, and each 7.5 minute segment tells another mini-story. Tell enough of these 7.5 minute mini-stories and they all add up to a complete story.
In “Room,” the first 7.5 minutes provides exposition as we learn that a girl and her five-year old son are celebrating his fifth birthday. This 7.5 minute segment begins on a happy note as we see a mother and son getting ready to make a birthday cake, but it ends on a sour note when the note is upset that there aren’t any candles on the birthday cake.
The next 7.5 minutes provides more exposition as we learn about the mother and son’s relationship within a room and get a glimpse of the villain who’s keeping them trapped in the room. This second 7.5 minute segment ends when the young boy sees a mouse and the mother throws something at it to shoo it away, claiming it will eat their food.
If you study just these first two 7.5 minute segments, you’ll see that they tell a complete mini-story of their own. The basic structure of a screenplay is to tell a mini-story roughly every 7.5 minutes.
Study the first 7.5 minutes of any movie and you’ll see that it ends in a cliffhanger that makes the audience want to know more. By the end of the first 7.5 minutes of “Die Hard,” we meet John McClane, learn he’s afraid of flying, he’s a cop carrying a gun, that scrunching your toes while barefoot in a carpet can relax you, and that he’s on his way to meet his wife.
In the first 7.5 minutes of “The Hunger Games,” we learn that Katniss is a young girl protective of her younger sister and worried about a mysterious event that the younger sister is terrified about. At the end of this 7.5 minute segment, Katniss and her younger sister leave the house to attend this terrifying but still mysterious event.
Watch your favorite movie and time the first 7.5 minutes. Chances are good that by the end of 7.5 minutes, you’ll have a clear idea where the hero is heading even if you don’t know what it might be or why. All you know is that something is happening.
In the first 7.5 minutes of “Star Wars,” we know one starship is chasing another one before the first one finally catches it and boards it. The end of each 7.5 minute segment concludes with a cliffhanger that makes us want to know more.
In “Room,” the happiness of the birthday seems spoiled by the lack of candles on the cake.
In “Die Hard,” the hero is on his way to someplace in Los Angeles.
In “The Hunger Games,” the hero is on her way to an event that’s terrifying her younger sister.
In “Star Wars,” one starship has succeeded in boarding a second starship.
Make sure every 7.5 minutes tells a mini-story. Then make sure your 7.5 minute segments combine to create a 15-minute mini-story, which combines with another 15-minute segment to create a 30-minute mini-story, which combines with three other 30-minute segments to create a 120-minute story.
The way to keep your screenplay flowing is to tell mini-stories. This keeps your story from bogging down and dwelling on trivial details because if something is changing every 7.5 minutes, that alone will hold an audience’s interest. If you don’t believe me, just watch the time on your favorite movies and notice how every 7.5 minutes (approximately) another mini-story ends in a cliffhanger of some kind.