Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Speed Demons vs. Slowpokes

Open Range
The movie Open Range started me thinking about plot pacing. Westerns films are supposed to be action/adventure, but Open Range is not Silverado—which opens with sudden gunplay and corpses thrown in every direction. In Open Range, the audience never sees nor hears any shots until the end of the movie—when all hell breaks loose. The intent is to shock the audience with a tardy eruption of violence that puts the main characters into mortal danger only after the viewer has learned to care about them.

Which technique works? Both. The correct pacing depends on what the storyteller is trying to achieve. The storyline in Open Range is a set-up for the finale. The scenery, characters, and the depiction of the fabled Old West lifestyle are just enough to keep the viewer’s interest until the big payoff. Open Range has a well-conceived plot and a strategy for developing that plot—something that can’t be said for every hyperventilating action flick.

Ever since the movie Speed, the audience at an action/adventure film expects to get their adrenaline pumping within the first 180 seconds. Hollywood does this with rapid-fire cuts, pulsing music, a banging soundtrack, and life-threatening scenarios that are frequently just a preamble to the real story. (Actually, the credit for heart-throbbing openings probably belongs to the James Bond series, but Speed found ways to twist the knob to the right.)

Dan Brown did the same to novels. He opened da Vinci Code with a gruesome murder and then slammed his foot on the accelerator until the reader felt breathless while lying in his La-Z-Boy recliner. Brown uses one hundred and five chapters for a relatively short novel—some chapters are as short as a single paragraph. This is the equivalent of a film editor making forty-five cuts in a one-minute action sequence.


A downside of this trend is that critics assume that anything done with deliberation must be art—or worse, that art in film or literature must be painstaking slow. (Once Upon a Time in the West must be art because it moves slower than a septuagenarian fastening his seatbelt in a parking slot you want.)

The speed of the story should match the subject matter and the predilections of the target audience. Whatever pace you choose, it should be a choice, not an unwitting byproduct of the other story elements. The only hard and fast rule is that a plot must never come to full stop. Plots move or die. Even dialogue must always move plot or characterization. (People don’t want to watch or read the banal things we say to each other.)

When you read your next book or watch your next film, stay aware of the pacing. If you enjoy the experience, chances are that the story is told at the right speed to properly draw the characters and develop the plot for the genre’s audience.

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.

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