WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

PICK UP THE PACE


Our job as screenwriters is to rupture bladders.

The audience has just spent $7 on a king sized Coca-Cola with free refills, which is almost empty about halfway through the film (they started drinking it while watching all of those ads before the movie). Now they're looking for that dead spot in the story so that they can run to the bathroom. That part of the film where nothing interesting is happening and doesn't seem likely to happen for a couple of minutes. Just long enough to race to the restroom and race back. Our job is to make sure there are no dead spots, no slow spots, no time to race to the restroom... so that there is at least one messy bladder explosion at every showing.

The pacing of your script is critical. We have all seen movies that had those dull sections where nothing seemed to be happening, and we've all seen movies that just dragged along. Though a compelling story might make a slow paced film tolerable, it's still a slow paced film. Pacing is one of the most important elements of a screenplay, yet you seldom see it mentioned in screenwriting books or screenwriting classes. What *is* pacing?

Pacing is the frequency of exciting events in your screenplay (or in the movie). The more exciting events, the faster paced your screenplay. The fewer exciting events, the slower paced your screenplay. Pretty simple.

For the most part, the exciting events will be what I call the "genre juice" - those juicy genre scenes that people buy tickets to see. Those scenes that make it into the trailer. In a comedy, those are the comedy set pieces. In action they are the action scenes. In a thriller they are the suspense scenes. Though we all want great characters and a great story, the reason why we go to a comedy film is to laugh - so the funny scenes are critical. You need enough funny scenes in a comedy so that those folks who bought that $7 soft drink can't make a dash for the restroom because they don't want to miss all of those funny things that they know are coming, because the film so far has been filled with funny scenes. We pay to see a comedy film because it's funny - so the script better bring that funny and keep us laughing. If you have a comedy script with five funny scenes out of 50-60 scenes, that's not very funny. Nothing to keep you from visiting the bathroom or the candy counter or even playing that video game in the theater lobby.

SCENE NUMBERING

One of the reasons why your script is slow paced may be that not enough is happening - and you have a padded script. The average script is going to have somewhere between 50 and 60 scenes - and the average is probably closer to 60. If you do the math, that means your average scene is going to be about 2 pages. Now, that's an average, so you may have some 4 page scenes and some 1 page scenes, but if your script ends up with 10 page scenes? You might want to take a look at those epic scenes and see if they really need to be that long. A ten page scene is likely to slow down the script just because it is ten pages about the same thing.

Most new writers have no idea how faced paced a movie really is and how long 10 minutes of screentime is - a good exercise is to time movies: watch a movie and write down what all of the scenes are and what time they take place. My DVD player has a running time feature that starts at 0 and shows how many minutes have passed since the film began - a great tool when timing movies. Once you've timed a few movies, you realize how much story is packed into a screenplay - it's a lot! Then apply that to your screenplay - make sure you have just as many thing happening. Look at the length of those scenes from the movies you have timed - you'll probably noticed some jam-packed half minute scenes! There's that old story about Billy Wilder rewriting a 10 page dialogue scene into a half page that contained every single piece of information from the longer version. That's one of the basics of screenwriting - it's *condensed writing*. You need to find the way to get the maximum amount of information across in the minimum amount of screen time, because we only have 110 pages to tell the entire story.

Many slow paced films (and their screenplays) are really 60 minutes of movie story expanded to 110 pages... and that means almost half of the script is some form of filler material or just sluggish writing. Make sure you have enough story and make sure you don't spend 5 pages on a 2 page scene.

TACKED ON PACING

There are two ways to insure that your script is well paced:

1) Include the pacing in your outline so that it becomes part of the structure.
2) Edit and rewrite your script once it is finished to improve pacing.

If you include the pacing in your outline, you have "built in pacing", if you try to create pacing after the fact you may end up with contrived pacing... plus a whole lotta rewriting! I have seen many action films where it seems like someone just threw in a gratuitous car chase because the pace was lagging. That's usually what happens when pacing is an after thought - the scenes stuck-in during rewrites stick-out like a sore thumb! That is why I prefer to build my action scenes (or whatever the "genre juice" is) into the outline, so that they are part of the story itself. The juice scenes become part of the story's skeleton, not something I stick on in a rewrite that wasn't part of the original story.

It also helps to think about the juice scenes when you are looking for story ideas and thinking about characters. Though a car chase is an exciting scene that may be in the trailer and may get the audience to pay for the ticket and may keep them from making that mad dash to the restroom, it is also a *character scene* and a *story scene*. Your protagonist is in trouble and must make life or death situations in a car chase, so think of the juice scenes as character scenes as well. They aren't just something to keep the story exciting, they are also scenes of conflict that will expose character. That's another reason why those pasted on action scenes (or comedy scenes or romance scenes or suspense scenes) do not work - they are not part of the protagonist's emotional journey and not part of the story. You want to build the juice scenes into your story so that the hysterical comedy set piece is a required part of the character's story and can not be removed. Any scene that *can* be removed, *should* be removed... so any scene you can just tack onto your script is a scene that doesn't belong in your script. You want to make sure that all of those exciting "juice scenes" are integral to the story.

Is there a rhythm to the placement of the scenes (or are there long dead spots where nothing exciting happens)? Does the action or suspense or humor snowball and intensify? If your comedy becomes LESS funny as it progresses, you're in a heap-o-trouble. Pacing should intensify, not grow limp. Remember, our job is to rupture bladders. The more the audience has to go to the bathroom, the more we have to do to keep them in their seats. By Act Three there shouldn't be a minute to spare!

