Contemplating the high drama of Easter a couple weeks ago — the minor chords of Friday, the muted lighting climaxed by a candle snuffing Holy Saturday, the over-the-top Gloria explosion on Sunday — I thought: This is like a screenplay. Then I went to L.A. to, ahem, consult on a TV show and was sure.
Research complete, I am ready to unleash an outrageous proposition for the people now.
Here goes: Modern American screenplay structure is based on the New Testament story. Not loosely based. Exactly based. And modern American movies in whatever genre are structured like the story of Jesus.
Bear with me, sisters. Screenplays have a structure. You probably know this, right? There are three acts, an “inciting incident” at 10 minutes, a big event at 40 minutes, an act break that’s often signaled by a change of scene and dawn breaking, a major betrayal at 90 minutes, battle with the enemy at 100, and so on. These are the rules.
Not only that — they feel right. Good movies are comforting because they follow a pattern and intriguing because they color it. Story beats are like notes on a scale: it’s amazing so many tunes can be made from twelve notes. But try inventing your own notes and you’re probably unemployed, or French.
Taking a homogenized view of the Gospels from the New Testament, here’s the basic outline of the Jesus story (including minute markers, per a movie):
Act I (0 mins): Intro to setting
10: Jesus born (“inciting incident”)
20: Jesus baptized: 40 days in desert; John the Baptist subplot
Act II (40 mins): Ministry begins: first miracle (water into wine); miracles, healings, travel
60: Herod kills John the Baptist; all-out war of Jesus vs. Romans/Jews starts here; transfiguration
Act III (80 mins): Jesus enters Jerusalem; cleanses temple; plots begin
90: Judas (close disciple) betrays him; trial begins
100: Passion & death; burial
110: Jesus reappears to Mary and others
120: Ascends to Heaven: Fade out
Next time, we’ll see how that movie you sat through last Sunday at the Loew’s Lincoln Center mirrored this story without even knowing it!