I’m in the middle of NaNoWriMo and seeing what might happen to my comic works in progress, but in a pause from this beautiful madness, I have to talk about something I’ve realized about how storytelling works…at least for me and possibly for you!
Sometimes—most of the time—you learn lessons in how to be a better writer from utter failures (including your own) and mediocrities. (Paul Johnson has a great line that a committed writer reads the second-rate as much as the first.)
But sometimes I learn from a great piece of art that has something a little bit off.
On my birthday (my actual birthday), I went to see Bong Joon-Ho’s Palme d’Or winner Parasite. Parasite is outstanding. It’s impeccably filmed and beautifully designed. The cast is great. It says something truly powerful about the menace of unregulated capitalism. I went in taking everybody under the sun’s advice to see it without knowing a thing about the plot, and the surprise factor made the finale hit me in so many of the feels.
And yet…I didn’t love Parasite the same way everyone around me seems to love Parasite. Not in the same way I loved The Souvenir and Marriage Story (which I’ll be touching on later). During the second half of the film, when the twists start accumulating one on top of the other, the entire experience felt off. Only Joon-Ho’s mastery and the commitment of the actors kept me invested enough to overlook a tickling sensation.
I felt annoyed for a while, trying to deduce why Parasite wasn’t fully working for me.
Then I found the answer. It came from, of all the things, a tweet I casually tossed off a few weeks back during the “Marty v. Marvel” debate that rocked Film Twitter to its core.
One of my twitter acquaintances was saying how if you love Martin Scorsese, it’s okay to admit that Gangs of New York isn’t one of his best movies. There’s a lot of debate about GONY, but I agree with this. It may be due to Harvey Weinstein’s editing, but GONY is for me a film that’s working great for two hours and then utterly collapses in the last thirty minutes.
It happens because the tempo changes.
This is where I will refrain from making a J.K. Simmons joke and say that my mind is always subconsciously alert to tempo in storytelling. If events suddenly start speeding up or slowing down without inherent reason given by the story itself, then I feel myself being pulled out and confused.
With Gangs of New York, the film very carefully documents the relationship and ultimate rivalry between Amsterdam and Bill the Butcher for the bulk of the running time, until the rivalry takes over. At that point, everybody starts making decisions which compared to the rest of the movie seem hasty and overly dramatic and the step-by-step storytelling leaps into a final battle we have no groundwork laid for.
And in Parasite…
NO PLOT DETAILS BUT THIS MIGHT AFFECT YOUR PERCEPTION OF PARASITE SO KIND OF A SPOILER ALERT
After meticulously going through all the elements that lead the protagonists to the place they want to be in for maximum conflict to occur, a chain of events that happens over an unspecified but consistent amount of time, the second half of the film has all of the plot twists gain critical mass over a period of less than 24 hours.
This is not to say that the twists weren’t a) individually effective, b) individually moving, and c) fit in with one of the film’s ideas which is so important a main character says it out loud and I don’t even get annoyed by it, but at the same time, the thing nagging at my brain was “this multitude of accelerating and unrelated events is all happening practically simultaneously with no warning? In what I am to believe is a realistic structure?”
Last year there was another great movie, Sorry to Bother You, which used genre (absurdist comedy) to comment on the destructive nature of late capitalism much the same way as Parasite (Hitchcockian thriller) does. But Sorry to Bother You is for me the better movie in part because its twists, reversals, and character revelations are equally plentiful, but moved along at a pace where I believed Cassius Green’s problems would accumulate this way, each problem peaking at the right time, with the subsequent resolutions logically building off those problems. Parasite’s speeding to the finale does not work the same way.
END OF PARASITE POSSIBLE SPOILERS
What I’ve discovered is that temporally consistent storytelling makes for effective storytelling.
If you keep the action moving at the same tempo throughout, with a few exceptions, then the conflicts, problems, and resolutions hit harder—at least they do for me. I think it’s because when the tempo is consistent, the dynamics of the story both hit harder (as deviations from the established norm) and they feel logical, not like a cheat.
In reading this over, I realize I might not be making what I mean by tempo clear. So let me use as an example one of my favorite movies of the year and one that’s in contention as the BEST film I’ll see in 2019: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story.
Marriage Story tells the story of protagonists Charlie and Nicole deciding to divorce and working towards a resolution that works for them and their child. After an opening montage which reflects their interior monologues at a mediation session, the film moves straightforwardly through a series of scenes, in chronological order, each capturing a few minutes of a different day.
