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.
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.
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.