To get a clear idea how the 15 minute movie method works, watch the 1973 movie, “The Sting,” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Without giving away the plot, the story of “The Sting” is clearly divided into roughly 15 minute segments where each segment has a clear exposition, conflict, and climactic ending.
First, let’s go over the typical three Act structure of any screenplay. Act I contains the Exposition where we’re introduced to the main characters and their problems. In “The Sting,” Act I introduces us to Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford), a con man living on the streets. His basic problem is that he’s forced to leave his old way of life when a con game backfires on him. Like most movies, Act I in The Sting is roughly 25 minutes in length. When Act I ends, the main character, Johnny Hooker, has no choice but to leave his old way of life behind and face a frightening new world.
Act II of most screenplays typically takes 60 minutes and this is where most scripts fall apart. How do you write a compelling story for 60 minutes? That can be as difficult as trying to carry on an engaging conversation with someone by talking for the next 60 minutes non-stop. It’s difficult, if not impossible.
Here’s where the 15 minute movie method comes into play. (Remember, don’t get too hung up on the exact time length. Just use 15 minutes as a rough guideline.) In “The Sting,” you’ll see placards marking each segment of Act II:
The Set-up (starts at the 24th minute)
The Hook (starts at the 40th minute)
The Tale (starts at the 67th minute)
The Wire (starts at the 83rd minute)
Watch the movie and look for “The Sting” script on the Internet so you can clearly see how each 15 minute segment works. Just as an entire movie needs an exposition, rising action, and a climax, so does each 15 minute segment contain its own exposition, rising action, and climax. By focusing on 15 minute segments, you’ll find that writing the massive Act II portion of your screenplay can be more manageable.
Finally, Act III of “The Sting” concludes with two more clearly defined sections called:
The Shut-Out (starts at the 93rd minute)
The Sting (starts at the 112th minute)
Here’s your homework for today. Watch “The Sting” and watch for the placards in the film that mark each 15 minute segment of the movie for every Act except for Act I. Notice how the climactic ending of one 15 minute segment smoothly rolls into the exposition of a new 15 minute segment. I’ll break down these 15 minute segments later for all screenplays, but for now, all I want you to notice is how “The Sting” clearly shows you how to break a movie into 15 minute segments.
So let’s recap. Every movie consists of an Exposition, Rising Action, and Climax.
Every Act consists of 15 minute segments.
Every 15 minute segment contains its own mini-Exposition, Rising Action, and Conflict.
To go one step further, every scene in every good movie also contains its own exposition, rising action, and climax. The reason I’ve found so many of my half-completed screenplays fall apart is because I violate this basic story telling principle. You always need an Exposition, Rising Action, and Climax in every scene, in every 15 minute segment, in every Act, and in every movie. That’s a basic law of story telling.
The Exposition grabs the viewer’s attention.
The Rising Action complicates the problem and makes viewers want to find out what happens next.
The Climax shows the viewer what happens.
If your Exposition is missing, nobody will understand what’s happening so they’ll be confused or worse, not care.
If your Rising Action is missing, nobody will want to keep watching to find out what happens next.
If your Climax is missing, everything viewers just saw means nothing and leaves them feeling empty and unfulfilled.
The next time you watch a really bad movie, check to see where you start losing interest. Chances are good it’s because the movie neglects to create a compelling Exposition, Rising Action, and Climax in every part of the script.
For the most part, spend your time watching good movies and ignore the really bad ones. You can learn from bad movies, but you’ll be inspired by great movies. It’s not enough to write a better movie than a bad one. You want to strive to write a great movie.