How do you determine the pace of a story? How many scenes do you include in a good script? The two questions are related.
Some screenplays have less than seventy five scenes, some more than a hundred. In novels this number varies even more, with some of the greatest stories ever written running into many hundreds of scenes.
Some scenes are extremely short. They include establishing scenes such as a street exterior or bridging scenes such as entering a lift. These scenes are meant to locate a character in a specific time and place or get her from A to B. Most scenes engaged with plot and character development, however, span several pages.
Film scripts that are comprised of a handful of long scenes underutilise the potential of the film medium and are more suited to being rendered as a stage play. On the other hand, a ninety minute film that includes hundreds of short scenes will feel frenetic, hurried, underdeveloped.
“Contrast one scene with another to regulate the pace of the story. Your scenes will feel less monotonous and more engaging for it.”
One way to pace a story is to balance scenes through contrast and length. As a general rule dark scenes should be balanced by lighter ones, somber scenes with ones that are more joyful, and slower scenes with faster paced ones.
In Fatal Attraction, for example, Alex and Dan are languidly lying in bed together. Cut to the next scene which catapults us into lively dancing inside a loud jazz club. This speeds up the action and prevents a sense of sameness that leads to boredom.
Contrast can also be created through intercutting. In Schindler’s List a wedding scene in the concentration camp is intercut with Schindler kissing a girl in a club, which, in turn, is intercut with the commandant beating Hellen.
In The Godfather, a Catholic baptism in a church is intercut with the Corleone family’s enemies being gunned down across the city in a frenzy of violence. The slow-moving church ritual is in sharp contrast to the mob violence. This creates shock and awe in the audience. Having brutality play out at length on its own would have produced a monotonous beat.
Contrasting the pace, length and texture within and across scenes, then, creates an appropriate rhythm and movement—quite simply, the scenes feel right. Failing to do so creates a flat line that leads to monotony and boredom.
Exercise: Read through several scenes you’ve written. Does the pace, texture and mood vary from one scene to the other, or do the scenes feel the same in these registers? If the latter, try changing the above-mentioned parameters in consecutive scenes and watch your story perk up!
Side note: If you’re interested in learning more about the hero’s arc, with examples from the movies, check out my latest video on YouTube! How to Write the Hero’s Arc.