Wreck-It Ralph follows Hollywood’s 17-minute storytelling rule

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Thing 2 watched Wreck-It Ralph three or four times this weekend, meaning I watched it three or four times, too. Thing 2 doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but when he did, he picked Wreck-It Ralph.

Sunday, when it was time for lunch, I made him pause it once the movie reached a good stopping place.  I picked the scene where Ralph, sneaks away from his game, where he’s the villain, to become a hero in a first-person shooter called Hero’s Duty. I hit “pause” right as Ralph crossed the threshold from Game Central Station into the other game, and I noticed the time:

Ralph enters Hero’s Duty right around the 17-minute mark.

I learned about the 17-minute rule a few years ago when I was reading a book about screenwriting. The idea is that the first act of pretty much any Hollywood movie ends around page 17 of the screenplay, which usually translates to 17 minutes into the movie (give or take a minute).

In terms of storytelling, Act I is the setup. It’s where we meet the characters, find out when and where we are and what motivates the hero, and then something happens that changes the status quo and starts story gets rolling:

  • H.I. climbs the ladder a second time to finally kidnap one of the Arizona quints (“They got more’n they can handle”) at around the 17-minute mark of Raising Arizona.
  • Luke’s takes possession of the droids 17 minutes into Star Wars. The droids are what leads Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and, ultimiately, the Death Star.
  • Buddy leaves the North Pole to find is real dad 17 minutes into Elf.
  • The shark eats the little boy on the raft 17 minutes into Jaws. It’s the movie’s second attack, but it’s what forces the town to close the beach and go after the shark.
  • Kevin Costner is thinking about plowing under the baseball field he built in his cornfield until Shoeless Joe appears 17 minutes after the credits in Field of Dreams.

Of course, the 17-minute rule isn’t set in stone.

In the book I was reading, Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 424, the chairman emeritus of UCLA’s film school calls it the “floating page 17″ rule, meaning the scene setting up the rest of the movie should come around page 17. There are plenty of examples of where that scene comes sooner or later — but only a little sooner or later.

How come?

Hunter says, basically, that 17 pages (about 17 minutes of screen time) is about how long it takes to set up the story and pull people in. Sooner, and we don’t know enough about the characters to care about what happens. Later, we just get bored.

Ever since I read Hunter’s book, I can’t help but notice when Act I ends and Act II begins. It’s usually around the 17-minute mark.

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Tom Sawyer: twenty-something detective, with a raygun and an airship, probably

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Read the other day that ABC is developing a TV series based on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

In the books, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are boys of about 12 growing up along the Mississippi River in the 1800s. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are classics of American literature. Tom Sawyer is good, but Huckleberry Finn is great. If the first book is Star Wars, then the sequel is The Empire Strikes Back. Tom Sawyer is a simple adventure story, but Huckleberry Finn is serious literature, a masterpiece, one of the great American novels.

ABC, being one of the great American TV networks, isn’t sticking close to the source material, though.

According to a story in The Hollywood Reporter, the proposed series will be about Tom and Huck in their 20s, and they’ll live in New Orleans, and they’ll be detectives.

Oddly enough, ABC didn’t pull the detective angle out of its butt.

Mark Twain actually wrote a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer called Tom Sawyer, Detective, narrated by his friend, Huck. According to Wikipedia, the novel is a burlesque of the kind of the detective fiction that was popular at the time. It isn’t a classic. No one even remembers it. If Tom Sawyer is Star Wars and Huckleberry Finn is Empire, then Tom Sawyer, Detective is Ewoks: The Battle for Endor. (That’s a 1985 made-for-TV movie starring Wilford Brimley, also produced by ABC.)

No, the angle that ABC pulled out of its butt is that Finn & Sawyer will be science-fiction — steampunk, actually.

Steampunk is a particularly geeky strain of science-fiction set in the Victorian era or the Wild West, when machines where the lighter-than-air airships are powered by steam and computers are entirely mechanical.

So, let’s review: ABC wants to make a series about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (a bit of a stretch, but OK), only they’re in their 20s (a bit more of a stretch, but they probably figure are more likely to watch a couple of good-looking guys in their 20s than a couple of 12-year-olds who’ll grow up fast over the course of a couple of seasons, and there’s no way to predict whether they’ll be more like the kids in the Harry Potter movies, who turned out well, or the kids on Malcolm in the Middle), and they’re detectives (an idea Twain couldn’t pull off), they’re in a steampunk version of New Orleans (a bad idea because steampunk is considered geeky even by geeks).

I can’t imagine this thing ever getting off the ground, but just the fact it’s even being talked about is kind of depressing. Back in the 1960s, the chairman of the FCC, Newton N. Minow, declared that TV had become “a vast wasteland.”

He said, “You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”

Newton Minow turned 86 in January. I don’t know what he thinks about what’s on television today, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s only because he stopped watching TV a long time ago.

Lemonade stand and sidewalk art gallery

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I believe you should always buy lemonade from a kid with a lemonade stand.

I don’t think you should always drink the lemonade. Sometimes, it’s probably best if you didn’t, because of germs, but I think you should buy it, because it helps the kid develop a healthy work ethic and sense of self-esteem. Given that a cup of lemonade is usually only a quarter, that’s a pretty good deal.

So, when Thing 2 and I spotted a lemonade stand down a side street while tooling around the neighborhood this afternoon, we turned around and went back.

Only it wasn’t a lemonade stand. It was a kid, probably around 5 or 6, selling drawings for 25 cents each. Thing 2 and I were disappointed, because it’s hot, and we really wanted that lemonade, but there was no way I was going to leave without buying something. I told Thing 2 to pick a drawing he liked. He picked one called “big Lightsaber.”

Driving home, Thing 2 said he could draw a better-looking lightsaber. I told him that was beside the point but to give it a shot.

So, right now, he’s in the living room, making a life-size model of a lightsaber out of an empty paper-towel holder and construction paper.

It isn’t for sale.