Story Pace — How to orchestrate it.

Nothing in common effectively orchestrates story pace
Nothing in common effectively orchestrates story pace

Story pace: One of the reasons that storytellers need to master structure is so that they may orchestrate narrative events—the highs and lows, tension and release—in a way that keeps readers and audiences engrossed. Too much of a good thing makes for boring or inaffective stories. In this post, I want to focus on one particular element—the big gloom.

Towards the end of the second act a writer needs to craft a new low amongst lows—a deeply disturbing and terrifying moment when the goal seems impossible to achieve, when the Hero is on his knees and the last ember of light is about to go out.

This is the second turning point that unleashes the third act. It is the moment that screenwriting professor Richard Walter of UCLA calls the big gloom. Others have called it the lowest ebb, or the darkest night of the soul. If this moment—which should never be confused with the climax—occurs too early, at the end of the first act, for example, the story will run out of steam before the third act.

In Nothing in Common, the big gloom occurs when Tom Hanks finally understands the extent of his father’s medical condition. 

“A tale without story pace is like an orchestra without a conductor, speeding up or slowing down at the whim of its individual instruments.”

In Terms of Endearment it is the moment in the hospital when we learn of the impending death of the young mother, and in About Last Night it occurs during the montage in which a ‘liberated’ Rob Lowe suffers the torments of hell for his lack of commitment to the very woman whom he once thought he wanted to be rid of.

In American Graffiti it occurs during Dreyfuss’ phone conversation with the fantasy girl in the T-bird when he learns that they will never meet. His destiny will remain unfulfilled as long as he stays with his old buddies in his claustrophobic but safe hometown. 

Although these examples are triggered by external events, their true power comes from the effect they have on the Hero’s inner journey. By forcing the Hero to experience his deepest doubt, the story positions itself for a final resurgence.

Summary

The big gloom is the lowest point in the Hero’s journey. It is an important indicator of story pace. It defines the point in the journey where the Hero seems the most distant from his goal.

2 thoughts on “Story Pace — How to orchestrate it.

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Interesting article. A happy ending is usually what any writer is aiming for and what every reader/ writer is hoping for. However for the big gloom to truly be effective and be emotionally devastating maybe an happy ending is not always the way to go. Or is it….

    In Zootopia the darkest night of the soul occurs when Nick Wild confronts Judy over her comment that the reason for predators going savage is because of their biology . What follows is a montage of city wide fear and a growing prejudice between prey and predators resulting in Judy resigning from the police force. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened in Zootopia if Judy never discovered the truth behind the plot against all predators . But then again since when do Disney movies not have happy endings?

    Rocky 5 is considered by Stallone to be the lowest point of the franchise. Rocky losses his fortune, he neglects his family and he is later betrayed by a young boxer named Tommy Gunn who challenges him to a fight. The big gloom is effective. When Rocky realizes that his young protege has been seduced by the promises of a influential boxing promoter. The original ending ( in which Rocky dies from a beating after a street fight ) was so devastating that MGM threaten to pull the plug on the film unless Stallone agreed to rewrite the ending .

    In short :
    the big gloom can be effective. However if you are aiming for a happy ending the hero must first show resilience.

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