Part 21 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
Stories live or die on their pacing. Great characters and concepts are the heartbeat of good fiction, but even the greatest can struggle to keep readers’ attention if the pacing is off.
Pacing is a lot like tone. It varies depending on the type of story you’re telling, and it’s instrumental in informing readers what to expect from this story—both in terms of content and the speed at which it unspools. Stories with purposely leisurely pacing instruct readers to settle in. Writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Susanna Kearsley draw patient readers in with a slow burn of detail and foreshadowing. Others like Brent Weeks and Steven Gould race readers through fast-paced action-oriented stories. These approaches create completely different reading experiences (even within the same same genre), but all signal competent authors who know how to use pacing to serve story.
A discussion of foundational pacing techniques will start and end with tips for controlling how “fast” or “slow” your narrative is, as well as for identifying when to utilize which technique. Since I’ve discussed all of that in previous posts, today, I want to take advantage of Part 21 of our ongoing series The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel to talk about some smart tricks you can employ to tweak your pacing and keep readers reading (or watching).
On Why Captain Marvel Wouldn’t Let Me Look Away
I have to admit I wasn’t just dying to see Captain Marvel. The trailers didn’t wow me; Carol Danvers seemed to come across somewhere between boring and annoying. Plus, I just haven’t been in the mood for a theater movie lately. However, mostly because some of you guys were already asking me about this post, I made it happen.
All of this is to say I went into the theater in a slightly grumpy “make me like you” kind of mood. And… two hours later, I left with a big smile on my face. (I love it so much when that happens that it almost tempts me to get grumpy before every movie.) Captain Marvel was one of the best Marvel experiences I’ve had since probably Ragnarok. Like Ragnarok, it felt less workmanlike than the other (mostly) solid entries we’ve been seeing lately. It wasn’t wildly original by any means, but it felt different enough from the series’ other origin stories to keep my attention.
A lot of that had to do with the story’s solid pacing. Unlike, say, Ant-Man and the Wasp (in which I have to confess I was pretty bored), Captain Marvel used several important pacing tricks to gel the story and keep the plot tight and progressive. We’re going to look at four of those tricks in a second, but first let’s talk about all the other goodies.
- Gorgeous visuals. I loved the look of this thing. The visualization of Carol’s suit (yay for not putting her in heels!), her powers (I’m calling it “rainbow disco”), and her comet-tail mohawk when in the helmet (not to mention zero helmet hair) were all fun to watch.
- Gorgeous score. Loved the ’90s playlist, but especially the unobtrusive uniqueness of the instrumental score. This is probably my favorite Marvel score since Tyler Bates’s beautiful take on Guardians, Vol. 2.
- Goose. I’ve been seriously contemplating getting a new dog. Goose is starting to sway me toward considering a flerkin instead.
- The girl herself. As mentioned, I really didn’t think I was going to like Carol. But I did. What seemed like bland smugness in the trailers worked as wry humor in actual context.
- Ben Mendelsohn. I was psyched to see him end up as a sympathetic character. It was a great bait and switch that had me rooting for the character long before the truth about him was made known.
- Fury (and Coulson). I’m a sucker for ’90s nostalgia right now, so throwing all that in there from the younger perspective of some of our favorite characters was a joy.
- The wooden dish brush. Yeah, I know, while everyone else was impressed with Sam Jackson’s singing chops, my sustainable-living obsession had me mostly geeking out about the fact that Carol’s friend Maria had a wooden dish brush (and dish drainer). Go girl.
There wasn’t a whole lot I outright disliked about the movie. Jude Law’s turn as the inevitable traitor was a little yawnable (as someone said to me, “Of course, he betrayed her. He had his bad-guy face on for the whole movie!”). When I see it again, I’ll probably be more nitpicky, but for now I’m just enjoying the afterglow of the first good popcorn flick of the year (and I’m now officially dying for Endgame).
4 Pacing Tricks That Are Easy to Miss
Most advice about pacing has to do with adjusting the “speed” of the story. The most common techniques have to do with either using short sentences, paragraphs, and scenes to speed things up—or lengthening everything to slow things down. Today, however, I want to use Captain Marvel to point out four pacing tricks that aren’t always obvious as pacing tricks. When used appropriately, they go a long way toward grabbing an audience’s attention and keeping it.
Pacing Trick #1: Hit Your Structural Beats
Aside from the sentence by sentence choice of word flow, no pacing decision will have greater effect on readers than your placement of structural beats. A long slog of a First Act usually signals that the Inciting Event and First Plot Point are either slow in coming or aren’t strong enough to create a true turn in the plot.
