How Pacing, Style & Tone Shape Your Screenplay
Most screenwriters should be aware of the main structural pillars of a screenplay – act breaks, inciting incidents and conclusions. Few consider the less tangible aspects of their screenplays such as style, tone and pacing to the same extent. Let’s take a look at some screenplay examples which illustrate how the interplay of these factors can influence your screenwriting.
Andy Warhol’s 1964 film Empire was an 8-hour long static shot of New York City’s Empire State Building, the structure simply occupying the frame as the day’s light changed around it. It’s an endurance test of avant-garde cinema, and it was not Warhol’s first foray into such material. The year before, he premiered Sleep, a five-hour and 20-minute film of a man sleeping. At a Los Angeles screening arranged by fellow filmmaker Jonas Mekas (who also shot Empire), audiences threatened to riot unless their admission fee was refunded.
Reporting on the evening in a 1964 Village Voice column, Mekas wrote: “Sleep started at 6:45. First shot, which lasts about 45 minutes, is close-up of man’s abdomen. You can see him breathing. People started to walk out at 7, some complaining. People getting more and more restless. Shot finally changes to close-up of man’s head. Someone runs up to the screen and shouts in sleeping man’s ear, ‘WAKE UP!!’ “
Neither Empire nor Sleep worked from a written screenplay perspective, but while they may simply seem like self-indulgent exercises in driving audiences insane, as screenwriters, we have much to learn about pacing from examining the extreme edges of its parameters.
For example, why are we writing our screenplay in the first place? What do we want audiences to feel? What became known as Warhol’s anti-films sought to boil cinema down to the unfolding of time itself. Empire’s purpose, said Warhol, was “to see time go by.”
By that standard, the film succeeded!
Plus, the very notion of testing an audience’s patience is something that may actually provide a useful tool for screenwriters. In a 1985 interview on Britain’s The South Bank Show, David Lean talked about his famous scene from Lawrence of Arabia, in which Ali (Omar Sharif) rides a camel out of a mirage toward a well. A sequence lasting almost two minutes—an eternity on film—takes Ali from a speck on the horizon all the way to being recognizably in the shot.
Lean said in constructing that scene that he took inspiration from one of his mentors, venerable Hollywood director William Wyler. “Willy once said to me, ‘If you’re going to shock an audience, get them almost to the point of boredom before doing so,” Lean said. Even more telling was Lean’s admission that he wanted the sequence to be even longer. “In fact, I lost my nerve. I had Omar coming out of the mirage at double the length, and it was better. I lost my nerve and cut it quite a bit. I wish I hadn’t.”
As authors of film and TV scripts, we must know the “why” of our projects. Once we do, the tone of the script will be established, and from the tone, we can establish pacing. If our screenplay is a sweeping desert epic which lends itself to arid landscapes and hallucinatory images, we have room to bring an audience along for that ride.
Even within a more conventional story structure (i.e. not Andy Warhol’s anti-films), there is room to keep readers on the hook with a technique we must not fear: deliberate pacing.
Consider this opening page from Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008):
FADE IN: EXT. INTERNATIONAL SEAWAY BRIDGE – DAY 1
A sign reads “Bridge to Canada.”
A steep 1940’s era customs bridge arches over the St. Lawrence River.
Cars and trucks line up in different lanes. Customs officials inspect and question impatient drivers.
Beyond them, a smaller sign:
“THANK YOU FOR VISITING MASSENA NEW YORK, IT WORKS,
for business, for family, for you”.
EXT. BELOW THE BRIDGE – DAY 2
The river stretches for miles in either direction, frozen, and still with trees on either side.
EXT. RAY’S TRAILER YARD, MASSENA NEW YORK – DAY 3
RAY EDDY, 38, a bit worn for her years, with a long red ponytail, wearing an old bathrobe, sits in the passenger seat of her RED PLYMOUTH HORIZON with the door open, smoking a cigarette, thinking. Her breath is visible in the cold morning air.
Her bare feet rest on the cold ground.
Her 1970s rusted out TRAILER HOME SITS in front of her on CINDER BLOCKS AT A SLIGHT TILT. Beside it, a small SHED and behind it the CONCRETE FOUNDATION FOR A HOUSE.
Around her, the yard is littered with junk: a rusted ski lift chair, the front end of a Plymouth Duster and a SMILING DUCK Kiddie Ride.
Beyond the yard, flat, winter bare land.
