I was researching websites for the Film and Literature class when I first heard about the “17 Minute Rule;” a rule that suggests the real plot is revealed to the audience 17 minutes into any film. Todd Pack’s Messy Desk Blog uses a number of examples to illustrate The 17 Minute Rule:
George Bailey tells his father he couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of his life in a shabby little office at his father’s building and loan 17 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life.
The rest of the movie is about everything that happens that stops him from leaving Bedford Falls and drives him to consider jumping off that bridge on Christmas Eve.
- Luke’s uncle buys the droids 17 minutes into Star Wars. The droids are what leads Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and, ultimiately, the Death Star.
- Buddy leaves the North Pole to find his real dad 17 minutes into Elf.
- The shark eats the little boy on the raft 17 minutes intoJaws. It’s the second attack that forces the town to close the beach and go after the shark.
- The Iowa farmer is thinking about plowing under the baseball field he built in his cornfield until Shoeless Joe appears 17 minutes after the credits in Field of Dreams.
This 17 minute phenomenon was corroborated on other blogs as well. Writer and Director Nathan Marshall posted Screenplay Structure: Three Acts & Five Points Script Frenzy! blog where he also called attention to minute 17:
3) Page 17. Next time you watch a DVD, pause it 17 minutes into the film. Trust me—any film. What’s happening at that point in the story? Most likely, the essential character conflict has just been laid out. A teenage Indiana Jones runs to his father for help, but is shushed instead. Shaun convinces his girlfriend to trust him in Shaun of the Dead. Captain Renault asks Rick why he came to Casablanca. On page 17, your audience should realize what the film is really about. It’s not about finding the Holy Grail, Indy—it’s about learning to forgive dad!
The same was outlined on the All About Screenwriting blog. In addition to explaining the rule, this post made the claim that the ratio of screenplay to minute of film is 1:1; and page 17 will be the 17th minute of a film. The site provides a basic outline for a screenplay of the average movie made today:
- Between pages 1-5: The HOOK, something that grabs our attention and pulls us in.
- Page 10: At this point in your script you should have the “MINI CRISIS”. The “MINI CRISIS” should lead us into…
- Page 17: …The DILEMMA. Creation of the team and what the movie is about.
- Page 30: The REACTION to the dilemma or situation.
- Page 45: First “REVERSAL” of the 17 minute point. This point furthers the characters and pushes them deeper into the situation or the dilemma.
- Page 60: The “TENT POLE” of the movie. Where the passive characters become active or vice versa.
- Page 75: Second “REVERSAL” to the 17 minute point. To reaffirm what the story is about.
- Page 90: The LOW POINT of action. The place from which our main character has to rise up from.
So when I noticed students picking up books for independent reading and discarding them after the first few pages, I wondered if they were giving the book a real chance. Could a 17 page rule apply to books student might choose to read? And, if the rule applied, would a student become more engaged once he or she reached page 17?
In a short experiment, I grabbed three books off the top of the book cart, and noted the following:
The Hobbit (The Dwarves and Gandalf invade Bilbo’s home)
“The poor little hobbit sat down in the hall and put his head in his hands, and wondered what had happened, and what was going to happen, and whether they would all stay to supper. Then the bell rang again louder than ever, and he had to run to the door.”
Little Women -Marmee gives Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy their Christmas gifts with her words of encouragement to survive the difficulties of life.
‘We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another.Out burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before Father comes home.’”
Lord of the Flies-The boys Ralph and Piggy discover they are on their own in a hostile environment:
“They’re all dead,” said Piggy, “an’ this is an island. Nobody don’t know we’re here. Your dad don’t know, nobody don’t know—”
His lips quivered and the spectacles were dimmed with mist.
“We may stay here till we die.”
With that word the heat seemed to increase till it became a threatening weight and the lagoon attacked them with a blinding effulgence.”
Yes, the rule was working for books from the canon. Later that same afternoon, I was working with a “reluctant reader” who had selected James and the Giant Peach as a guided reading text. I glanced at page 17 and noticed the wonderful passage where James finds the entrance to the giant peach.
James and the Giant Peach
“Almost without knowing what he was doing, as though drawn by some powerful magnet, James Henry Trotter started walking slowly toward the giant peach. He climbed over the fence that surrounded it, and stood directly beneath it, staring up at its great bulging sides. He put out a hand and touched it gently with the tip of one finger. It felt soft and warm and slightly furry, like the skin of a baby mouse. He moved a step closer and rubbed his cheek lightly against the soft skin. And then suddenly, while he was doing this, he happened to notice that right beside him and below him, close to the ground, there was a hole in the side of the peach.”
Not every text has a page 17 moment…sometimes the dilemma is posed on page 16 or page 18 or 19. I suspect the rule holds up because the 17 minute rule/page 17 is part of a pattern in storytelling, and stories always follow a pattern. Sharing this rule with students gives me another “tool” in my teaching toolbox, so when I see a student toss a book aside after reading only a few pages, I casually remark, “Did you get to page 17 yet? There’s a rule about page 17…. on page 17, something important always happens.”
I may get a quizzical look, but several minutes later, I have seen that same student engrossed in the text.
“The book got better,” says the student.
“Well, you got past page 17,” I respond.