ACT THREE PACING

A 110 page script will have around 12 "genre juice" scenes... maybe more. Act Threes in action and thriller scripts are often "out of the frypan, into the fire" -- one action scene leads to the next and they keep snowballing until you reach the end. FACE/OFF's Act Three is wall-to-wall action, starting with a shoot out in a church between the Hero and Villain, turning into a stand off where the Villain kidnaps the Hero's daughter and holds a gun to her head outside the church, which leads to a foot chase on the pier near the church, which snowballs into the Villain stealing a speedboat and the Hero giving chase in a speedboat, which turns into a fist fight (with anchors and chains) onboard the Villain's boat, then the Villain's boat hits the shore and explodes, throwing Hero and Villain onto the beach, where they have a final knife-vs.-speargun fight. One action snowballs into the next in a continuous act-o-action.

Thrillers often do the same thing - Act Three of WAIT UNTIL DARK is one big game of hide-and-go-seek between the killer and the blind woman.

Comedy scripts also usually have "out of the frypan" Act Threes... just with one funny situation snowballing into the next. Check out the end of BLAZING SADDLES or THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY or MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING for some good examples.

In another tip on how pacing is the heartbeat of your script, I say that just as your heart beat increases as you become excited, the frequency of exciting scenes will increase when your script becomes more exciting. You will probably have many more juice scenes in the third act of your script than in the first act. Make sure you don't use up all of the excitement before the end of your story! The one place where you don't want slow pacing is Act Three. They really have to visit the restroom, and you have to fight twice as hard to prevent that from happening!

ALL JUICE ALL THE TIME?

Hey, if a "juice scene" within every ten pages is good, wouldn't a 20 minute wall-to-wall "juice scene" be even better? The answer is... no.

Films with all exciting scenes one after another seem to burn out - too much of a good thing. A script needs balance - peaks and valleys. If your script is always exciting, we'll become used to the excitement and it will becomes expected... and what's expected is not exciting. When car chases and shoot outs becomes boring, you're in trouble! All excitement is as much of a problem as no excitement at all.

When you look at the heart monitors on medical shows (or your latest trip to the ER because your bladder exploded in the cinema) you'll notice a heart beat goes up and down - there are peaks and valleys. The same is true with script pacing - you don't want all peaks, because that's just as much a flatline as all valleys. You want a peak followed by a valley - an action scene followed by a non-action scene. That keeps the action scenes exciting. But how do you keep them from making a mad dash to the restroom after the car chase is over?

Well, first you need to make sure the scenes that are not "genre juice" are critical to the story and critical to the protagonist's emotional journey. Thinking that a "genre juice" car chase is just some sort of filler material is a huge mistake... as is thinking that the scenes between your "genre juice" scenes are some sort of filler material. There is no filler material in a screenplay - every single scene, every single page, every single word is required to tell the story and had better be interesting and exciting. Remember, there *are* other forms of excitement other than a car chase. Interesting characters are exciting.

Here's what I learned from watching ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN: One genre's valley is another genre's peak. By combining two genres - horror and comedy - ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEETS FRANKENSTEIN is twice as exciting, with no burn out factor. The valleys in the horror are peaks in the comedy. When you aren't screaming, you're laughing. The comedy makes the horror twice as scary because it becomes unexpected. Here you are laughing and then something frightening happens. The horror also makes the comedy twice as funny for the same reason - after a big scare you really *need* a good laugh!

That tradition is what makes many 1980s horror movies (from AMERICAN WEREWOLF to THE HOWLING to HOUSE) so scary - the valleys in the horror story were peaks in the comedy story, and the stories never lost their focus on *characters*. An exciting scene happing to people we don't care about isn't very exciting. The peaks-and-valleys thing was also used with romance in many 1940s horror flicks like CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, which became more scary because they are love stories. There's this big romantic scene... and in the middle of a kiss the monster attacks. So when a horror film isn't scary, it's not dull... it's exciting in some other way.

The "default genre" of all scripts is usually drama - your protagonist is struggling with some emotional problem which is amplified by a physical problem (plot) that is in a popular genre. So the "genre juice" scenes may be action or thriller or comedy or horror or rom-com, but the "valley scenes" will usually be dramatic. If you look at the BOURNE movies, that is a serious character oriented story... with massive car chases. I have a tip in rotation on drama as default genre that uses a couple of comedies as examples - when those films aren't making you laugh outloud, they are about characters struggling with serious emotion problems. This is one of the reason why straight dramas usually don't do as well as genre films - the "genre juice" scenes in a drama are those big dramatic moments... those are the peaks. So what are the valleys? Um, usually nothing.

Hitchcock said "Movies are life with all of the dull bits cut out" - so you want your script to always be interesting and involving... just not always juice scenes from your primary genre (that would be all peaks = no peaks). There are no peaks if you don't have valleys - but that doesn't mean the valleys have to be dull.

Don't think of valleys as "dull spots" or "slow spots", they're going to be exciting spots in some other genre. Your thriller may use the valleys as peaks in a dramatic story. Your comedy valleys may be romantic peaks... or thriller peaks... or horror peaks... or action peaks... or some other emotional and exciting type of scene that compliments the genre of your script and helps to explore character. Every page of your script needs to be interesting, emotionally involving and exciting.

Without good pacing, you've lost your audience. And when the audience is in the bathroom they are not watching your movie. (insert your own joke here.) So, how is your script's pacing?

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