The 17-minute rule

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 movie ends around page 17 of the screenplay, or about 17 minutes into the movie (give or take a minute).

Act I is the setup. We meet the characters, figure out when and where we are, and then something happens that starts the ball rolling. The hero passes a threshold of sorts, and there’s no going back.

Here’s an example:

George Bailey tells his father he couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of his life in a shabby little office at his father’s building and loan 17 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life.

The rest of the movie is about everything that happens that stops him from leaving Bedford Falls and drives him to consider jumping off that bridge on Christmas Eve.

It isn’t just old movies that follow the 17-minute rule:

  • Luke’s uncle buys 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 second attack that forces the town to close the beach and go after the shark.
  • The Iowa farmer 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 next. 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, and when I check the clock, we’re usually around the 17-minute mark.

26 thoughts on “The 17-minute rule

    1. Once you’ve done it a few times and discover how often it works, you can’t help but annoy the people sitting around you by explaining the 17-minute rule! It took a while, but now Sweetie will be watching a movie and blurt out, “Hey, it’s the 17-minute rule!”

  1. I wonder how the Bond films measure up to this? The opening gambits in both Daniel Craig films seem written with the 17 minute rule in mind, but some of the Roger Moore gambits don’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the film.

    1. I haven’t seen a Roger Moore James Bond movie in years, but I’ll bet if you start timing it, he flirts with Moneypenny and goes into M’s office and learns about his mission at about the 17-minute mark (give or take a minute).

    1. How is that even possible? It’s a classic, and Jimmy Stewart was great in it. Pop some popcorn and watch it (the original, in black and white, not the colorized version).

      1. I’ve seen It’s A Wonderful Life…but never seen The Wizard of Oz.

        I’m going to get a stopwatch and a copy of Alien. I don’t know it, but I feel like that’ll be another example that proves the point.

    1. Nope, but I like movies, and like a lot of people who write for a living, I’ve thought about writing books, so I read a lot of books about writing (which helps me avoid actually writing). This guy’s book really breaks down the storytelling process into steps. For example, he suggests banging out a 2-page summary of your entire story, from start to finish, just to make sure you have a story. Just basic things like that. His goal seems to be getting you to actually write the thing. Then, once you have it down, you can polish it and make it wonderful.

  2. Oh no. This is the sort of thing I’ll obsess about for years to come. Thanks for that, Todd Pack.

    (My first stop in testing this theory will be Ghostbusters. Don’t’ ask why.)

  3. So how does the rule fit in when you’re watching on TV and there’s commercials?? 😉

    I’m with ya on reading about writing too, Todd. Anything to avoid actually writing.

  4. It’s always fun to learn something new. I’ll be watching with new interest. When I learned in theatre class tin college that Alfred Hitchcock did cameo appearances in his movies and usually had a bird of some sort in his movies I couldn’t help but watch for those two items in each of his movies. Still do!

    1. Maybe it was just this guy’s theory and isn’t something everyone learns in film school, but dang if it doesn’t work. (You can thumb through the book on Google Books.)

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