Pathetically Quickly on Pacing

(Behold me thinking aloud…)

The final season of The Wire is out on DVD, so Sailor Boy and I are at last at last able to watch it. I love this show. I love the characters, the complexity, the intricate, interlocking storyline. I love Bunk, and Snoop, and Stringer Bell, and Hurc, and Bunny, and Bubbles, and Dukie, and that guy who started the boxing ring. I love how they are always eating Utz chips.

I was listening to the DVD commentary of the first episode, and they were discussing how when this (short) season came out, all the fan forums were going on and on about how they needed to slow it down, that it was moving too fast, which is, they argued, something you almost never hear on a television show. Most of the time, it’s like “get it going already” — get the characters together, tell them why they are on the island, bring on the Big Bad.

You hear a lot that cable television shows like The Wire are capable of pulling off pacing tricks that network shows can’t. Since they are not beholden to advertisers for every minute they place on the air, they can take the time to show, say, McNulty walking around a parking lot looking at cop cars for a few minutes. But this can backfire.

A few years ago, I watched the series Carnivale on TV. Even with the magic ov DVD that meant I didn’t have to wait between episodes, I found this show to be interminable. Episode after episode, nothing would happen. It was like the creators of the show were testing the limits of the cable TV leniency. Well, they lost, and the show was canceled before we really found out anything about what was going on. A lot of promise and atmosphere, but no payoff.

So then why does The Wire work, with its leisurely pacing and unfolding of events, when Carnivale didn’t? Is it really a pacing problem, or is it more about what that pace revealed? Perhaps the problem with Carnivale wasn’t that “nothing happened,” as I said above. Perhaps the problem was that the things that did happen did not warrant the amount of time spent on them. Maybe it wasn’t pacing, it was delivery. Too much was left cryptic, too little revealed to either the characters or the audience. Carnivale was a tease, a one trick pony where they generated most of the interest not from the character or the way their situation was unfolding, but from finding out what the heck was going on. (Completely unnecessary and why, as the show progressed, I became far more interested in the relationship between, say, Jonesy and the family of whores, than I was in the whole A-plot of the superpower and the devil and the feud.)

If you’re only into a story for the “reveal” — what happens, who dies, why are the bad guys doing this, is the island really a metaphor for limbo — it’ll be tough to make pacing fast enough for you. Once you start watching a show to, say, see if that damn truth is really out there, rather than because you love the witty repartee between the characters, the writer has already lost.

Those people doing drive-bys outside of Barnes & Noble the day Harry Potter 6 came out and yelling, “Dumbledore’s dead?” They don’t get it.

In The Wire, how it ends is not the only pleasure. I don’t want to be spoiled, but I would still enjoy the show if I was. (Truth: a DVD commentary in the third season totally spoiled the end for me, but I still loved that season.) I loved watching Marlo struggle to communicate with the French-speaking bank teller. I loved watching McNulty pull out his cop badge at an opportune moment, I love watching Lester (I love Lester so much) be brought in to talk sense to McNulty and then get on board with the whole “create a serial killer” plan. The pacing is perfect, because it allows for all these moments of character, these moment of reversal, these moment of social commentary (like when Michael, Dukie, and Bug can’t get a cab). They don’t hold out on the audience, and they don’t hold out on the characters. There’s always something going forward, even if it is deeply tragic, or ironic, or frustrating.

There was a comment on the Rites of Spring (Break) Spoiler Thread a few days back from a reader who wondered why [WHITE FOR SPOILERS, MOUSE OVER TO SEE] Poe and Amy didn’t get together at the end of UTR. It’s been making me think. ow often have I watched a romantic comedy where the characters get together at the end and I wonder to myself, “Lord, how long is that going to last?” (Tom Hanks gets in the elevator, turns to Meg Ryan, and goes, “So, you’re the chick who has been stalking me, yeah?”) Amy and Poe weren’t ready to be together in any viable way at the end of that book. (It still may not be at that point, but they’re going forward anyway.) The events in UTR are, yes, a catalyst for what comes later, but it needed time to process in Amy’s occasionally-clueless brain before something could come of it. It needed time for them to interact as friends and peers, and not just adversaries, or in a crisis situation, before the possibility of their relationship would work. I’ve read reviews of ROSB that talk about how the reader is not usually a fan of the “asshole love pairing” but that it worked in this case, and I think that’s in large part due to the fact that I took a book and a half (and counting) for their feelings toward one another to change. It wasn’t: “I hate you! I love you!” It was more like, “I hate you! I begrudgingly respect you! I am willing to accept that you have good qualities beyond the qualities I so dislike! I may actually find you non-repulsive at times!” and so forth. Poe is still Poe, and Amy knows that. What that means for their future, I can’t say.

Anyway, morning thinking-aloud time.
Back to writing.

Posted in series, SSG, TV, writing industry, writing life

2 Responses to Pathetically Quickly on Pacing

  1. Erica R says:

    Perhaps the problem wasn’t that “nothing happened”. Perhaps the problem was that the things that did happen did not warrant the amount of time spent on them. Maybe it wasn’t pacing, it was delivery.

    I think balancing time spent on any given plot development = pacing, and I agree that too much or too little time can really kill a story. My first drafts sometimes have the too-slow problem, where every little thing takes five chapters to unfold. My last two WIPs had the opposite issue by the end (reader feedback: “What? It’s over? Seriously? You call this a satisfying ending? Where’s my epilogue, beeyotch?”)

    I’m still learning when I should slow down and when I should speed up and how to tell in the first place. If I’m reading or watching a movie, it’s easy to tell what’s done right and what’s done wrong, but so much more difficult for me to self-regulate.

    Maybe that’ll be my goal for my current WIP… (Last WIPs goal was to master ST, and I’m told I acheived that one, so maybe I can placate the pacing gods in this one…)

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  2. Tiff says:

    As a reader and viewer, I love the journey of getting to a big moment–even though I was spoiled on Veronica and Logan getting together in season 1, it didn’t make the journey any less awesome. Same thing with any book or movie…I do race to get to a big moment by reading faster or watching more of something, but I’m a re-reader/watcher, and I tend to go back over things a few times. I love the journey.

    I had a feeling that Poe and Amy were going to get together, but I really enjoyed them getting to know one another first…it was really important for me, as an invested reader, to be able to see Amy get to the point where she could have a relationship, and have one with someone she really liked. I’m so glad you did it that way, Diana!