by John Finnegan |
A few years ago, I watched Toy Story for what must have been the 10th time, and I remember being amazed that the film was only 1hr and 21 minutes long - and that's including credits! I would have thought the film was at least 20 minutes longer. I even asked my students how long they thought the film was and most remarked that it must be between 90-120 minutes. It got me thinking about how well-paced the film was it was this moment started a fascination with pacing and how it relates to story structure (yes, I am a nerd when it comes to these things).
So what do I mean by pacing? Pacing relates to the flow of the story as we perceive it. A fast-paced film has a lot of scenes that are generally short and to the point. A slower-paced film might have fewer scenes but those scenes will be longer and keep that audience in one part of the story for longer. It's important to say that pacing has no relation to the length of the story, and as I demonstrated with Toy Story, a well-paced film doesn't need to dictate the running time. The film can be as long as it needs to be.
But the problem is that the pacing of the story is, oftentimes, left to the editor to solve after the fact - I speak from experience. This never makes sense to me. If the story itself is poorly paced, it can feel rushed and unsatisfying, or it can become long and drawn out, and leave the audience feeling bored to the point where they are grateful for the film to end. And this is why screenwriters need to take this issue to heart. It's our job to engage and hold the attention of the reader and the audience throughout the story or film. That means the whole film.
Now, there are a lot of different factors that can affect this and every story is different. But that doesn't mean we can't embed our scripts with good pacing fundamentals from the outset.
We commonly break down films into three acts, and though there are different schools of thought on this subject, I maintain that three acts are the clearest and most effective way of thinking about your story.
THE FIRST ACT sets up everything you need to know. It sets up the characters and the rules of the world.
THE SECOND ACT is the journey itself. It's what we paid to see. The protagonist has embarked on their quest, whether it's trying to save the world or trying to rebuild a fractured relationship.
THE THIRD ACT is the culmination of everything the character has learned along the way. It's the character picking themselves up from their lowest point and leaning on the relationships they've developed along the way in order to make the difficult choices that will decide the ending of the story.
Okay, so this is a gross simplification of screenwriting story structure, and I'm not here to talk about the intricacies of this right now. But one aspect of three-act structure that I rarely hear discussed in workshops or in the classroom and one that I almost never get questions from my students on is the length of each act. And yet, the length of each act is crucial to creating a well-paced story.
As important as the first act is in a film, it's usually the section of the film that audiences are least excited about watching. Think about a superhero origin story. The first act usually doesn't have many superhero action sequences - the protagonist probably hasn't even reached that stage in their journey yet. It's the second act that we have come to see. It's where you'll find the exploration of the world and the ideas. The first act, though hugely important in the overall story, is not going to be as extensive or as long as the second act because it's only setting up the ideas that we've come to explore. The same goes for the third act because it's the resolution of those ideas. You don't watch a whodunnit to see who the killer is, you watch to see the investigation and the puzzle-solving that comes before that. The resolution is just the icing on the cake.
So, once you've established the clear function of your acts, it becomes a little easier to decipher the lengths of those acts. The second act will be longer than the first or third act respectively. That just makes sense in light of what we've just covered. In fact, in a typical well-structured mainstream film, the second act will be about twice the length of the first act or the third act. It makes up half the film. The first and third acts combined will make up the other half.
In a two hour film, the first act should be 30 minutes, the second act should be 60 minutes, and the third act should be 30 minutes.
This might sound like I'm being suspiciously precise - cinema is art, right? Surely it can't be that prescriptive. Nope - the more films I watch, the more I find I can set my watch to the moment when the first act will close and the second act turning point will commence. In fact, based on the length of the first act alone, I've been able to set my watch to when the end credits will roll. It's become that predictable nowadays.
Now, as sure as I'm here, there'll be people who will find examples to prove this theory wrong. But, I'm just here to pass on the structural conventions. If you're not convinced, you'll just have to go give it a try for yourself and see what the conventions are for the kind of stories you like to write.
If you want a good example of this pacing structure in action, try Shane Black's The Nice Guys.
The Nice Guys is 1hr and 50 minutes. Act 1 sets up two men individually trying to find a missing girl and at the end of act 1, they decide to team up. It takes the story in a new direction and sets up the second act, which is what we paid for - two mismatched characters working together to solve the case. That conclusion and the beginning of Act 2 takes place at exactly 27 minutes 30 seconds. That's eerily precise. So, in theory, at the 82nd-minute mark, we should be seeing the climax of act 2 or the beginning of act 3.
Low and behold, 1hr and 22 minutes in we see the hitman entering Ryan Gosling's house to kill the missing girl who is hiding out in his bedroom. A shootout begins that hurls the film into the third act. Like clockwork...
So why is it so precise? Well, outside of storytelling logic (remember the second act needs to be the longest act), this structure also provides something familiar for audiences. Audiences can set their watches to this type of storytelling, even if they don't consciously realise it. It gives them signposts that they can use to understand where they are in the story and what's left to come.
Most three-act structure diagrams are lazy. They make it appear that each act is the same length. Dead wrong. Make the second act, the part of the story that the audience has primarily paid to see, half the length of the story. Then split what's left of the story equally across the two remaining acts.
And this isn't just useful for engaging your audience. You'll be amazed how just getting this part right will make life easier for your writing as well.
John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Follow John here.
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