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The mad science laboratory
of a screenwriter & consultant


Screenwriting - The Vignette Approach

In his book Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach Paul Gulino talks about the origins of the sequence approach to writing - 1000ft reels would originally be projected at 18fps so run for 15 minutes or whatever, and the cinemas used to only have one projector so they'd have to stop the movie to load a new reel and there'd be a lot of noise and maybe a live entertainer would come on stage for a minute etc. This is why it's cool to think of each sequence as being in some sense self-contained - the film would actually have to come to a halt.

If I recall correctly the next point he makes is that some kind of compartmentalised (even regular length) sequences seem to go back as far as the ancient Greeks, so perhaps there's simply some intrinsic aesthetic reason why we respond well to evenly-sized chunks of story action. If this is true then it shouldn't really matter what length from 5 to 20 minutes your sequences are, as long as there's an unconsciously detectable rhythm.

Deconstructing Jaws it was really palpable just how that rhythm made the film feel solid and assured and focused with where it was going, even when not a lot seemed to be happening. I think this is definitely a screenwriter tool (when you think about it nobody else could really impose evenly-sized chunks without compromising the story) but it's a tool that would certainly benefit everyone else on the production - director, producer, line producer, editor etc. all the way down.

(That said perhaps the script was 90 pages and Spielberg said "nope I'm gonna add a minute of my own genius to every vignette" and maybe that's how he came up with the son mimicking Brody's hand movements and expressions, or some of the other genius things that are in there. Just a theory, and one that's easy enough to disprove, but interesting as a thought experiment nonetheless.)


So as not to overly confuse I just want to get the terminology straight; I'll often talk about 8 sequences in a two-hour film, and from Gulino's convention I'll letter them from A to H. But I'm likely going to be talking more about seven-page sequences, so I'll try to be as consistent as possible and instead hereafter use the term vignette. For consistency across the approaches I'm still using the A to H paradigm and simply numbering them: A1, A2, B1, B2 etc.

How I'm visualising my 15 x 7 minute vignette structure.

The creation of a seven-page vignette really only requires two or three scenes of any duration, and fifteen such seven-page vignettes will lead me to 105 pages. (And even fifteen six-page vignettes would still leave me with a very respectable 90 page script.) Why fifteen? Choose your own. Partly it's just a convention that the last sequence is much shorter, but it also happens to fit the script I'm working on very nicely.


Now this is cool: I'm thinking this seven pages approach might actually be the perfect thing for me in terms of story AND structuring my writing time.

Depending on how long it takes you to outline at the beginning (it's usually the fastest stage for me) writing just 2 x seven-page vignettes each week would leave you with a full first draft after 8 only weeks (and, if you're on a ten-week contract, still give you two weeks for some serious editing and / or polishing before submitting it). I think that's just an extraordinarily cool revelation and something that people could even feel comfortable doing on a part-time basis and fitting in with another job and a family.

The added extra bonus is that you  1/ have incredible freedom to write faster and race ahead to the next sequence if you feel like you really want to  2/ or you could be very strict and constantly refine and hone each vignette for a full week before allowing yourself to continue to the next.  3/ You could take it easy - two pages a day - and rely on your professional judgement that you've worked out story logic enough that it all comes together in the end. This type of writing schedule just gives you an absolute deadline per vignette - two per week - that you have to aim for, and one which doesn't sound hard at all when you frame it in the context of only tackling one piece at a time.

So that's the daily / weekly writing schedule part of it - as for the actual business of juggling bits of script around inside my head - I'm at a stage with this current script where I'm once again starting to get kinda overwhelmed with all the bits and pieces here and there, but using the 7 minute vignette approach I'm pretty confident I can get any story to play ball (although I've said that before!)

Knowing that for this appointed three-day period all I have to wrestle with is seven pages (and that any draft is better than no draft so I can feel safe to write the bad version) is really very encouraging.

So either spread out over a few days, or all at once in a big creative outpouring blitz, all I have to do - all any writer has to do - is sit down twice a week for 8 weeks and write a seven page vignette. A short story, effectively, with a beginning, middle and end.

The end is crucial. I think the ending of each seven pages should really be a place where you could, if necessary, stop to change the reel (so don't forget to leave the audience with a mini cliff-hanger!) and take the opportunity with the next vignette to introduce a palpable change of tone, or pace, or direction or something like that. It should really help the sawtooth structure of the expanding drama.

It probably also means you're going to be always refining the as-yet-unwritten portions of your outline as you go along, because there's nothing worse than having a week's job sheet with vague or directionless tasks on it that may cause you extra work next week or at the end of the 8 weeks.

OK I'll let you know how I get on when I put this 8 week thing to the test on the next script. And if you're about to start a new draft why not try this out and let us know how you get on.