Monday, September 21, 2009


Usually, the premise of a movie will dictate -- in broad terms -- what its timeline should be.

CIA gunslinger tracks down nuclear terrorist. Probably not a ten-year saga.

Sweatshop toiler pursues an education and becomes a captain of industry. I don't see that one happening in real time.

But within that general framework, there's practically no limit to the freedom we have to fine-tune the temporal boundaries of a script. The amount of time a story takes to unfold (actual time, not screen time or page count), combined with the way we divide and compress that time to fit the length of our script -- i.e., pacing -- can greatly affect the storytelling tools we have available to us, as well as the way our story is ultimately perceived.

As demonstrated by the first hypothetical logline up top, suspenseful movies tend to demand a shorter timeline -- especially those that rely on the classic "ticking clock" element wherein the hero has a very specific amount of time to accomplish his or her task (find the secret formula, rescue the President's daughter, disarm the bomb, etc.). If the deadline is too long or too loose, the sense of danger will diminish and the audience will tune out. You don't see a lot of stories where the hero faces unspeakable danger, goes home and goes to sleep, then gets up the next morning to face more unspeakable danger. (Cop shows excepted.)

On the other hand, we also need to ensure that the audience makes an emotional investment in our characters; there's no suspense without that important bond. In order for that to happen, we need to let our viewers experience the protagonist's rhythms, rituals, and relationships -- which requires another "r" word: repetition. Showing the same character in the same setting repeatedly can be a valuable tool for making viewers feel like they're truly experiencing the life of that character. It's also a great mechanism for demonstrating change. Every week, Pete practices with his band... but this time we can see that his heart's no longer in it. Or: Peggy goes for her daily jog... but now that she's found true love, there's a spring in her step we've never seen.

But repetition takes time, and time drains suspense. How do we reconcile these apparently conflicting story requirements? For example, what if we want to write a really good, character-driven thriller (like I've been trying to do on and off for over a year now)? One solution is to use a sliding temporal scale. Nearly all movies employ this form in one way or another, but in this case we may want to be more specific and deliberate about it. The opening 10-15 pages could go through a week or more in the lives of the main characters -- setting the scene, building familiarity through repetition. Then we'd zoom in closer as key plot events occur more quickly and pressure on our protagonist to act increases; the remainder of the first act might only be a few days. From the second act onward, the timeline would continue tightening as the action picks up, and by the last 30-40 pages we'd be fully in real-time.

Of course, this is only one way to deal with the building suspense/building character dilemma. Time is on our side when we're writing a script (at least in this one regard!); we can bend it to our will. There are ways to pull off an utterly thrilling and engaging story where Act I takes place in real-time and Act II begins five years later. The Informant!, which I just saw last night, frequently skips a year or more between scenes but never loses its thread of intrigue. No matter which route we take, though, we must pay attention to the ways in which our manipulation of time affects the key elements of our storytelling. It's like sound mixing or color correction: no one notices when it's done well; everyone notices when it isn't.

No comments: