Friday, September 01, 2006

Pacing and Why It Sucks

The nastiest thing you need to deal with is pacing. It’s arguably the single scariest thing you can do, and it requires a certain degree of natural rhythm. It’s why scripts are long-form poetry.

Okay, we’ve covered acts and scenes, as well as rising and falling actions. Now, we’re going to put them all together. By now you’re tired of me saying rising and falling action, and the only place you want to see them is in a Shannon Tweed movie. Unfortunately, now we need to take a closer look at them, as they define the pacing of the script.

Each scene needs to push the script forward, and fit into the act structure. At the same time, they need to keep it interesting. In order to do this, you need to do something weird with the scenes: You need to decide if the individual scene as a whole is a rising or falling action.

Consider a roller coaster for a moment; if it went straight up, straight down, and then straight up again, it would be boring. You need the loops and banks to keep it interesting, as well as sections that allow the rider to catch his breath. After all, a ride that doesn’t allow the rider to occasionally to catch his breath will be just as boring as one that just goes up and down.

The same applies to your script. Although you need to have all the scenes in a particular act going the same way, you need to do something to keep it interesting. This is where pacing comes in. Each scene needs to be more intense than those behind it, and less intense than those following it; this is called momentum.

Then you need to look at each scene, and how it works with the script as a whole. You need to decide if the scene not just moves the plot forward, but also how it reacts to the scenes in front of and behind it. It should be one of two types, either be more intense than the scenes surrounding it, or it should be slightly less intense than the scenes following it. Also, these scenes should alternate, so that you have one scene that’s really intense, one that allows the reader to catch his breath, and then another that’s more intense. Consider an action movie: Ever notice how each action scene has a less stressful right after, and then the next scene is more intense? That’s what you need.

The challenge is to keep the balance between momentum and intensity. If you can pull it off, then you’ll be able to give your script the proper pacing. It’s just a matter of finding a pace that you can maintain. So, now we’ve covered acts, scenes, threads and pacing; ready for some plotting?

Threads of Pearls

Your script depends on your ability to pull scenes together into threads, each of which helps the script. It helps to organize your scenes into threads, each of which has its own act breaks.

You’re most likely going to have a lot of little threads organized into bigger threads. Your biggest threads should be as follows:

Main Thread: This is the biggest thread of all, and is the actual plot. All of the action should happen here, as well as all of the big scenes. In essence, you should be able to cut out all of the other threads, and still have something. If this is the plot, all other threads are obviously subplots. At least half of your scenes should be part of this thread, and subplots should have about 10-15 scenes each (so a full sixty-scene script would have thirty scenes in the main thread, and two or three subplots).

Romantic Subplot: You need at least one romance, however contrived. Of course, it’s best if the romance can build naturally, with its own ups and down. This can act to add some interesting clashes that can be brought out in the main plot, as well as mess with other sub-plots. Try not to have more than one romance per script; anymore, and it’s more soap than story.

Character Subplot: This sub-plot is strictly to develop a character, fleshing out his personality and history, and should make the conflicts more interesting. Any character can be victimized by this sub-plot, even the villain’s henchmen; just have fun with it!

Running Gag: This is a joke that you have decided needs some building, from a small scene to resounding crescendo. Go lightly here; it’s tempting to have a number of them running around. You shouldn’t have more than two or three; anymore, and they become annoying rather than humorous. Also, you only need about five to ten scenes for a running joke; running gags are best used sparingly.

When it comes to threads, you can have scenes that are part of multiple threads. The ideal is to have each scene be part of its own thread, but sometimes it is more interesting to have a scene affect several threads; most commonly, the main thread and romantic threads will cross, as the romance hinges on the main plot. Nonetheless, do what feels right for you script; not all scripts are the same.

Keep in mind also that threads are what drives your script; each one strings through your script like strings of pearls, each pearl a scene that makes the next pearl possible. Thus, you can have weak scenes (and it’s good to have a couple, as they allow your audience breathing space). This is where you actually start building your script; these threads will coalesce into the script, with each one flavoring what happens. Just like recipes, combine the ingredients carefully, or you’ll make something rather unappetizing!