Same for your Second Act: “saggy middles” are almost always the result of a story that either lacks a solid Midpoint/Moment of Truth and/or fails to frame that Midpoint with solid Pinch Points on either side.
Solid structural timing won’t guarantee your story will keep reader attention (just hark back to the structural problems in Iron Man 3—which had nothing to do with timing or pacing). However, solid structural timing that features a coherent spine of truly plot-changing beats—that is a structure with the ability to shuttle readers from one plot event to the next without ever losing their attention.
How Captain Marvel Hits Her Beats
With a few exceptions, most of the Marvel movies do pretty good in the structural department. As a comparatively short medium, movies in general must adhere to accurate timing, and Marvel is no exception. In a two-hour movie, such as Captain Marvel, viewers should experience a big event about every fifteen minutes (which translates to every eighth of the story).
It’s important to note that not just any “big” event will cut it. Randomly deciding to blow something up around the next eighth mark in your story won’t be enough to keep your audience happy. Fireworks aren’t nearly as important as change. With every major structural moment in your story, something should change. The character must be captured and mind-probed by the enemy. Or get marooned on a technologically-challenged planet. Or team up with a new partner. Or learn she’s from said technologically-challenged planet.
With every structural beat, the character must be faced with decisions. What will she do next that will lead her to the next plot beat?
Pacing Trick #2: Start In Medias Res
Although the technique of in medias res (or starting your story “in the middle of things”) has enjoyed a certain misty popularity for quite a while, in some circles it is also frequently met with increasing resistance. Mostly, this is because when executed poorly or without proper understanding of the First Act’s structural requirements, in medias res is just an annoying mess.
When done well, however, in medias res can kickstart your pacing right off the starting line. In a nutshell, a proper use of in medias res should fulfill Elmore Leonard’s famous writing resolution of leaving out “the part readers tend to skip.” In short, get to the point.
Again, this is not necessarily a flashing sign that says “Fireworks Here.” Opening with a big battle won’t hook readers unless they are first given enough context to care about what happens in that battle. An incredible prose writer might be able to make readers read on simply by virtue of the extraordinary verisimilitude of his descriptions. But most of us need to focus on creating openings that present readers with the following:
1. A character.
2. A reason to be intrigued by this character.
3. A problem in progress.
The “problem in progress” part is where in medias res becomes handy. Instead of beginning the story when everything is hunky-dory, choose an opening that places your character already in the middle of an ongoing problem. Usually, this will allow you to cut the throat-clearing and start right off with the bits readers are eager for.
How Captain Marvel Got Right to the Point
Captain Marvel opens with the protagonist as a Kree warrior in the middle of a campaign. That in itself isn’t necessarily enough to make viewers care about her or invest their interest in her plot goals. But throw in the strange dreams that have clearly been haunting her for a while, and suddenly we have a mystery. She’s not just a soldier in a war; she’s a person with personal problems, who also happens to be fighting a war. Much more interesting.
This movie could conceivably have begun all the way back when Carol was still in the Air Force. For that matter, it could have opened with scenes from her childhood when she looked up at the sky and dreamed of being a pilot. But both of these choices (particularly the latter, which smells of an unnecessary prologue if I ever I smelled one) would have failed to properly telegraph to viewers the point of the story. The story would have had to roll through a ton of scenes before it could get down to the actual point of Carol’s journey.
Instead, the film did an admirable job of identifying that oft-mythologized “last possible moment” at which the story could start and still make sense to the audience.
Pacing Trick #3: Use Flashbacks With Panache
Flashbacks are all about pacing. This is so for two important reasons—one with the opportunity to enhance solid pacing and one with the potential to interrupt otherwise solid pacing:
1. Flashbacks Allow for a Shorter Timeline
Why use a flashback at all? Simple—because you don’t want to take the time to tell the entire story chronologically. Maybe that event from your protagonist’s childhood is really important. But everything else that happens in between her thirteenth birthday and the retirement party that starts the main story? Not so much. Instead of creating a bunch of useless filler, you choose instead to open your story at that “last possible minute” and insert the important backstory info as a flashback at the appropriate time.
2. Flashbacks Interrupt the Story Flow
As useful as a flashback may be for shortening the timeline, it is always an interruption to the main story. This means flashbacks should be kept in the box marked “Emergency Only.” This does not mean you should never use flashbacks. Most stories will require a flashback here and there. But it does mean you should think twice—and maybe a third time—before quick-drawing your flashback. If the flashback isn’t crucial to the progression of the plot (i.e., it moves the plot), and if the flashback isn’t every bit as entertaining as the main plot—then leave it lay.
