I was watching a movie the other night that should have been great, but the pacing was so slow I hit the pause button. “This movie is making me want to drink.”
The Bride raised an eyebrow. “You have a gin and tonic in your hand right now.”
“I need another one to stay awake.”
“No, you need a break to get up, and while you’re there, pour me a glass of wine, please. Let’s finish this tomorrow.”
She was absolutely right, and we did. Despite two of my favorite actors, what should have been a good movie was damaged because so many useless scenes should have been left on the cutting room floor.
I know this blog is about writing, but someone wrote that script that became a movie. Now I know how hard it is to write a screenplay. I wrote one myself that’s under consideration (read “it’ll never be filmed” here), and it was one of the hardest projects I’ve ever undertaken. That’s because I distilled my first 350-page novel, The Rock Hole, down into 130 narrow pages. The industry standard has been 120 pages, but I simply couldn’t tighten it up any more without losing the essence of the novel. One thing I did though was to maintain the pace, which brings us to what is essential in a novel.
Let me repeat that, pacing, which is the process of discovery.
Pacing is the speed at which a story unfolds, the rhythm and flow. Consider a roller coaster. There are times the train moves slow, the rise to the crest of the ride, and then the fall of plot points and events which should be fast enough to keep us turning the pages until we rise again in anticipation of the next drop and ultimately, the final rush into the climax.
In other words, it’s how fast your story unfolds to the reader.
Let’s jump back to movies for a moment and look at two films about the same subject that released within months of each other, Tombstone, directed by its star Kurt Russell, and Wyatt Earp, directed by its star Kevin Costner.
Both are about the Earp brothers and the ultimate shootout at the O.K. Corral, but their pacing is dramatically different. Tombstone moves fast. Even what might be considered a slow scene passes quickly because of either action or humor, or a combination of both.
In Costner’s three and a half our hour film, Wyatt Earp, we find a movie dedicated to history and character development. He emphasizes Wyatt’s younger years and tells us how he eventually became the man he was, and the drive that sent him to Tombstone…
…and in the movie of the same name that lasts two hours and fifteen minutes, Kurt Russell utilizes a rule all authors should learn, show, don’t tell. He doesn’t give us half an hour of slow moving angst and backstory, he picks up the action almost at the outset and takes us for a satisfying roller coaster ride.
An interesting point is that the original Tombstone screenplay was so long it could have been a limited miniseries, but Russell understands what viewers want in a theatrical release and left huge chunks of already-filmed dialogue and character development on the floor.
It’s the same thing John Wayne learned from his legendary mentor, John Ford.
Keep it moving.
Tombstone works because he shows us instead of telling us, and unfolds the story with efficiency and a measured tempo. He keeps it moving.
How about another example, this time between mysteries and thrillers? A mystery usually advances with slower steps. We don’t know who the bad guy or killer is, so we follow the clues as the protagonist unravels a tangled web of suspects or motives until the end where it is all revealed. It’s a detailed process that some revel in, while other readers aren’t that detail oriented.
Thrillers are like that aforementioned roller coaster ride. We usually know who the bad guy is near the outset of the story, but we hang on for the ride until the end and justice (hopefully) prevails.
In my opinion, there are a couple of musts that have to be included in a well-written novel and of course one is tempo. Each chapter must push the story forward (pacing again), but it must have enough elements to keep the reader engaged. If you lose a reader because the story moves to slow, you’ll likely lost them before the end.
And things have to move , maybe not at hyper speed, but enough keep a reader interested. One of my favorite methods of driving the story forward and keeping someone turning the page is the use of short chapters. I grew up reading chapters that took days to push through, and often lost my place when I had to put the book down, or because there was wayyyy too much included in that one chapter (read Costner’s Wyatt Earp here again).
I love short, quick chapters and use them to effect. Then, as the action speeds up in the third act, I’ll shorten them even more, sometimes to only a page. This leaves the reader’s heart pounding, breathless (we hope) and ready to move on to the next chapter to see what happens next.
Consider this, many people like to read a night in bed. Slow, ponderous chapters and pacing will keep their interest until the Sandman comes in and throws his grains around, but short chapters will make the reader flip ahead and think, “Hey, this next one’s short. I can read another.”
How fast did you hit those three extremely short chapters above?
Now we have velocity and the reader stops checking the length of those chapters, caught up in the story’s drive and pushes ahead. “I can finish this before I go to sleep.”
Do you want your fans to mark their place, put that book on the nightstand and turn out the light, or create a fast-paced novel that drives them to stay up until one in the morning because they can’t put it down?
Here’s my answer. I’ll watch Tombstone every time it’s on, and to the end, because it’s engaging. I simply can’t watch much more of Wyatt Earp other than the shootout at the corral. Why? Because. It. Moves. Slow.
So pace yourselves.