All writers have their quirks — some pen their first drafts entirely by hand. Some use only Number two pencils and yellow legal pads. Others use spiral notebooks only, and only use blue ink. Some outline relentlessly before putting pen to paper, others just plunge right in and see what happens.
My obsession as a screenwriter has always been page count. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the people who read screenplays for a profession are just as obsessive about it as I am. You hand them a script, they will do three things:
1. Look at the title.
2. Feel the weight of it
3. Turn to the last page
The number at the top right of the last page will color their impression of the script before they even read the first page. You see, in this biz, page count is everything.
Say you finish your script and it’s a lean and mean 98 pages. There’s no fat, less wasted space — it’s a remorseless killing machine, always moving, never stopping. You’ve been to both ends of the spectrum and find that 98 is the perfect length.
But 98 is too short, man. It’s too lean. There’s n meat to it. No fat. No room to breathe. No character. No drama. No emotion.
That’s what they’ll think, seeing its only 98 pages (99 with the cover). Notwithstanding the point that a producer or studio would be THRILLED to have a finished product be 98 minutes with credits, a screenplay cannot be 98 pages and be expected to be any good. That’s the attitude the reader will bring to the script before they read a word of it, and their response to it will be gauged against those preconceived notions.
So let’s look at the other end. You’ve written and written and written and finally finished your work — your best ever. It clocks in at 117 pages — well within the range that makes readers happy. Anything over 120 is a problem, unless you’re an A-list guy with a couple Oscars on his mantle, and several 100 million plus movies on his/her CV. The rest of us mortals have to deal with life below 120 pages.
Now, you are thinking 117 is a perfectly good number. And you’re wrong there too.
Because 117 pages tells the reader “this guy didn’t cut enough” — there’s fat, there’s flab. The tension’s not there. Good lord, it’s poorly paced. Too many characters. Too many scenes. “Too many notes,” as Emperor Leopold tells Mozart in Amadeus. “Just remove a few — don’t ask me which ones — and it’ll be perfect.”
See, again, it’s that goddamn page count fucking everything up. As they read it they’re going to be reading it as someone looking for the fat, the flab, the stuff you should have cut. And at the end, they’ll think you’re a good writer, but not disciplined to cut enough from their work. They’re too beholden to their words, and will be difficult to work with on this. Sorry but we’re passing.
So what is the ideal length, you’re screaming at me now. Well, it depends on the genre, on the subject matter, on a lot of factors.
Actually I haven’t the slightest idea what “ideal” is.
But for me, I aim for somewhere between 105-110 pages. I’ll slide, at most, 5 pages north or south of that number, but never more and never less than that. I also like nice even numbers. I’ll do 112, 114, 108, 106, but not 109,111,107,113. Don’t ask me why, it’s just a thing.
105 or 110 are nice number. The guy who flips to the back of your script and see that number will automatically say two things;
1. Not too long
2. Not too short.
There’s less inclination for him to look for things to cut now, and even less inclination to add things, because adding will put us closer to that worrisome 120 pages. With those two weapons denied the reader, he’ll have to read and assess the work honestly. He may still pass on it, but he won’t pass on it because of something as silly as a page count.
That said my best received screenplay was a gargantuan 128 pages — but I let the page count slide because I knew it was good work, top to bottom. I also indicated on the Title Page that it was based on a true story. True stories have latitude to go over 120 pages, and the fact this one was 128 (and based on a real person) told the reader that length-wise the writer was “being true to the real story.” Even though that script hasn’t been produced it has, to date, landed me many paying jobs that did get produced. And I’m sure someday, it will find a home.
So … do your best to reach that magic number. And I do recommend cheating it as much as you can. If you’re a little under, pad it. A little over, trim it. But don’t let them gain the upper hand and judge your work based on a number. Make the bastards work for it