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This week's question: 

I keep hearing and reading about this thing called “pace.”  Can you elaborate?

Johanna from Switzerland

This week's Answer: 

Pace on Earth

Assuming, John, you’re not speaking of the picante sauce (which, if inordinately spicy, can definitely change your pace towards the nearest water receptacle), I shall attempt to put my finger on the ever-present yet difficult-to-put-your-finger-on-it subject, pace. Let me first broach pace by saying what it is not.  Pace is not how fast you type the words onto your screenplay.  (If that were the case, Neil Simon would have no pace whatsoever in his plays and screenplays since he only writes his masterpieces in longhand on long pads.  And his works are pace-perfect and depend on, not only his incomparable witty repartee, but also on the pace of them.)  What else is not pace?  Pace isn’t just a whimsical speeding up or slowing down of the action in a script.  True pace is the generic, natural tempo and the tempo changes of a screenplay.  Pace also has to do with the rhythm of the story.  Do you notice several descriptive words here that are applied to the field of music?  If you listen to a symphony, which usually has four sections, you discover that, with each section (and sometimes within each section), the composer’s music is written to be played at different tempos, which gives the entire opus variety and allows it to make dramatic and poignant musical statements.  The same idea applies to a screenplay.  If you watch a good movie (or read a well-crafted screenplay), you’ll notice the author makes his or her statements with the help of pace.  You are swept up into the story; and there is a certain velocity connected to this “sweeping.”  And this velocity changes in degree, sometimes abruptly, sometimes gradually. 

There is an intrinsic relationship between the pace/tempo and the emotional tone of each moment in a script (e.g., generally when a scene depicts a funeral and the accompanying somber emotional tone, the pace is deliberate and steady; while a car chase, just by the word “chase,” shouts “speed” and “erratic”).  As a screenwriter, you have no control of the Master Controller of Pace, namely the editor (unless you also happen to be the editor, and, if that’s the case, why are you writing me when you should be off editing your film?), but you are considered to be the Grand Originator of Pace (so “There, Mister Think You’re All That Editor!”)  Do you know that feeling when your adrenaline has been racing because the hero or heroine is in an extremely challenging situation (such as when the entire universe as we know it is about to be disintegrated unless he or she does something rather quickly), and as soon as that scene races to some sort of conclusion and the next scene opens on a tranquil, pastoral countryside with the birds chirping (thereby revealing that at least our planet wasn’t on the “blow up all the planets” space alien/villain’s list)?  Your blood pressure immediately drops; you breathe an internal or external sigh of relief?  Well, my friend, you have just witnessed a perfect example of Pace Control (not to be confused with Space Patrol, an excellent title for a sci-fi series—which has already been done—so I advise you not to use it, unless you’re planning on doing a remake, and, then I’d make sure you have the rights so you’re not sued up the wazoo, which would definitely put some pace in your day.)


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