Have I discovered a secret screenwriting tip?
Do all modern screenplays follow a 60:40 rule?
Read on, and you can decide for yourself.
First, a little about me: my name is Kieran Majury, and I am obsessed with story. In particular, I’m obsessed with screenwriting. To get as specific as possible, I’m obsessed with feature-length film screenwriting.
I have written several scripts over the years. One of which was produced. It’s called Deadville, and you can view it here. So far, it has over 1 million views and counting.
Deadville was a valuable learning experience, and I am still learning. You can read about some of the lessons in a post here.
Over the pandemic, I decided to set myself a challenge of writing a screenplay in 18 days. Spoiler alert, I did it in 12.
I wrote my script on Celtx.
What makes Celtx so good?
Celtx has been my go-to screenwriting software. It has been that way ever since I took screenwriting seriously. Celtx has a fantastic feature called insights. It will break down your screenplay across several parameters. Celtx Insights will break down how many characters, how many settings. The feature will also break down dialogue distribution, interior locations v exterior.
Celtx Insights will also tell you how long you spend writing and how long you spend thinking (or in my case, faffing). The best thing about this is that it makes you able to estimate how long it takes you to complete a script. In my case, I now know that it takes me an average of 16 hours to write the first draft of a screenplay. In case you are unaware of the point I’m making here it is: Celtx is the best screenwriting software available. I might even do a full review at some point.
Please note I am in no way affiliated with Celtx, I just love the service they provide.
“Kieran”, I hear you shout from the other side of the screen. “What about this screenwriting secret in the title, what is it exactly?”
Let me answer your question with a question.
How much action should a screenplay have?
How much dialogue should there be in a screenplay?
Alongside their excellent software Celtx have a company blog. Three of their blogs showcased the applications of their Insights feature.
Here are the links to the original blog posts.
1: 7 Famous Screenplays by the numbers
2: Lessons from 5 classic horror scripts
Secret Screenwriting tip
Here is something I noticed that may have slipped past the Celtx team.
This is the secret screenwriting tip by the way.
Drum roll, please.
By in large the scripts break down along a 60:40 rule.
In essence, your script is either 60% dialogue and 40% action or vice versa, 40% dialogue 60% action.
That’s the big secret.
You can stop reading if you want.
I understand, nothing personal.
Oh, you’re still here?
To quote Inception (60% dialogue 40% action) “We must go deeper”.
By the numbers
In case you have yet to check out the blogs, let me break it down for you.
Out of the 17 scripts across three blogs, only two deviated from the 60:40 guideline (Toy Story 50:50 Manchester By The Sea 84:16).
You want me to break it down further?
OK, here it goes.
In case you just want me to tell you how the scripts broke down, look below.
- Rocky (1976) Dialog 60% Action 40%
- Blade Runner (1982) Dialog 40% Action 60%
- Terminator 2 (1991) Dialog 40% Action 60%
- Reservoir Dogs (1992) Dialog 60% Action 40%
- Forest Gump (1994) Dialog 61% Action 39%
- Pulp Fiction (1994) Dialog 60% Action 40%
- Toy Story (1995) Dialog 48% Action 52%
- LaLa Land (2016) Dialog 46% Action 54%
- Hell or High Water (2016) Dialog 57% Action 43%
- The Lobster (2016) Dialog 67% Action 33%
- Manchester by the Sea (2016) Dialog 84% Action 16%
- 20th Century Women (2016) Dialog 65% Action 35%
- 28 Days Later (2002) Dialog 40% Action 60%
- It Follows (2014) Dialog 36% Action 64%
- Scream (1997) Dialog 56% Action 44%
- The Exorcist (1973) Dialog 67% Action 33%
- The Strangers (2008) Dialog 41% Action 59%
The majority of scripts are from the 90s. There are two examples from the 70s, one 80s and several that are post millennia. It feels like it is a broad enough slice to give you an idea.
Do screenwriters deliberately follow the 60:40 guideline?
My guess is no.
How does the secret screenwriting tip occur?
The 60:40 guideline feels more like a naturally occurring phenomenon.
These blog posts picked the scripts at random. It was random break downs of different kinds of scripts. One set was all horror films, another was Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominees. The third was seven famous scripts.
Does following this guideline mean your script is automatically good. No. However, it may act as a good rule of thumb when it comes to balancing your script.
Again what I have noticed might be just a huge coincidence, but if you look over it, there might be something to it.
This is not an order. Instead, let it serve as a guideline.
This might be another massive oversimplification. I’m going to go so far as to say if your script is more about characters, then it should be 60% dialogue. If it is more about the plot and action, then 60% action. I know it sounds like I’m reducing it to the bare minimum but again look at the list and how they break down.
My own scripts follow the pattern
Here’s something else. I realised that my own scripts followed this pattern. These are two completely different scripts.
The first one Bad Guys, is heavy on plot and incident, lighter on character the breakdown? 60% action 40% dialog.
The other script, Deadville Mayor, concerns a character having to make tough decisions. How did it breakdown? You guessed it.
Now I want to avoid breaking scripts down into a series of percentages and breakdowns. I love scripts and how some will come along, defy the rules and do their own thing. However, as someone who finds himself obsessed with storytelling. As someone obsessed with how it breaks down, all I can do is notice this pattern.
Am I wrong for seeing this?
We are all pattern recognition machines. This might be the wrong pattern to notice. Now that I have noticed, nothing will remove it from my brain.
Feel free to ignore all that I have shared, but I hope you find it helpful.
I would love it if Celtx were to do more blog posts like this or maybe pay me to do it for them (hint, hint).
There is a part of me that would love to get a look at the big data of screenplays. Ideally not because I want to be right. If I am wrong, that means there’s another element of screenwriting that remains unknowable.
Maybe you’re writing a screenplay and you are lost. Maybe you’re unsure as to whether it is a character piece or plot dependent. If that is the case, then maybe consider looking at your dialogue to action ratio.
Now if you are unsure about when to start then consider checking out my ebook: Write Your Screenplay in 12 days. It takes you from idea to edited first draft. Check it out.
What do you think of my secret screenwriting tip?
If you liked how this post was written, check out my review of the course that helped skyrocket my writing skills.
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