Pacing: The pulse of a movie
What is pacing?
The standard definition of pacing is the rate at which a story is being told. However, I begin with the quote by Henry David Thoreau because in my studies I have found that pacing is a very subjective aspect of storytelling and specifically in this case, film viewing. A film that may seem to drag on to one person may feel like a "slow burn" to another and neither person would be wrong or right.
Imagine that watching a movie is like kayaking down a river. Some movies are a gentle cruise, like a mystery that slowly builds tension and prevents itself from being boring with a few well-timed twists and turns. Action movies are like white water rafting, a lot of excitement, energy and a few spots to catch your breath. Comedies are akin to tubing down a river with friends, good times, plenty of laughter, and the natural flow should be fast enough to get you where you're going. Some have the patience for a slow ride while others have the need for speed.
The Types of Pacing in Film
Typically stories are divided into the three acts (four if you're a Hollywood blockbuster in the modern era). Each act is divided into scenes, each scene has a three act structure within itself. The story, acts, scenes and dialogue of a film all carry their own pacing duties. And if any of those fail, the entire viewing experience can be ruined.
A well paced movie will have evidence of its good timing throughout the entire film. To determine if a film's overall pacing is too fast or slow, you must ask yourself the basic questions:
Does each scene propel the plot?
Is each scene a result of the previous scene and directly leads into the next?
Are the flashbacks (if any) relevant to the character or plot at that particular point in the story?
Would the story suffer if this scene was removed?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you might not enjoy a particular act of the film, maybe even the film itself. A well paced movie should make you completely unaware of whether it's moving too fast or slow.
Each scene of a movie has its own beginning, middle, and end. A scene should start with a question, through actions and dialogue formulate an answer, and end with a definitive answer to the question. These questions could be:
What are we revealing about the character?
What is the effect of the previous scene?
How will this impact the story later on?
Does the information being learned affect the story as a whole?
If a scene doesn't give an answer to the question, it doesn't need to be in the movie. An unnecessary scene can slow down the act and therefore, slow down the movie. Even the dialogue of one scene can ruin the flow of an entire film.
The rate at which information is relayed through dialogue is of paramount importance when crafting a scene. Long monologues can feel like an exhausting lecture or a beautiful dissertation, depending on its pacing. A common complaint about Quentin Tarantino's films is that they're too talky for some. For others, they see these scenes as character revelations or anecdotes that work to serve the story. Dialogue pacing, as with our other examples, have questions to be answered. And those questions are:
Does the dialogue serve a purpose? (Moving the scene forward, answering the scene's internal question, revealing information about a character.)
Does it convey the information in a convincing manner? (Some characters in film are simply used as an exposition machine, if it's done well, you won't even notice it.)
Is the dialogue believable? (The words being used by the character need to match that character's personality, you need to believe that character would really say that.)
If the dialogue runs too long or too short, vital information can be lost. Each person is unique in their ability to process information. Some may leave a scene feeling overwhelmed with info, others may be left wanting more.
And lastly, we dissect the hardest form of pacing to notice, editing pacing. Editing pacing, while hard to see with an untrained eye, can have a subconscious impact on how viewers experience the movie's pacing. You may not notice that a shot ran just a little too long, a cut happened too fast, or that the editing of the scene leaves a lot to be desired. This pacing can be the difference between a well choreographed stunt sequence (The Raid, for example) and a action scene that relies on quick cuts to give the feeling of activity (Resident Evil franchise). For editing pacing, there is one simple question to ask:
Is the information relayed on the screen slow enough for me to process without being too slow to take me out of the scene?
Some scenes that are inefficiently paced, whether they're relevant to the story or not, can drag down the pace of the entire movie. Every movie has a mid-point in its story. Typically, this is the point in the movie where your protagonist faces a setback and reaches their lowest point (i.e. when John McClane cuts his feet in Die Hard. He asks Al to deliver a message to his wife, believing he might not make it now.) The mid-point is so important to a story and if it's not paced well, it can make or break the movie.
How do you spot bad pacing?
The short answer: if you feel it, it exists. Pacing of a movie should be something that is reflected on after the experience. Good pacing should be an afterthought. If you feel pacing during the movie, it's probably bad.
When trying to judge the pacing of your own film, bring in as many other sets of eyes as you can. Often times as filmmakers we spend too much time with our films and characters to objectively assess our final product. Even if you don't ultimately apply the advice or critiques of your fellow collaborators, having that second, third, or fourth pair of eyes can help ask questions you might have missed.