The David Lean Rule

Today’s post is a follow-up (and closely related) to last week’s “The Clothesline Method.”

The great British film director David Lean

David Lean was the two-time Oscar-winning director of Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago, among many others. He was a Brit. He died in 1991. I don’t know about you, but if David Lean has something to say on the subject of story or narrative, I will travel many miles to listen.

What follows comes from my own yellowing newspaper files. I have no idea when or from where I clipped this. It’s part of a longer article, an interview with Christopher Hampton, the British playwright, film director, and screenwriter (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement, The Quiet American). According to the article, Hampton spent a year with David Lean “collaborating on Hampton’s adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel, Nostromo, but the epic film version ultimately didn’t happen because Lean died six weeks before shooting.”

Here, via Hampton, is David Lean thinking in “clothesline” terms:

Hampton remembers that Lean told him to think of every movie, depending on its length, as six to 10 segments, each strung together with a very strong rope. “And because he was an ex-editor, I suppose, he always said, ‘The most important thing in any film is the last image of one scene and how it sits next to the first image of the next scene,'” recalls Hampton.

With each new draft of the script, Lean would actually have storyboard artists paint those juxtaposed images off the page so he could see how they looked together. Occasionally, he’d even ask an artist to draw a third image of a combined dissolve, to see if that was a better fit.

Hampton says he was able to apply much of what he learned from Lean to his future screenplay work. As it turns out, the next script Hampton wrote was Dangerous Liaisons. It won him an Oscar in 1988.

Here’s the David Lean Rule, as I would state it, for my own benefit as a writer or for anyone else:

In addition to thinking of a narrative in terms of Act One/Act Two/Act Three, think of it as eight to twelve sequences or sections.

I use this all the time. It’s extremely helpful, I’ve found, with long-form material like novels or full-length non-fiction. Why? Because the Three Act concept of organizing a narrative doesn’t always work with something that’s really lo-o-o-ng.

Three-act structure, remember, was developed for plays, for dramas presented on stage, and for movies—in other words for works that would be taken in by the audience at a single sitting. A play or a movie takes ninety minutes, at most a couple of hours. We in the audience have no trouble remembering, as we’re watching Act Three, some set-up scene or moment from Act One. Three-act structure works. It abets and reinforces the narrative’s momentum. Act One hooks us, Act Two builds the tension and complications, Act Three delivers the payoff.

But a 500-page novel doesn’t work like that. We may take a month to read such a weighty tome. We’ll pick it up at bedtime, read 60 pages, then not touch it again for a week. Three-act structure doesn’t always work in this case because the narrative is not designed to be consumed in one sitting. By the time we hit page 396, we’ve forgotten key characters and moments that were introduced on page 21. And even if we do still remember them, the momentum of the story has been lost because so much time has passed. We, the readers, have to reconstitute it by act of memory at each new sitting.

The David Lean Rule comes in really handy here. If we as writers build our narrative out of eight to twelve sequences or sections, each one of which is more or less free-standing (and possesses its own cohesion and story momentum), the reader can pick up the book and be back into the flow right away.

Another big plus, in my opinion, is that thinking in sequences, as David Lean would, gives a story a classic, old-fashioned feel, like Lean’s movies. I like that. It’s old time storytelling.

Think of how Lean, working with the great screenwriter Robert Bolt, fashioned Lawrence of Arabia. Sequence #1 introduces Lawrence and gives him an assignment to find Prince Feisal in the Arabian desert; Sequence #2 gets Lawrence out into the tall sand and establishes the conflict and dysfunction between the Brits and their Arab allies; Sequence #3—the attack on Aqaba—vaults Lawrence into prominence and changes the face of the entire war. (And so on, through sequence after sequence). The story, told in this manner, possesses a powerful gravity and inevitability (there’s even an element of fate) that might not be felt as keenly if the narrative were delivered in a more herky-jerky manner.

The last bonus of the David Lean Rule is that it doesn’t conflict with the concept of Three Act structure; it just helps that structure work. We can easily think of Lawrence or any other piece of long-form material as being organized into three acts. It’s just that Act One is comprised of Sequences 1-3; Act Two is 4-9; and Act Three 10-12.

It’s the Clothesline Method, but done with a bit of British class.


