If I had to name my favorite adage, it’s that rules are for breaking (most of them - speed limits are exempt!), but you must know the rules before you can break them. So, keep that in mind as you read through what I’d call “guidelines” to the timing of acts, scenes, and sequences in a screenplay. There’s a good reason for these guidelines, though (just like speed limits 😊) so don’t stray too far off the mark or you might pay for it later. Let’s start from the top.
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A 90-110-page screenplay is standard and produces an hour and a half to two-hour long film. TV networks may prefer an hour and a half because they can fill a two-hour slot by adding in 30 minutes of commercials. You may not care about commercials, but if you want to sell your script, these are tidbits to keep in mind.
Of course, the following measurements apply to a traditional screenplay with 12-point Courier font.
How Long is an act?
There are generally three acts in a screenplay, although I’ve heard of five-act structures and nine act structures. Whatever structure you use, strong stories almost always feature the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. For a film, the three-act structure looks like this:
- Act 1
The first 30 pages, or 30 minutes of your film, and roughly 20% of your script. This is the shortest act in your screenplay, and usually features a turning point at roughly page 15-25.
- Act 2
Some break Act 2 into 2a and 2b, because it’s the longest portion of your script at roughly 55% or 60 pages. Act 2 should feature your next turning point between pages 70-85 approximately.
- Act 3
This is the final 20-25% of your screenplay, similar in size to Act 1, and should be the point at which all the plot points from your story come together, and your protagonist finds resolution.
How long is a scene?
Most scenes in most films will last one to three minutes, or approximate three pages of your script. It’s not a rigid number, because I’ve seen 20-minute scenes, but if your scene is extending past three pages, it may be time to take a closer look at why, and if it needs to be. Scene lengths and tempo seem to get shorter as the years go by, perhaps a result of our ever-shrinking attention spans. But, on average, a script will contain 40-60 scenes total, some shorter, some longer.
How long is a sequence?
A sequence has its own beginning, middle, and end. It is a self-contained portion of the script, usually 10-15 pages or minutes in length, and it typically belongs to a single character. A sequence could have anywhere between three and seven scenes within it, with short-term tension that pushes the story forward.
Remember, these are guidelines, not strict rules, set by decades of trends in film making. And if that’s not enough reason to try to stick to the precedent, then take it from Mr. Alfred Hitchcock:
“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”