Friday, September 14, 2012
What just happened? That just happened
A few years back the second Indiana Jones movie came out. He's in China and he gets shot at and he takes poison and he gets the antidote and he escapes on a plane and the plane is about to crash and he jumps out and he slides down the mountainside and and and...
The story's first act had a relentless pace. In the words of my favorite Bluegrass band, "That just happened!" Because the first act was a dervish of spinning action the audience could not process what was transpiring.
Given the choice between two stories I'll take the one with too much action over the one with not-enough action. But this needs balance, too. Something has to happen in a story, or I'm going to toss it against the wall. I don't care if he is William Faulkner, he'd better do something in the story or I'm tossing it and it'll take an act of congress to get me to look at anything else by that author.
So, the writer must navigate between the Scylla of nonstop action and the Charybdis of inaction. In a fast-moving scene, there's no opportunity to explain the meaning of what is happening. In a slow-moving scene, nothing much is happening. So, it makes sense for the writer to alternate fast and slow scenes to introduce cool happenings and then to explain them.
If you are prone to wax rhapsodic with beautiful words, do so in your slow scenes between fast ones. The slow scenes let you woo the reader with chocolate and flowers, candlelight and soft music. Then use fast scenes to consummate the relationship with the reader. Then enjoy a cigarette and an afterglow in each others arms.
Too much of one and you bore the reader. Too much of the other and you wear her out. And she'll probably complain of a headache next time you want to sell her a story.
I've got to be careful here, because I don't want to give the impression that I think slow scenes are boring. They may not be exciting, but they can be incredibly interesting. If your story introduces some really wild ideas, slow scenes are where you want to play those cards. If your story includes the secret of life, the universe, and everything, let the reader savor it in a slow scene. (And I suppose that if you want to HIDE a little bit of foreshadowing, add it to some of the dust thrown up in a fast scene.)
When you see a guy exult when he shoots the charging water buffalo and then catch a bullet in his brain, the reasons for his intense happiness and the reasons for his wife's murderous act are much more interesting than the gunplay. Likewise, when you see the waiters tie butcher knives to a chair and pretend it's a bull fight, the anticipation of "this won't end well" is as satisfying as the actual unfolding of manslaughter.
Slow scenes and fast scenes are two sides of a coin. The slow scenes should establish the context of what happens and afterwards explain what happens, and the fast scenes is where something happens.