This blog post was brought to you by the movie, Chef. Not that they've given me any money, just that Chef inspired our topic for discussion today: pacing.
I don't know who was in charge of this movie, but they desperately needed to find a better editor. Scene after scene, my husband and I kept asking, ourselves why is this taking place? What are we learning here? How is the plot being advanced? What does this show us about the characters?
Ok, quick summary of the movie (spoilers): A chef embarrasses himself on the internet, loses his job, becomes a nanny for his own son, which somehow segues into getting a food truck from which he sells cuban sandwiches. His food truck is a success, he opens his own restaurant, and remarries his ex-wife (for some reason). The end.
But for a movie that has a food truck on its poster and in the trailer, I found it really odd that the food truck itself doesn't appear until an HOUR into the movie. Literally, an hour. I checked. And the movie is only 1 hour 50 minutes long! So that first part of my summary, the initial internet conflict, which ideally should get the movie started, instead pretty much dominates the story.
One of the reasons I think that the movie lags so long around this initial setup is the amount of time it spends explaining pointless information. There's a lot of discussion about how twitter works. How to post videos and photos. How to reply to tweets, etc. These scenes naturally devolve into the characters staring silently at their tablet or phone, looking worried. It's not very interesting to watch. Clearly, twitter (which I love to use, btw), paid for some product placement, and it totally derails the narrative.
When the chef at last gets his food truck, it's just a continuous montage of food truck lines and food prep, interrupted with bizarre moments such as a cop requesting to see their permit, approving it, but asking them to park elsewhere...That was it! Why was that important to show?
And then there was this subplot about the chef's relationship with his son that didn't make any sense and would hit the brake every time the movie started to get going again. If I could sum up their strange interaction, it would be with this dialogue (which I'm paraphrasing/making up):
"Dad, why don't you spend time with me?" says the Son as he's spending time with the Dad.
"Because I'm not a good father," says the Dad who's clearly a perfectly fine father, no evidence to the contrary.
"But I want to spend real quality time with you Dad!"
"No, you're not allowed to come into my restaurant. It's forbidden," says the Dad for some unexplained reason.
"Ok, explain to me how to do twitter."
"Gee, thanks! I love tweeting with you. There's nothing better than twitter! That's the kind of quality time I was talking about."
I kid, but you get the gist. They spent so much time rehashing these same arguments. I don't know, it's like the writers/editors/director couldn't figure out how to transition from one conflict to another and so we kept hearing the same issues brought up again and again.
I call this "getting stuck in doors." I do this all the time in my own writing. For whatever reason, I have a hard time getting characters from place to place, from conflict to conflict. Bizarrely descriptive yet pointless paragraphs detailing doorways, stairs, and paths pop up in my writing. Arguments between characters seem to circle about the toilet, but never really flush (yikes, gross metaphor). So when I give Chef a hard time, it's only because it's frustrating to see professional story tellers making the same or similar mistakes that I make as an unpaid amateur.
The best example I have of a writer who avoids these pitfalls is Patrick O'Brien, author of the Aubrey/Maturin series set in the Napoleonic navy. Now, there are plenty of slow spots in his books, which usually occur whenever they are on land or crossing the equator (when, to be fair, probably was pretty boring since the wind inevitably died), but O'Brien had no qualms about leaping from one character to the next, from continent to continent, in the space of two paragraphs. It's really very instructive to read. The characters don't bother walking through doors into the scene. Instead, we're suddenly upon them, through the powers of the omniscient narrator, to experience their latest conflict. Sometimes, one character will wonder how another is doing, and a few sentences later we find out, switching perspectives in a way that can be a little jolting, but the liveliness it brings to the pace makes it worthwhile.
Do you struggle with pace? What's a book or movie that you think does a really good job of it? It's very helpful to see both good and bad examples. So give Chef a watch if you're on a plane or something to get a sense of how not to pace conflict. And if nothing else, you can enjoy the cooking scenes.