Monday, March 13, 2006


Sometimes, there is too much talk about structure. In open-discussions and private seminars and debates down the pub, it’s discussed like it holds the answers to struggling screenplays everywhere. There is no denying that structure is the essential concrete of a script’s story but there is another equally important consideration that is never given as much weight or consideration: Pace. Structure’s little sister.

While the demands and the deliverance of the three-act structure are difficult to apply without everyone jumping at your story with a meat-cleaver, the use of pace and momentum is often overlooked because a writer will invariably convince himself that “the structure’s there”, so everything else must be working. Yes, the structure may very well “be there” but that doesn’t mean anything is working at all.

As we’ve previously discussed, it’s easy to set up and build a story around the basic three-act template but it’s better to try to defy expectation and avoid predictability at every stage. A script written to the design of the template rather than the intentions of the writer, and the organic needs of the story, becomes a blueprint and that’s when criticisms and problems occur for writers everywhere.

Robert McKee has some insightful words on the “pace, rhythm and tempo” of a screenplay (pages 289-294 for those with the book at hand). He says: “Pace begins in the screenplay. Cliché or not, we must control rhythm and tempo. It needn’t be a symmetrical swelling of activity and shaving of scene lengths, but progressions must be shaped.” Pace, rhythm and tempo, the austere triumvirate of a script’s momentum.

The well-known advice for pacing is generally accepted as: “start your scenes as late as possible and end them as early as you can”. This is good advice but taken far too literally at times. What it means is that you don’t want to bore the reader/audience with any unnecessary moment of screen time. What it doesn’t mean is that you should make all of your scenes one or two pages long.

Who was it that said no scene in a script should be more than three pages? It really is maddening and misleading advice. Perhaps it’s applicable in the US spec market as you want your script to zip along with a breeze and energy that will gain you some favour but in terms of film and the cinematic experience, this actual pacing won’t last for a second in the editor’s cutting room.

Pacing is about variety, not speed and economy. Yes, action sequences and short transitional scenes are all very much needed but time spent with the characters and understanding their motives and behaviour is also a must. And sometimes, these scenes go on for more than three minutes - hell, they should go on for as long as they’re required.

Ultimately, it comes down to a writer’s choice about how effectively he thinks he’s telling his story (or she, a lot of he’s in there). Hopefully this will be the case rather than a writer thinking that she has followed the accepted rules and regulations of screenplay to the letter, and therefore convincing herself that she’s got a polished and presentable script.

While screenplay is so much about format and regulation, story is about emotion and gut reaction and it’s this above all that writers everywhere should focus on in gnashing over whether a story works or not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big advocate of specific screenwriting technique. I love pace and structure, and like to think that it’s a particularly strong area for me, but I try to not let the accepted fundamentals get in the way of telling the emotion and heart of the story. Start late, finish early? Let it go man (but make it interesting and dramatic rather than dull and indulgent).


Lucy said...

As always, nail right on the head there.

Structure IS important and as a script reader one doesn't always see enough of it, however pace is just as important. I've seen fantastically structured screenplays that have bored me to tears and ones that are totally structure-less that are really exciting pace-wise, even if sometimes I'm not entirely sure what they're about 'cos they are literally all over the place!

"Start late and finish early" is sound advice, however I would never advocate any screenwriter takes convention as set in stone. It's probably not a great idea to write a 16 page scene, but there are always exceptions that prove a rule.

However, as I often say to my clients, it's often the producers and agents who take certain rules as "set in stone" and avoid those new writers who try and break the mould. I've had some totally mad feedback in the past on this basis, from "have I started late enough, could I begin with this infinitesmal detail of their own imagining"? and even "this pay-off was not significant enough, could they do this instead (even though that would change the entire screenplay)?" When I objected, they quoted Syd Field and Mckee at me. Obviously I've never heard of either of those guys before, I only studied this for THREE YEARS! Grrr.

Tim Clague said...

I think this sometimes comes from the idea that structure is the PLOT structure. Take a step back from the plot for a moment. What is your EMOTIONAL structure? Once you know how the audience should be feeling during any particular time you can see that a scene of 8 pages long makes sense if you need to deal with say 4 different emotions.

The Moviequill said...

I just read Fabulous Baker Boys script and that one to me is an excellent example of rythem and pace.. speaking of scripts is The Last Kiss by Paul Haggis available online?

Danny Stack said...

Not sure MovieQ, I read it for a company last year...