Pacing is critical. Rush through the story, and viewers struggle to understand what is going on. Slow down too much, and they get bored. How do you manage the pacing and rhythm of a story? Can you fix it in post?
Let’s go back a few decades.
If you know me today, you’ll hardly believe that for a short time, I was the face of MTV’s pan-European movie show The Big Picture. It was the nineties. MTV was still a teen and hyper hip. I was neither, which may explain why I didn’t last.
The brand had marked its territory worldwide with a fast-paced editing style, a trademark that would affect all audio-visual media, from TV interstitials and commercials to music and corporate videos.
TV series and feature films fell for the new fashion, too, but the editing style didn’t fix malfunctioning or slow-paced stories. Many movies in the MTV spirit bombed terribly. Some that spring to mind are Tank Girl, and later Scott Pilgrim.
ONE FLEW TOO FAST
In one of the earliest articles on this blog, I shared what I learned about story pacing from Milos Forman. In his director’s commentary on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, he recounts how he struggled to maintain its duration.
“I cut it down television style, under two hours. And you know what was funny? It felt much longer.”
The reason fast cutting doesn’t necessarily speed up a longish film? Because what really matters is not the number of cuts per minute, but the amount of story beats per unit of time.
But even if the smaller segments work individually, it doesn’t guarantee that the overall story will.
What really matters is not the number of cuts per minute, but the amount of story beats per unit of time.
Early in the new millennium, Richard E. Grant wrote and directed a film based on his childhood, called Wah-Wah. It’s an epic, 3-hour journey full of nostalgia, domestic drama and breathtaking vistas. Except that it’s not really three hours long. The 85-minutes I watched only felt like that.
Wah-Wah is made up of a chain of vignettes, told in episodic fashion. And there you have the reason for its slow pacing. If a film has more than one story, you need to restart the telling after each ‘episode’, much like TV.
In TV, great episodes have cliffhangers, but Wah-Wah has none. And re-booting the story or starting a new one after each vignette requires significant intellectual effort. If this isn’t coupled with high emotional tension, audiences lose interest.
Episodic storytelling works fine on a higher level. TV series form episodic chains, and movie franchises may release an episode every year or so. But within one sitting, we usually prefer a strong sense of unity. A single, focused dramatic story. And I felt this was missing in Wah-Wah.
PACING BROKEN? CONSIDER THIS
A faster edit wouldn’t fix Richard E. Grant’s problem. A narrative technique that sometimes adds to pacing and tension is the ticking clock. “But Wah-Wah was a drama,” I hear you say, “and deadlines are for thrillers and action flicks”. You know what? Deadlines are everywhere.
In late, out early
One of my favourite indies is Courtney Hunt’s Sundance winner and Academy Award nominee Frozen River. The film stars Melissa Leo as a mother who needs to pay for a new trailer home before Christmas, or the family will be homeless. This ticking clock kicks in right in the first scene. Similarly, in Jennifer Lawrence’s feature debut Winter’s Bone, written and directed by Debra Granik, the character of Ree must find her father by a deadline, or else…
These are low-budget indies, and both rely on more than one ticking clock to assist the pacing.
Deadlines are everywhere.
More sophisticated methods require an insight in your story’s architecture. If you understand fractal structure, you will know that acts work on every level. Just like the big picture of your story, scenes and sequences often behave like acts, too.
But how to use this to your benefit?
Don’t give your audience a 3rd-act resolution for each scene or sequence.
Once the problem is resolved, they will relax, and it will create that episodic Wah-Wah feel. As a result, you’ll have to work extra hard to pump the momentum up again.
Instead, abort that mini-story. I call it the One-Two, One-Two approach. Give us a first and second act; then abort by cutting in with your inciting incident for the next scene or sequence.
In the video that goes with this article, I illustrate this method with the Toy Story 2 sequence where Woody rescues Wheezy. It’s an unfinished mini-story, as it is aborted before Woody succeeds.
MORE PACING FIXES
While we’re on the topic of fractal structure: your higher-level units (Sequences, Acts) won’t work if the constituent parts don’t work. So for your act to flow, your scenes and sequences need to have a good pace, too. You can diagnose and fix this by looking at the structure of those smaller units first.
Many consider Aaron Sorkin for a master dialogue writer. Really? It often takes an A-lister to pull it off believably. I think Sorkin is first and foremost a master of structure. His greatest scenes play for 3-5 mins while keeping their tension. Not because of his clever words, but rather his smart structure.
Proper dramatic structure is probably more a foundational skill than a quick fix for pacing. Fortunately, a few simpler methods exist that you can apply immediately. Most of them are based on common sense, like ‘in late, out early’.
Sorkin is first and foremost a master of structure.
While a fast edit won’t fix your fundamental story issues, a lean trim will still pay dividends. You’ll aim to retain only what is essential, i.e. whatever generates an emotional response.
One simple surgical procedure would be to remove all ‘meet and greets’. People stick to social protocols in the real world, but your story will die by them. Cut it out, unless you use them to dramatic purpose.
Cutting scene openers is part of the broader rule of ‘in late, out early’: keep scenes as short as you can. Apart from a few tentpole moments that may run two, three to five minutes, you will typically keep the average duration of your scenes under two minutes, and under a minute for television. This will assist with the overall pacing.
When you research your preferred genres, you’ll find that the averages differ for each.
After looking at the scenes as a whole, you will need to scrutinise the dialogue. In an early draft, characters may take as much time as real-world people to get their point across. But screen drama doesn’t work like that. You’ll need to compress and stylise.
When teaching face-to-face classes, I used a trick to make the day go faster. The first session would run for a full 2 hours, and each subsequent session would shorten by 15 minutes, until a final 60-minute session.
The course was hugely successful, and I’m sure the trick contributed to the students’ experience.
Years later, I found that the pilot for the TV show Braindead did a similar same trick. Check this out!
The pilot teaser (normally around 1- 3 minutes) runs for a whopping 22 pages. Act 1 starts on page 23, and runs for 20 pages. Subsequent acts are 11, 7 and 6 pages respectively.
The pilot sold, and a first season was ordered (but sadly not renewed).
Do you know of any other techniques and tricks to manage the rhythm and pacing of a screen story? Let us know in the comments. Which movies and shows don’t work for you because of their pacing, and which ones rock?
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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