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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Structure and Pace

Yesterday I talked about Story and Plot, how they were ultimately married yet lead very different lives: I'm reminded here of me and my husband, for although we are married (durr) and have some stuff in common like the kids and cats, we couldn't be more different: I like to write. He likes to run wild on the moors like a savage. Really. So it comes as no surprise then that Story and Plot's kids, twins Structure and Pace, are also very different.

Structure is male and ego-centric; why wouldn't he be, when people talk about him all the time? He's the focus of many books, seminars and drunk screenwriters at parties: "I jussssst can't get my structure to work, man! Wass am I doing wrong? Eh? eh???" When he comes into the equation, he's posing all over the shop and for some reason I always see him in shades and a cowboy hat. In addition, he's the older twin, by a good ten minutes and always reminds us of this. He also has a severe personality disorder, since people like Aristotle, John Truby and Chris Soth keep trying to reorder him and change him around (couldn't resist).

Pace then is the younger, female, more reserved twin. I see her in my mind as a ballet dancer, dressed in pink - though she's so versatile she could take part in Swan Lake and get covered in blood in a Rob Zombie movie in the same week. She's more contemplative than Structure, but definitely more flighty; she's not so stuck in her ways. She'll change according to the brief, whilst Structure makes demands of the writer: don't have an Act One longer than 30 pages! Where's your midpoint? Get me a skinny latte and a croissant!

Alright, not that last one - though I could do with 'em - but I find it helps to visualise these two things in particular, since it's often these two things that get neglected in the scripts I read. Though many books, seminars etc are devoted to Structure (there's even a search label for it in the archives of this very blog), very few focus on the notion of Pace. Like Story and Plot, the two are interconnected. You have good Structure, your Pace will be good. It's a symbiotic relationship.

We already know what Structure is = The 3 Acts for me, but for others The Mini Movie Method, 22 Steps, Stating Intent etc - but what is Pace? Well, referring to the dictionary, we have:

A rate of activity, progress, growth, performance, etc; tempo.

This is a great help, I think: the notion that time is passing, that it's got to keep interesting, but ultimately build up to something is a notion I think we all do well to aspire to in our writing. Often in spec screenplays, Structure may be obvious, with a nice set-up, turning points in the right places etc... Yet the resolution falls flat. Or one half is interesting - and the other half goes off at a tangent. Or the writer suddenly thinks: "Argh! I'm on page 70 - let's wrap this baby up!" and whammo, it's the end, just like that. These are just three ways Pace can suffer in a screenplay; there are many more.

If you take Pace into account then at the same time as Structure, you can ask yourself the following question:

Is this the most dramatic thing that I can make happen at this time in the screenplay?

It's this question that counts when you've got your story nailed - it helps make your Structure (and therefore your Plot) work as it means that if you answer "Yes" to the above, your Pace is good. Yet there are many specs out there that have scenes that lack Pace. Why is this? The most common scenes I see that bring down Pace are:

- Over-reliance on phone calls
- Static scenes - pages where characters come in and out of rooms with one room as the "focus" for no apparent reason
- The Protagonist not being obvious and/or appearing and disappearing in the narrative - ditto secondary characters and their particular role functions
- Long, "Wonder Years"-style Voice-overs where the Protagonist spends so long reminiscing the narrative lacks forward-looking momentum
- Characters thinking about things
- Peripheral characters popping up for several pages, then never being seen again
- Yoo much black on the page - especially extraneous info, like what characters are wearing when it's not important to the plot
- Flashbacks without a discernible pattern to them
- Over-reliance on triviliaties when characters are speaking to each other ("How are you/I'm fine, how are you? Fine, thanks for asking...")

So, how do you fix the above? Well that's for tomorrow my pretties...

7 comments:

David Bishop said...

Pace can be a real bugger, as injecting it into a script can play havoc with structure. Once had a riot as the mid-point of a 60-page TV thriller pilot. After cutting and cutting and cutting to ensure pace, the riot is now on page 7. Still, it perked up the first ten pages no end!

Jason Arnopp said...

... and having read David's script of which he speaks (presumably, unless they all feature riots and he's an obsessed anarchist), in which the civil unrest's on Page 7, I must say that I can't imagine it being around the midway point.

I guess an important part of pace is to hit the ground running with bags of the stuff. Especially if you're entering the Red Planet Prize...

Oli said...

I liked the world better when the sentence "Rob Zombie movie" would have just been a meaningless sequence of words.

Oh, and "Argh! I'm on page 70 - let's wrap this baby up!" - Deathproof. Wittering on for 80 minutes then ending isn't a movie, Mr. Tarantino.

Jason Arnopp said...

Oli, I must admit, I read your Death Proof review-rant a while back and felt sure you must be either wrong or the polar-opposite of me, taste-wise. Then I actually saw Death Proof. Sweet lord.

Lucy said...

I've read that script too David I think and if it is the one I'm recalling, like Jason I can't imagine that riot being at the midpoint either. Interesting! I'm a big fan of the "hit the ground running" style - a strong hook, from the very first page preferably, is totally my bag: why have some woman say, looking in a mirror when you can start with said woman having her guts pulled out with fish hooks?! >:)

Oli - Myself, I love Rob Zombie's music, but have never dared watch any of his movies tho I hear he's re-making HALLOWEEN?? And Jason - I intend never to watch Deathproof on the strength of Oli's review alone. Shame on your ass for not believing Oli's.

Jason Arnopp said...

Shame on you too, Lucy... uh, just for the sake of throwing some shame back at you, in a knee-jerk reaction. :)

Well, Oli and I definitely differ on the topic of Rob Zombie's films, as I love 'em, flaws 'n' all. But yeah, Death Proof was testimony to the fact that Tarantino desperately needs a script editor. And one whose name isn't Quentin.

Lucy said...

Well, if he wants me Jase, he can have me... In an editory-way of course, he's not really my type. Plus I'm spoken for of course, whoops.