Sorry for the gap between this post and the last. Life created a bit of a traffic jam this month. Life has become so busy that I have turned to writing The Edge of Snow and Dust late at night, something I used to do after night shifts at the movie theater.
Speaking of being busy and having to keep leaping from one thing to another, I wanted to talk about pacing today. Pacing in storytelling is the flow of information given to the reader. Depending on the genre, be it horror, action, or romance, the pace can be slow and methodical or frantic and exciting. The key is to find a pace that keeps the reader engaged but not so confused or bored as to be taken out of the story. The reader should never feel the passage of time. Movies have the same challenge. I will use one movie with two different cuts to illustrate good pacing from meandering pacing. The 1986 Theatrical Cut of Aliens, directed by James Cameron, and its 1991 Special Edition cut.
Aliens is a fantastic movie, one whose legacy is an ever-expanding franchise with a film just released last year. It is an action movie’s take on its predecessor’s horror. I remembered when I was a teenager watching it on VHS over and over again. The film only has two great action set pieces: the Colonial Marines first encounter with the xenomorphs and Ripley’s rescue of newt, and I loved them both. A quick note – an action set piece is action with multiple scenes and points of view. It tends to be longer than an action scene, which usually occupies one location and seen from one point of view. By today’s standard, two exciting set pieces is considered too few to be an action film. Today action movies are categorized by having so much going on on-screen that you forget what the hell the plot is. With cities and even planets exploding across a gigantic theater screen and the bass so thick it reverberates in your chest, you would think the audience would be wide-eyed and attentive. If you were to turn around and face the audience, you would see a field of boredom. A lot of that boredom can be linked to pacing.
The Special Edition cut is 14 minutes longer than the Theatrical Cut. The extra 14 minutes include additional background on the main character, shows what starts the conflict of the movie, and two extra action scenes. The background scene is Ellen Ripley finds out her daughter passed away while she was in cryosleep. The scene starting the conflict is Newt’s family finding the derelict ship. Both of these are at the beginning of the film. When I first watch the Special Edition, I was surprised the two scenes were cut from the film. They filled out the story, gave the audience more information. It even shows the catalyst that leads to the great action. How could giving the audience more hurt the story? Answer: pacing.
The Special Edition starts out at a slow pace so the audience can settle into the world in which the story takes place, just like the Theatrical Cut. The additional information does not build more of the world it slows down the “river” to a crawl. It stretches the movie to the point that the first xenomorph is not seen until the 1:14 mark. Sure there is a facehugger when Newt’s family finds the ship at the 20-minute mark, but that excitement actually upsets the pacing. The audience watches a working family of four head to the derelict ship just outside their colony on planet LV-426. If the audience saw the first movie, they know what’s in store, if they had not then the pacing of the scene would build the suspense. The family’s off-road vehicle crawls along the desolate ground, letting the suspense build as they come upon the ship. The parents head into the ship; the music is mysterious and low. Then a jump cut to show the passage of time. Then, boom! Facehugger, fear! A clash of building music, roaring wind, and a shrieking girl. The audience is ready for the pace to pick up, the story to gain speed. Time to get to the planet, get to where the action is.
Not so fast. After the exciting and terrifying facehugger scene, the audience has to sit for another 45 minutes, almost an hour before the first action set piece. The elevation then sudden braking of pace kicks the audience out of the experience and makes the movie’s length known.
The Theatrical Cut does not have the facehugger scene. The audience instead finds out contact with the colony has been lost with no explanation. Ripley joins the marines sent to investigate. The military routine of the Colonial Marines’ briefing and preparation to deploy to the colony cranks up the pace and suspense in a more natural way. Their by-the-numbers search and clearing of the colony builds up the suspense just like the facehugger scene. Only now they have to wait 15 minutes instead of the original 45 for the first action set piece. And that action hits at precisely 1 hour. If this were a streaming show, the audience binge-watching the series would reward them with excitement at the very start of episode 2. Perfect!
A movie, or any story for that matter, should move at such a pace that by the time you reach the end you are shocked at the passage of time and yet are satisfied with what it gave you. You should never feel the tug to check your phone, think about what chore you have to tackle when the story ends, or look around upset that the story you were ready to invest in is already over.
What story did you get caught up in that time flew by? That by the time the story finished you were stunned how much time had passed? Leave a comment below; I would love to discover these stories which had mastered the art of pacing.