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  1. Sinakhone Keodara on January 14, 2015 at 7:00 am

    Thank you Mr. Pressfield for sharing this gem with us. This reminds me of Chris Soth’s Min-Movie-Method (which I’ve yet to finish reading but was introduced to it in a free ScreenwritingU seminar) and it certainly helps to think of that very long Second Act as having 6 sequences. However, I would have loved for you to list all the 12 sequences of Lawrence of Arabia (not that I’ve seen that film; I know…I know…I’m a bad screenwriter for not having watched that film even through 2 years of film school and I still haven’t seen (gasp) Citizen Kane). At any rate, it would be helpful to me if you would be so kind as to break down those other sequences so I can arm myself with it when I finally watch Lawrence of Arabia as research. I’ve been told to think of those sequences in terms of a phrase that will encapsulate the feelings of what you want the audiences to feel but have written a completed first feature without it and there are, of course, some beats missing so the story doesn’t work very well as there are some story-logic problems. All that is to say that it would help my writing if I’m clear on what the essence of those sequences would be. Anyhow, thanks again for sharing your wisdom with us. Your blog is one of ones I read religiously!

  2. Alex Cespedes on January 14, 2015 at 8:07 am

    I like this! It makes sense that it would help because it reminds us that there should be small “payoffs” throughout each act before the major Act 3 payoff. Mr. Coyne is teaching us that concurrently through his blog. You guys are like Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez, N’Sync!

  3. Mary Doyle on January 14, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Thanks for this! The building blocks of sequences helps to reduce the intimidation I experience about juggling three larger acts. This dovetails nicely with Shawn’s posts over on Story Grid.

  4. Debra Murphy on January 14, 2015 at 9:43 am

    Many thanks for this!

    Lawrence of Arabia is #1 on my list of desert island movies. Our family watches it ever year or so, and it is always, always, an education in storytelling. Next time we watch I’ll note the sequences! (And yes, I think this method will help my novel outline.)

    Similarly, Lean’s planned NOSTROMO is #1 on my list of movie might-have-beens. It is one of the great novels, and only a Lean could do it justice, in part because (unlike other epic directors like, say, Ridley Scott) he always made sure he had the best possible screenwriter to do the adaptation. (God, I miss Robert Bolt.)

  5. Joel D Canfield on January 14, 2015 at 10:07 am

    Someone commented on an article at Shawn’s blog that stories are like fractals. This fits neatly with that.

    I’ve become good at telling the big story, but I have real shortcomings diving deeper into the smaller parts, the connecting tissue, stuff down at the scene and beat level. Concepts like The David Lean Rule are nudging me toward better work. Thank you.

    • Alex Cespedes on January 14, 2015 at 11:14 am

      I’m right there with ya Joel! The deep dive is not an easy one to make. But we’re learning!

  6. David Y.B. Kaufmann on January 14, 2015 at 11:35 am

    Three Act, Foolscap, Story Grid, Sequence – the point is narrative needs structure, a skeleton that defines its shape.


  7. Brady Longmore on January 14, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    This was so refreshing for me to read, as I struggle with the three act structure a little bit. I have found that I naturally have been gravitating to this “clothesline” method all along without realizing it. Good to know I’m not insane.

  8. Erika Viktor on January 15, 2015 at 10:17 am

    FINALLY! Someone else notices it!

    The three-act rule DOES NOT work for novels. At the very minimum there are four acts, but as you said, there are many more sections or turning points and events that keep the reader engaged and although short-form things like movies may be a great inspiration, they are not a one to one role model.

    Thanks, Steve! 🙂

  9. Nik on January 15, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    “I have no idea when or from where I clipped this.”

    Los Angeles Times, Jan. 30, 2008

    “‘The most important thing in any film is the last image of one scene and how it sits next to the first image of the next scene,’” recalls Hampton.”

    As a Game of Thrones fan, I immediately thought of every transition to or from a scene featuring Theon Greyjoy — the show ALWAYS has a character eating or being served a sausage in those transitions. It’s like the show is telling the audience, “Hey, remember this guy? He was tortured, flayed and gelded, and we’re going to keep reminding you of that in the worst way possible.” Of course there are narrative reasons for that, and it’s not just cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

    Anyway, the advice to pay attention to transitions is obviously key in movies, but I’m sure novelists could benefit from that kind of thinking as well, whether it’s reinforcing a thematic element or just an artful segue into a new section.

  10. RJ McHatton on January 21, 2015 at 11:28 am

    Terrific tips and advice. I remember how effective the structure of the DIE HARD movies were. The writing team there were looking for SIGNIFICANT EMOTIONAL EVENTS to occur every ten minutes. So they took the 100 minute movie and broke it down to ten sequences. I now realize thanks to you, that they were using the David Lean formula! Thanks again for sharing your ideas with us!

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