(SPOILERS: The Abyss, Inherent Vice)
Pace is important in movies, so it should be no surprise that it’s important in screenplays. One of the major goals of a screenplay is to give a sense of the experience of watching the final film. But it can be tough to match the pace of film with words on a page. A bit of action that might take two seconds on screen might require many words to convey, even when it’s done well. An image can convey so much information – thus the phrase “a picture is worth 1000 words.” In screenplays, we don’t get 1000 words to describe a frame.
This means we have to be very efficient in our writing. We have to pick which details we choose to describe carefully, and we have to deliver those details with as few words as possible. In the polishing stage of the script, a good writer will go through every line and cut anything that isn’t absolutely necessary.
When writing description, pick highly specific, evocative, representative details. So rather than writing:
INT. GROCERY STORE - DAY
Sam enters the grocery store. There are three cash registers, though only one is occupied. The store is small, with a dozen cluttered aisles. The canned goods are stacked several feet high on top of the shelves. The fruit is piled in pyramids. Refrigerators for dairy products and drinks line the outside walls. Fluorescent light casts a sickly glow over everything. Everything is dusty. There are cobwebs in the corners.
Write something more like:
INT. GROCERY STORE - DAY
Sam enters, eying the precarious towers of dusty soup cans and rice boxes leaning over the dim and dingy aisles.
Assuming nothing else from the former description is necessary to the story, this single sentence captures the flavor of the store without slowing the screenplay.
For dialogue, police yourself for the niceties that make up real speech but can bog down dramatic scenes. Avoid greetings, introductions, farewells and small talk. Often it is possible to simply cut into the scene later, just before the actual conflict starts, or even in the midst of the conflict.
Most of our concern with pace in screenwriting is about speeding things up, keeping the story moving. But there are times when you want to slow things down. Sometimes you want to draw the action out to build anticipation.
For example, it is common to slow the pace in suspense scenes. Suspense is about building tension in the audience. The “building” aspect is important. You can’t take your reader from relaxed to tense in a few sentences. Think about how horror movies do this – the long takes of a character entering a darkened basement, creeping ever so slowly forward. The writer wants to capture that feeling on the page.
One of my favorite suspense scenes is from The Abyss (written by James Cameron). Two characters are trapped in a disabled mini-sub with a leak. But the scene doesn’t start with the characters in a panic, worried about how they’ll survive. Instead, they think the problem’s solvable and begin talking about other things. Then slowly, as the water rises and help doesn’t come, they begin to get concerned. They try to find a way to fix the leak, but are stymied. Now the water is up to their chests. Tension is at its height – for both the characters and the audience. But only because the scene has taken its time to let that tension build.
There are other situations where you might want to purposefully build anticipation. There’s a scene in Inherent Vice (screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson) that is incredibly erotic. But it doesn’t throw graphic, acrobatic, shocking sex at the audience. Instead, it controls pace to build sexual tension.
In the scene, Shasta is visiting Doc (her ex-boyfriend and the main character). She enters the room naked, startling Doc. Then she sits near him on the couch and describes, in a long monologue, why she became the mistress of a wealthy and powerful developer, and how being in that position was a turn on. As she’s talking, she slowly works a foot up Doc’s leg, until it reaches his crotch at the very end of her story. She lies across his lap, and finally Doc can take it no more – he must have her. The eroticism of the scene comes from that long, slow build of anticipation for Doc and for the audience.
Of course, you can’t do this with every scene or your story will feel like it’s plodding along at a snail’s pace. You have to pick and choose when you slow things down. And you don’t want to slow a scene down with boring, mundane dialogue or business. Shasta’s monologue in Inherent Vice is interesting and revealing and sets the tone of sensuality for the scene. The discussion on the mini-sub in The Abyss is about important story issues and what’s at stake for the characters.
Though a screenplay is not a final product – it’s a blueprint for the movie, which is the final product – it is still important for the screenwriter to be aware of how the words play on the page. Not only do you want to set the tone, you also often have to convince someone to make the film! That means a good reading experience that captures the feeling of watching the movie.
You can affect the pace and the perception of pace in the way you write your action and description. Consider these two versions of a hypothetical scene:
INT. HALLWAY – NIGHT
Sam descends the wooden stairs – CREAK, CREAK – arriving in a long hallway. A single bare light bulb flickers on the ceiling. At the far end is a door, smudged with handprints.
Sam studies that door. Readjusts his grip on his gun.
He creeps down the hall, eyes on the door. Feeling his way along, trying not to make a sound.
Sweat drips into his eyes. He pauses, wipes it away with the back of his hand.
He hears a CREAK – spins back toward the stairs. Nothing there. His imagination?
Sam turns back, refocuses on that door. Resumes moving toward it. Quiet. Cautious. Ready.
He reaches the door. Grips the knob. Steels himself.
He eases the door open...
On the other side is Mandy, tied to a chair, gagged, mascara streaks running down her cheeks.
And behind her is Joan… with a pistol pressed against Mandy’s temple.
INT. HALLWAY – NIGHT
Sam descends the stairs, reaches a hallway. At the far end, a door, smudged with handprints. A single bulb flickers.
Sam stalks toward the door, gun ready. Wipes sweat from his eyes.
He yanks the door open–
And finds Mandy – tied to a chair. Joan behind her–
With a gun pressed to Mandy’s temple.
Which is better? It depends on what the purpose of the scene is. The first builds tension, the second is more active and exciting. The second is also shorter and will occupy less of the total length of the screenplay. The point is, you have the power to control the pace of the scene with your writing style. Use it.