This is a very common structure for a story’s tempo, as opposed to literal minute-by-minute action (Cleo From 5 to 7) or a specific timespan such as one day or night (Can’t Hardly Wait). It’s a structure my favorite writer, Anthony Trollope, used in his novels.
What this does for me is it creates a predictable framework in which all else is unpredictable. It signifies to the audience or reader, that each thing we’re watching is important except we won’t know why until the scene ends. In an expertly-written story like Marriage Story, the consistent tempo cements how the characters (Charlie and Nicole in this case) are changing and growing over time, making new decisions, and building off things that happened in the past in clear ways. Consistent tempo makes this feel natural, logical, and thus real.
And this works for science fiction, fantasy, or any genre that may dip into the unreal…consistency sets a tone for how we take the information in for the duration. To reference two authors I talked about in my last entry, Paul Kreuger uses this style in Steel Crow Saga, even leisurely lingering over the action pieces with the same style he employs to describe a good meal. Ashley Poston, both in her space operas and romance novels, works with an accelerated version of this tempo where action and detail fly thick and fast; we’re always aware of a goal to be reached and the perils of a situation that must be resolved within a specific timeframe.
All of the above is a concept it’s hard for me to explain without sounding like a dry theoretician, but it’s also a revelation to me that I’m still working out!
A couple more notes:
There are some stories where genre convention necessitates a tempo shift, such as when the story is building up to a big event and we know it’s building up to a big event…then we expect the tempo to slow down and focus on all the action and detail of said event much more than what leads up to it. My immediate example is the heist story, but it also works for stories with, say, a sporting event or a source of family drama (weddings, funerals, etc.) at the core.
Flashbacks, flash-forwards, and experimental structure do NOT negate the idea of consistent tempo. Two of the finest graphic novels I’ve read this month, Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu’s Mooncakes and Jarrett J. Krosozcka’s Hey, Kiddo both involve time jumps where months or years pass between scenes, but each scene plays out at the same tempo. (Other examples would be David Lean and Robert Bolt’s masterpieces, which play out like Trollope’s Victorian novels in skipping time to focus on what’s important to the story, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which leaps millennia into the future but keeps its pace.) Similarly, Quentin Tarantino’s greatest films—Pulp Fiction, Death Proof, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—have structures where two or three days are explored in microscopic detail. They can be out of sequence or have months pass between them offscreen, but the tempo remains the same.
Finally, one might ask if keeping a consistent tempo breaks the rule of variety in your writing. I do not think so. Within the basic structure discussed above, a scene can be a few lines of dialogue in a single shot or an extended set piece full of editing, but both represent the same “few minutes of different days.”
I’ll also add that in terms of practicing what I preach…my own major works in progress adhere to my idea of keeping a consistent tempo. Both my novels and comics are divided into scenes that represent continuous action on distinct days. Two of the only exceptions are my heist story, which slows time down for the 30% of the saga devoted to the crimes themselves, and the giant “nine drafts and counting” novel, in which the finale allows for one day to stretch over two chapters so elements hinted at in the beginning (structure again!) can come back in the ending.
Those are my thoughts. They might mean not a damn thing but I felt like getting them out there. And you all should see Parasite. And Marriage Story…
I don’t want to talk dispassionately about Marriage Story. Noah Baumbach has written and directed a picture of stunning extremes. I went from hysterical laughter to uncontrolled sobbing within minutes on constant whiplash. Baumbach is this century’s Woody Allen in some ways, using very urban characters with unusual lives to tell witty, emotional stories that tap into the deepest reservoirs of humanity…but Baumbach doesn’t have Allen’s neuroses and does have extra levels of love for his characters that I don’t know if Allen ever fully showed. (This has become especially apparent since 2012’s Frances Ha, the start of a joint professional and personal merging with one of our greatest humanists, Greta Gerwig, whose presence is clear in Marriage Story.)
What makes the picture work besides Baumbach’s script and editing are Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in the leads. Both of them are very funny and very heartbreaking, but what makes them work is how low-key they are compared to the rest of the cast, especially the murderers’ row of actors playing the lawyers and family members, as well as Wallace Shawn basically playing himself. The supporting cast goes so big that Driver and Johansson can stay smaller, more natural, more getting through to everyone who’s had heartbreak and moments of decision and resolution. Johansson gets more dialogue and plays it very well, but Driver, with less to say, brings forth a performance that’s angry, tortured, and winning…a man who knows when his behavior tips into toxicity and walks it back immediately, and someone who’s committed enough to those he loves to fight and principled enough to know when to give in. It’s one of the finest pieces of work by a male actor—and a great movie star—I’ve seen in a long time.