How Captain Marvel Used But Didn’t Abuse Her Flashbacks
Because Captain Marvel began so late in its protagonist’s personal story, it required a relatively hefty use of flashbacks. Often, this is annoying even when necessary, but most of the flashbacks in this film worked well.
Particularly admirable is the Inciting Event scene in which Carol is captured by the Skrull and mind-probed. The scene could have just info-dumped the necessary information in one of those overly-familiar “dreamlike haze” scenes as Carol emerged from unconsciousness. Instead, it created a clever and amusing sequence in which the Skrull commander Talos repeatedly “rewound” her memories, forcing her to visualize details she had previously forgotten. Both the audience and Carol received important information that turned (and, indeed, launched) the plot, but in a way we enjoyed.
Because Captain Marvel is really a mystery story about solving the protagonist’s amnesia, the flashbacks are given a solid reason to be present. They don’t exist merely for self-indulgent or convenient reasons; rather, they are the entire point of the story, which leads us to….
Pacing Trick #4: Replace Info Dumps With Revelations
Perhaps the single greatest pacing trick any writer can master is that of luring readers ever deeper into the story, via a breadcrumb trail of revelations. The careful dance between foreshadowing and revealing a plot turn is the secret power of master writers.
Of course, the first step in creating this fascinating chain of cause and effect is ensuring your story has something worth revealing. Make a list of the most interesting things your characters will learn over the course of the story.
The second step is to resist, at every turn, the impulse to simply dump this information at your readers’ feet. They don’t want that. They want to be made to sweat and suffer. They want to earn the reveal.
What that means, of course, is that the third step is all about setting up those revelations. Foreshadow them. Make your characters ask questions. Make those questions deep and burning and primal. Only provide the answers at the moment when the information is so crucial it will impact the plot with all the power of a photon blast.
How Captain Marvel Kept Reaching for Revelations
Stories are, with few exceptions, mysteries. The most obvious approach to this is, of course, the whodunit. But even quiet internal stories of character growth are ultimately a search for something the character starts out not knowing. An artful writer understands this and starts scattering clues right from Page One.
If we look beyond the rubber-suited trappings of the superhero genre, what we find in Captain Marvel is a buddy-cop movie in which the amusing interaction between mismatched detective partners entertains us as they travel around in search of a resolution to a central mystery. As such, this story is an obvious example of how a solid string of revelations can be used to keep the audience’s attention.
Almost all of the information Carol learns in this movie could have been info-dumped. Instead, both she and viewers (and poor “not Nick” Fury) have to earn those revelations. This means that when she recognizes herself in a picture of a dead pilot, the moment is more than just information. It’s a Moment of Truth that turns both the plot and the her arc.
If pacing is about keeping readers entertained, then entertainment is about good pacing. Figure out ways to apply all four of these pacing tricks to your story, and you will be that much closer to creating the kind of adventure that will leave readers smiling big.
Stay Tuned: In June (personal reasons will keep me from being able to post until then), we’ll conclude our series with an examination of the long-awaited Avengers: Endgame.
Previous Posts in This Series:
- Iron Man: Grab Readers With a Multi-Faceted Characteristic Moment
- The Incredible Hulk: How (Not) to Write Satisfying Action Scenes
- Iron Man II: Use Minor Characters to Flesh Out Your Protagonist
- Thor: How to Transform Your Story With a Moment of Truth
- Captain America: The First Avenger: How to Write Subtext in Dialogue
- The Avengers: 4 Places to Find Your Best Story Conflict
- Iron Man III: Don’t Make This Mistake With Your Story Structure
- Thor: The Dark World: How to Get the Most Out of Your Sequel Scenes
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Is This the Single Best Way to Write Powerful Themes?
- Guardians of the Galaxy: The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory
- Avengers: Age of Ultron: The Right Way and the Wrong Way to Foreshadow a Story
- Ant-Man: How to Choose the Right Antagonist for Your Story
- Captain America: Civil War: How to Be a Gutsy Writer: Stay True to Your Characters
- Doctor Strange: 3 Ways to Test Your Story’s Emotional Stakes
- Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: How to Ace the First Act in Your Sequel
- Spider-Man: Homecoming: 4 Ways to Write a Thought-Provoking Mentor Character
- Thor: Ragnarok: How to Write Funny
- Black Panther: How the Truth Your Character Believes Defines Your Theme
- Avengers: Infinity War: 4 Ways to Write a Better Antagonist
- Ant-Man and the Wasp: 4 Ways to Choose a Better Theme for Your Book
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are some of your favorite pacing tricks? Tell me in the comments!
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).