The Plot Proceeded Apace…But Ran Out of Space

Warning: I don’t believe I’ve posted any spoilers for GAME OF THRONES or ORPHAN BLACK, but sometimes what constitutes a spoiler is a matter of opinion, so be warned.

Pacing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about these past few weeks. I’m not sure how other writers define it, or what the official definition even is. To me, it’s the rate at which the story is revealed, that combination of exposition, dialogue, action, and business that gives the reader or viewer the information that they need to understand what the heck is going on. To comprehend the characters’ motivations. Gain insight into the internal logic of the world that is portrayed. Understand the story being told.

I am, for the most part, a seat-of-the-pants plotter and pacer. I am trying to learn to plan more—to outline and build solid synopses beforehand—because for one thing, it saves time. It allows me to ponder the whys and wherefores of the plot, and figure out at which point in the story Event A needs to happen so that that Event B makes sense. Better to do it before I’ve written hundreds of manuscript pages, or find that I’ve reached the contracted word limit and still have way too much story left to tell.

What led to all this uncharacteristic rumination were the endings of two favorite television shows, ORPHAN BLACK and GAME OF THRONES S7. I enjoy both for different reasons. Tatiana Maslany’s skill as an actor drives OB, but the pieces—evil corporations, genetic manipulation, clash of personalities—are the sorts I enjoy. I knew that this season, the fifth, was to be the last. I also knew that the writers had a hella lot of plot dangles to deal with over the course of ten one-hour episodes. As for THRONES, well, this is the next to last season, and an abbreviated one at that. The eighth and final season will be shorter, even though the episodes will run longer. To say that there are still a number of plotlines to tie off is to not say nearly enough.

Both series felt very different this year. Gone were the small side stories and sometimes leisurely plotting and extensive character building. Instead, we flipped into OMG WE ONLY HAVE XX HOURS LEFT AND ALL THESE CHARACTERS AND SH*T SH*T SH*T. That was my impression, anyway. A roomful of experienced writing and production talent looked at the amount of tale they needed to tell and the time in which they had to tell it and realized they now needed to fit ten pounds of story in a five-pound bag. Much has been written about the apparent speed with which characters shot back and forth across Westeros in order to get where they needed to be so that important events could occur, as well as the lack of logic or reasoning behind various decisions that characters made. As for ORPHAN BLACK, fans and reviewers debated whether the deaths of some minor characters were truly necessary or simply driven by the need to narrow the storyline, and in the confines of my own living room I wondered at the offscreen actions of a number of secondary characters and how, in previous seasons, their activities would’ve filled an episode.**

So what is the conclusion of this post? That pacing is hard, it’s easy to lose track of, and when it’s screwed up for whatever reason, plot and character lose. A story unfolds best when it’s driven organically. Forcing rash behavior or skipping several steps in a plot path in order to shift characters more quickly into position can render a heretofore-intelligent character an idiot or an important storyline a mishmash.

And even experienced writers apparently lose track.

**For example, Switzerland. I would’ve enjoyed an OB episode about what happened to Felix and his sister in Switzerland. Members of #cloneclub know what I’m talking about.

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The Plot Proceeded Apace…But Ran Out of Space — 7 Comments

  1. The absolute worst example of rushed TV pacing I’ve ever seen was the BBC’s “Albert Campion” series. Their version of “Sweet Danger” was crammed into 2 hours, and the entire first one should have been called the Exposition Tango. Dreadful. I suspect it’s what called the series. This is what happens when you lop off the author’s careful (and humorous) set-up chapters to fit a format.

    • I felt the same about the movie version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” I honestly don’t know why that film was made, unless someone had a burning desire to see Gary Oldman play George Smiley. They had a difficult time fitting the story into the 1979 7-episode miniseries. It had to be almost completely reworked to fit into 2 hours, and a number of characterizations went out the window. I hated it, even though so many actors I loved appeared in it.

  2. All stories tend to pick up speed near the end, though it can be done too abruptly or sloppily.

  3. SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES SEASONS SIX AND SEVEN

    I actually felt this season of Game of Thrones was better-paced than the last one. Yes, characters were allowed to zoom hither and yon across the map without us feeling time elapse; that’s one aspect of pacing, and I agree that in this case it was flawed. I think it’s an inherent flaw of this particular tale, in fact: since you don’t have normal seasonal cues to show time passing, the only way to make the readers feel it is by reference to a calendar they recognize or by taking bloody forever to make things happen in-story. The former isn’t part of the setting and the latter, I’ve had enough of. (I had to google to discover that in the show, a year passes with each show season — a decision they made to avoid having problems with young actors aging at a different rate than their characters.)

    But my recollection of season six (which I haven’t watched since it aired) is that it felt like it dithered and dithered and then basically just went “Dany leaves for Westeros!” when they reached the requisite number of episodes. That moment had been hanging fire for literally years, but when it finally came, it felt rushed, because the complications that made it difficult for her to launch her invasion basically got deus-ex-machina’d away. (Here, have a fleet!) Whereas season seven’s equivalent — the destruction of the Wall — felt like a bunch of Chekhov’s guns going off at once, rather than the writers saying “we are so tired of this plot problem” and hand-waving it out of existence.

    And contra you, I feel like season seven took its time on a character level. One of the big draws of the show has always been the little dyadic interactions, taking two people and putting them in a conversation together so you can watch the train wreck happen or punch the air in glee at their banter, depending on the combo. I’d have to dissect the two seasons in detail to compare, but I recall many more moments of my friends and I cackling at the screen this season, even though it was shorter. Last year my enthusiasm for the series had waned; this year it’s back, because of those little moments.

    • There were some good moments, I agree. But even with those, I felt that they skipped a step wrt logic, reasoning. It would only have required an extra scene here and there. I wouldn’t have wanted them to spell things out exhaustively. I just felt that there were some blank spots on the canvas.