Making Scenes, Lots of Them

I’m used to plotting movies. As such, I know that a good movie is made up of 40 to 60 scenes. A sitcom is based of off far fewer, with only about eight. As that’s what I’m used to, I think in terms of movie scenes.

Each scene needs to have its own little act breaks; that is, it needs to have rising actions and falling actions. Consider a four-panel gag comic for a second, if you think this is hard; the first panel provides the introduction and set-up, the second is the rising or falling action, the third opposes that, and the fourth is the punchline. Or something like:

Panel 1: Dweeb enters with a pie. [Intro]

Panel 2: Layla sees the pie, looking bored. [Falling action] Layla: Oh, it’s a pie joke.

Panel 3: Dweeb puts the pie on the table. [Rising action] Dweeb: Nah, it just looks like a pie joke.

Panel 4: Dweeb lifts the table and the pie hits Layla. [Falling action] Dweeb: Okay, so it’s a pie joke.

Yeah, lame, but it illustrates the point. The page is one scene by itself; in a serial comic, this could have been just the first page of the scene. Just remember that the scene needs to be a three-act play in and of itself, and you’ll do fine.

There are few other things to keep in mind when you build a scene. In a serial script, the scene needs to do something for the script, or it’s wasted space, and that’s bad. You can have special pages (especially for holiday scenes), but that’s an exception. Try to avoid pages done for the sake of art; they sound like a good idea, but not if you’re trying to tell a story. It’s sort of like a bad commercial; it wastes time, doesn’t sell anything, and just annoys the reader (this is why filler pages need to be avoided at all costs).

When you write a scene, keep in mind that it needs to do something for the story, even if it’s just to build a character. And building character is always good, as long as you don’t go too crazy with it; by filling in the blanks, you make the characters more interesting, and therefore it’s more likely people will keep reading the comic.

Keep in mind that scenes tend to work in tandem with other scenes, so any one scene doesn’t need to be incredibly strong, it just needs to do its job and get out so the next one can come along. Because of this, don’t worry too much about each scene being the world’s best; if you do, you may put too much stress on yourself and not be able to write more. Just have fun with each scene and see where it goes; let them write themselves and see what happens…

Getting Your Acts Together

There are four things to consider when you start plotting your script: acts, scenes, pacing, and threads. Once I cover those, I’ll show you how to plot. Honest! Let’s deal with acts first.

An act is a section of the script that has the same basic direction, either up or down. Most plays and movies are based off three acts. A happy ending has a positive first act, a lot of stuff hits the fan in the second act, and the third act brings it all together. A tragedy reverses those directions, with an introduction to the loser’s life in the first act, a lot of cool, fun stuff happening in the second act, and the loser dying horribly in the last act.

It’s important to base everything off the basic three-act structure. Admittedly, a lot has to do with it providing a base that your readership will be comfortable with, and that you can far easier write from. At the same time, scripts with fewer acts don’t tend to work as well, and more acts just confuses people and are harder to write, as you need to look at the rising and falling actions more intensely.

[A rising action is an action with a positive connotation, and a falling action is one with a negative connotation. Big ones define acts, small ones define scenes.]

By breaking it down into acts, you are better able to organize your plot. However, the biggest problem you have is that you need to decide what the act breaks are going to be. These are scenes that are major changes in the flow, positive if the act is negative, and negative if the act has been positive.

Consider your standard action movie: The first act break is usually when the hero is having a great day, and is then forced into a defensive action by the villain. The second act break is when the hero takes the offensive, eventually winning the day. In a tragedy, the hero is losing the battle, and then gets the villain on the run (first act break), and then the villain starts winning (second act break).

In a romance movie, you have a couple just starting to get into each other, and then the first act break forces the romance apart. The second act break is usually when the lovers start coming back together. Unless it’s a tragic romance, in which case they are falling apart, something forces them together, rekindling the romance (first act break), and then the romance starts falling apart again (second act break).

Your first act should be the first fourth of the script, the second act should be the next half of the script, and the third act should be the final fourth. This makes a lot of sense, as the second act is the meat and potatoes of the script (making the first act the appetizer and the third act the dessert; these are apt analogies).

Your act breaks define the difference between acts. Your acts form the basic frame from which you will hang your plot, and need to be a major part of your plotting. But these are just beginning of plotting; scenes are the next consideration.