Here, the reader is drawn in, not with an explosion or a catchy action sequence, but instead with a tone-setter that will allow Frozen River to maintain this thoughtful, contemplative pace throughout. Plus, this page one is all imagery—always a great way to pull us into a story in a visual medium. With matter-of-fact descriptions and feelings, the screenwriter makes us curious about the geographical location, the pace of life in this place, and about who this woman is, sitting in her car with her bare feet touching winter’s cold ground. We’re being quietly offered questions without answers, which is another solid way to keep the pacing even and involving.
Even in later scenes, when the tension ratchets up as Ray becomes involved with the dangerous trade of smuggling illegals over the border, we can see the tonal qualities remaining. The unfolding of the stage direction spare and, again, matter of fact—no hyperbole. The dialogue hushed, minimal, and intimate. In this scene, Ray and her partner Lila have discovered an abandoned baby during a smuggling operation and believed it to have died.
INT./EXT. ACCLAIM AT BOB’S MOTEL – NIGHT 97
Ray and Lila pull into the motel but there is no sign of life. Ray gathers up the blankets. Lila sits motionless.
We gotta take it in.
Lila sits absolutely still.
What is it?
What? Are you sure?
Lila slowly takes the baby from inside her jacket. His eyes open. He blinks. Ray and Lila stare at him.
Hello, little baby.
The baby looks back at them.
He was just cold.
Ray and Lila wrap him up in the blankets and get out with Lila carrying the bundle and walk into the motel office.
When the screenplay sets the right tone, it ripples outward to all the scenes, whether their content is contemplative or tense. By contrast, scripts that are tonally playful or more of a romp or action-based, usually benefit very well from a “killer opening.” As with Frozen River, however, the onus is still on the screenwriter to maintain the pace set by the tone of the opening.
Take a look at this opening sequence from the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider–verse by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman. No time for contemplation here. The writing openly implies cutting that is rapid while nonetheless guiding the reader’s inner eye to what will be seen on screen during that flashy pace. There are casual asides to things we’ll know more about later, the suggestion of a nudge-nudge-wink-wink is paid off with an actual wink. Miles “flies” around the room and, later, is literally described as “fast=paced.” Dialogue hops around just like the visuals, in short bursts.
Style creates tone, which creates the expectation for pacing.
SEQ. 0100 – THE ALTERNATE SPIDER-MAN “TAS”
WE BEGIN ON A COMIC.
The cover asks: WHO IS SPIDER-MAN?
Alright, let’s do this one last time. My name is Peter Parker.
QUICK CUTS of a BLOND PETER PARKER
Pulling down his mask…a name tag that reads “Peter Parker”…various shots of Spider-Man IN ACTION.
I was bitten by a radioactive spider and for ten years I’ve been the one and only Spider-Man. I’m pretty sure you know the rest.
UNCLE BEN tells Peter:
UNCLE BEN (V.O.)
With great power comes great responsibility.
Uncle Ben walks into the beyond.
I saved a bunch of people, fell in love, saved the city, and then I saved the city again and again and again…
Spiderman saves the city, kisses MJ, saves the city some more. The shots evoke ICONIC SPIDER-MAN IMAGES, but each one is subtly different, somehow altered.
And uh… I did this.
Cut to Spider-Man dancing on the street, exactly like in the movie Spider-Man 3.
We don’t really talk about this.
A THREE PANEL SPLIT SCREEN: shots of Spider-Man’s “products”:
Look, I’m a comic book, I’m a cereal, did a Christmas album. I have an excellent theme song. And a so-so popsicle. I mean, I’ve looked worse.
MATCH CUT — Peter, PINNED to a WALL by a mechanical tentacle arm. KINGPIN punches Peter. GREEN GOBLIN fights Peter.
But after everything, I still love being Spider-Man. I mean, who wouldn’t?
Peter runs toward a SUPER-COLLIDER, something we’ll see quite soon. Peter SLAMMED TO THE GROUND.
We’re dunked into the pacing of this script just as assuredly as we were with Frozen River, and we know that in order to stay intrigued, we are going to crave that pace as the story continues. Not surprisingly, we get it in this scene later in the script when the Spider-verses are continuing to collide. And it’s delivered with the exact same tone and indications of visual movement as the opening scene:
Your screenplay’s style and tone should be reasonably consistent throughout. You may add variant flourishes to add interest, but too much of a deviation will confuse the audience. Pacing has a greater latitude in the same screenplay. Screenwriters can pepper slow, tender, intimate scenes with high-octane action to keep your audience hooked.
Screenwriting is often an instinctive process and, as novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz points out, “Pacing is not the sort of thing you can plan out beforehand, but you’re always aware of it as you write because you need to make constant decisions.”
