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.
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”
That’s so interesting, Todd, and makes so much sense. I’ll try and remember to check it out next time I watch a movie.
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!”
I did not know about the “17-minute Rule”, Todd…now I’m going to be checking my watch the next time I see a movie! I love learning new things!
I think it’s neat, because it all goes back to the idea that story is structure.
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.
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).
Interesting! So I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life.
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).
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.
Cool beans. Did they refer to “Freytag’s Pyramid”? That’s what we used for teaching plot structure in middle school. It sounds like 17 minutes of screenplay goes to exposition and perhaps some rising action? I love the way I learn things here. Thanks, Todd! http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/plot-structure-literary-elements-904.html
He didn’t, but it’s a neat book, because it’s all about the mechanics of storytelling. He isn’t much on navel gazing. He’s all about, get it done.
Awww…she signed it “The Hipster.”
This is interesting — I’ll also have to watch the clock.
And, I must ask: Since you were reading a book on screenwriting, does that mean this is something that you do?
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.
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.)
I’ll bet it’s the scene where they get fired from the university and have to strike out on their own.
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.
Commercials screw everything up, as commercials are wont to do.
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!
What was funny about that is that Hitch never really tried to disguise himself. He was just Hitchcock.
My fingers aren’t working well this morning. Sorry about the typo.
I just took a screenwriting class from a guy at UCLA and can’t believe that I never heard the 17 minute rule. Very interesting.
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.)
Interesting! Maybe there is a rule for literature, too.