Sunday, May 31, 2009

The rule of three ... weeks

There's a scene early in Ken Kwapis' License to Wed in which Ben (John Krasinski) and Sadie (Mandy Moore) are trying to book a wedding date in the church of Reverend Frank (Robin Williams). Frank flips through his scheduling book with a look of concern on his face.

"It looks like we're booked out for the next two years," says Frank. Ben and Sadie look glum. Then, as though it were planned all along, Frank "remembers" some sort of near-term cancellation and consults his book again to verify. "Yes!" he says. "You can get married three weeks from tomorrow!"

What Frank "remembered," and what was in a sense "planned all along," is that three weeks is the exact right timeframe for the plot of a movie.

In real life, one to two years would be the perfect amount of time for a couple who just got engaged to sort out all the details, like geographical location, venue, guest list, cake decorator, musical accompaniment, and take-home novelty item with their names and wedding date emblazoned on it. But in a movie, that won't cut it. The sense of urgency can't survive one to two years of screen time.

I noticed the rule of three weeks in another wedding-related movie I was also recently forced to sit through in order to review it: 27 Dresses. There's no scheduling gridlock at the wedding venue that forces this one, but true enough, George (Edward Burns) and Tess (Malin Akerman) spring it on Jane (Katherine Heigl) that they will be getting married three weeks later.

The examples I happen to be remembering are from wedding movies, but they just jump out at me because of the unrealistically short planning period between engagement and betrothal. Numerous films you've seen take place during a period of approximately three weeks -- or at the very least, three weeks from the point in the plot when a certain key conflict is introduced.

I'm actually familiar with the need for this timeframe myself. I have no aspirations to be a screenwriter, but I have written one script, and I get ideas for numerous others every day. (I guess I share this last thing in common with most people who are big movie fans, especially those who live in L.A., which gives them the sense that they somehow have a greater chance of turning these ideas into reality). One of these many ideas of mine that took traction, and which my wife, who is a screenwriter, developed into a script, was originally envisioned by me as occurring over several years, in part because there's a key aspect of the plot that I thought necessitated it. However, she convinced me that the viewer wouldn't feel the driving sense of urgency (it's a thriller, after all) if there are large pockets of time that get skipped over on screen. Even though her version of the script doesn't totally work, in part because of the three-week time frame, I am still no less convinced that it has to be this way in order to eventually work.

What's so special about three weeks? Well, it's not a month, but it's also not two weeks. I should probably clarify that rather obvious statement. It's long enough that the characters can grow and work through their character arcs, but short enough that they've got to be on an accelerated time frame, which requires them to act instead of thinking things through. Let's face it -- when you go to the movies, you want to see characters act, not think. Look what too much thinking did to Hamlet. All the great thrillers, action movies and farces have one thing in common: Most of the characters would not do what they end up doing if they had the luxury of thinking things through.

Now you'll probably want an example of a movie in which the opposite was true: the characters had too much time, and the flow of the movie suffered. Okay, let me think.


Okay, I couldn't think of one. And it's not because they don't exist. They probably do. But see, I don't remember those movies. The rule of three weeks is so powerful, so widespread, that screenwriters seem to follow it on instinct. And oh yeah, there's probably a whole chapter on it in each of the major screenwriting books.

So what will be the happy medium between three weeks and several years in my wife's and my prospective script? If we can't find it, no one will remember our movie either, because it will never get made.

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