Which brings us to the “in-between” of these larger concerns of pacing a screenplay consistently: the scene-by-scene. Fortunately, we have a famous maxim about this, specific to screenwriting:
Arrive in scenes late and leave scenes early.
The phrase has been shortened from advice originally given by legendary screenwriter William Goldman and has also been attributed to David Mamet. Either way, there has never been a handier or simpler tool for going through your completed screenplay scene-by-scene and keeping the pacing up.
Do you actually have a scene where someone knocks on a door, someone else says “come in” and then the first someone enters? Hopefully not, but the point is to do a scene-check that removes extraneous lead-in action. Anyone who has ever watched a car pull up to a house front in a movie–and watched the pacing die–will be aware of this pitfall.
Remember also to excise any dialogue that explains something we have already witnessed in an earlier scene. (Be on the lookout for any exchange that begins with “What happened?” because chances are the answer will be a description of what we have just seen visually).
Similarly, don’t be afraid to use cliffhanger techniques in individual scenes. Television series are exceedingly good at this, partly because they are unfolding a longer narrative as well as counting on the viewers’ familiarity with the personalities of the characters. Nonetheless, keep an eye out for how often your favorite TV show ends a scene by deliberately keeping you waiting. A character might ask aloud how the other character can help them, for example, and the response is, “I think I know a way.” Hey, guess what? We’re going to see what that “way” is a few scenes later, so you can leave the scene itself before it gets explained through dialogue.
Always remember that we screenwriters are creating a written framework for what will eventually be watched.
Enter Late Leave Early
Here’s a great get-in-late-leave-early scene from the classic screenplay The Apartment by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. For the uninitiated, Bud Baxter is a low-level office man who keeps getting promoted the more he lets the married executives use his apartment as a location for their affairs. Bud is falling for the building’s elevator operator, Fran Kubelik, not knowing she is the affair that the boss, Mr. Sheldrake, is having. Hence, both have different reasons to react the way they do to the boss’s family Christmas card, and when Bud sees Fran produce a broken compact mirror that he saw left behind in his apartment, he finally clocks the truth, but Fran doesn’t know that he knows. This is your subtext at work.
The scene opens with the characters entering a new space—but there are no “come on in, take a seat” time wasters. It kicks off with a new declaration from Bud that reflects thematically on his ill-gotten promotions and invites a conversation. After the full weight of that conversation and all its hidden meanings finally ends—so does the scene! Before either character can take any more screen time with an overt reaction to what has just occurred. Those emotional beats will come later, and we’ll wait for them—hence, we got in late and left early. Hence: pacing
INT. BAXTER’S OFFICE – DAY
Bud ushers Fran in, and is confronted by a strange couple necking in the corner. He gestures them out, crosses to his desk.
Miss Kubelik, I would like your
honest opinion. I’ve had this in my
desk for a week — cost me fifteen
dollars — but I just couldn’t get
up enough nerve to wear it —
From under the desk he has produced a hatbox, and out of the hatbox a black bowler, which he now puts on his head.
It’s what they call the junior
executive model. What do you think?
Fran looks at him blankly, absorbed in her own thoughts.
Guess I made a boo-boo, huh?
(paying attention again)
No — I like it.
Really? You mean you wouldn’t be
ashamed to be seen with somebody in
a hat like this?
Of course not.
Maybe if I wore it a little more to
the side —
is that better?
Well, as long as you wouldn’t be
ashamed to be seen with me — how
about the three of us going out
this evening — you and me and the
bowler — stroll down Fifth Avenue
— sort of break it in —
This is a bad day for me.
Fran takes her compact out of her uniform pocket, opens it, hands it to Bud.
(examining himself in the mirror)
After all, this is a conservative
firm — I don’t want people to
think I’m an entertainer —
His voice trails off. There is something familiar about the
cracked mirror of the compact — and the fleur-de-lis
pattern on the case confirms his suspicion. Fran notices the
peculiar expression on his face.
What is it?
The mirror — it’s broken.
I know. I like it this way — makes
me look the way I feel.
The phone has started to ring. Bud doesn’t hear it. He closes the compact, hands it to Fran.
By a) making sure to stay laser-focused on the purpose of each of your scenes, and b) staying alert to when to remove information that will be more effectively revealed later, along with c) keeping the writing style consistent so that pacing will be reflected by tone, the experience of a perusing your screenplay will attain a natural flow that will carry your reader along like…well, like a good movie.
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