Thoughts on Pacing

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Pacing is the number one thing that prevents me from connecting to a creative work. Too slow, my mind wanders or I get bored or I just don’t get engaged to the material fast enough to want to keep going. Too fast? It’s harder to understand. I have to be aggressively tuned in or I never get to the point where I care about the characters. Of course, maintaining a steady pace somewhere in the middle doesn’t work either. In that case, everything can blend together due to a lack of contrast. There’s gotta be a nice balance of fast scenes of excitement mixed in with slow moments that are soaking in atmosphere. Variations add life to a story.

These last few years I’ve felt like most ‘popular’ media is too fast. Too much is introduced: there are too many plot lines, too many scene changes, and too many characters. Superhero movies are origin stories and universal conflict all at once. Adventures have people called to action before they even have breakfast. I don’t know these characters, but I am expected to yearn along with them for the journey or for the home they’ve lost. I was never even introduced to that home.

And when the pacing is that quick, it’s not even in media res–done right at least those stories gradually solidify the people and environment. Instead, these frenetic smash-cut extended trailers let details just pile on without any real connection. Every scene only brings more twists and turns and shocks and spasmic quips. This is all well and good for an experiment or a one-shot, but I’d prefer longer form work to have something cohesive connecting everything together. Instead, the connective tissue can be left to the viewer. A lot of heavy lifting is left to the viewer. We have to fill in background details and imagine character motivations and sustain just the right levels of suspended disbelief.

The trend of eight-episode seasons is the culmination of this in episodic works. It’s hard not to see it as a profiteering producer’s idea of fulfilling. Mostly, these shows are just long enough to glimpse something enticing. Even at one hour each, these seasons are only long enough to give a gratifying hit. There seems to be an aversion to the risk of dragging on and losing flavor. Instead, the show feels tuned so that every morsel is always vivid and shined to perfection. Every scene moves the plot forward with faithful doggedness. Scenes where the characters rest or heal or wander feel like someone cut them over and over again to shave off precious seconds. I can almost hear the direction to make them just long enough to break apart two scenes.

However, that tuning means that everything is sanded down until all the edges are gone. All the rough uncertainty is missing. The show goes straight through without even needing digestion. There’s a lack of contrast that isn’t due to a lack of art direction. In fact, plenty of these shows have great art direction. Every frame can feel very much like a painting. However, for many of these shows, that’s just set dressing to hollow messaging. At the heart, the media has no distinction because there’s still no risk. Sometimes, it hardly leaves space for collaborative ideas and fandom.

Because, amazingly a lot of these speedy works are otherwise well developed. The costumes and makeup and effects are beautiful. The actors seem to care and have nailed all their lines. The books have good prose and there’s wit in the construction. But somewhere along the production, invisible hands have sliced away all the breathing and quiet. The worlds have full flesh and muscle and sinew, but then someone painted over the masterpiece to simplify a line.

Of course, one might suppose that this is all just a trend. Maybe this is just what people want right now. Maybe it’s just what sells. And maybe the distaste is just the gradual aging of viewers. Maybe target demographics are no longer targeting me. It is quite easy to dismiss media criticisms as being matters of taste. Someone that dislikes a historical period or body of work might only prefer what they’re used to enjoying. It is easy to want more of the same because that is comfortable, and comfort can be fleeting.

Plus, most of history is only made up of exceptions. The ideas that carry forward through generations have been filtered by time and relevancy. In essence, only the best pieces of the past have made it far enough to be remembered. The past automatically rose-tints itself because we gradually discard the boring or distasteful. I think we generally want to believe that most people are good and that society trends toward bettering everyone’s station.

In the present, we never really know which modern creative works will actually become classics. Things that are considered as instant classics may just be bright flashes in the pan. We may adore certain books or movies or shows, but the future may find all of them to be pitiful reminders of a failed attempt.

Still, I do wish modern creative works would alter their pacing more. I wish everything didn’t feel so rushed. Sometimes? Falling asleep during a movie or show can be good, actually.

— J.A. Waters

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