The pace of some movies just seems to drag to a crawl while the pace of a great three hour long movie can rush by so quickly that we don’t even realize how much time has gone by. The main difference between stories that drag and stories that rush by is the amount of information constantly being presented in every part of the screenplay.
Every scene tells a mini-story. Fast paced movies cram information that sets up future events while creating mini-cliffhangers that make us wonder what will happen next. Look at the opening scene in “Die Hard” where the hero lands in Los Angeles. The cliffhanger moment occurs when the hero accidentally reveals his gun to a passenger, but tells him that he’s a cop. Not only do we know he’s armed, but now we’re wondering how this will be relevant in the rest of the story.
However, “Die Hard doesn’t just end each mini-story with a cliffhanger, but also plants information that sets up future events. In this first scene, the passenger tells the hero to overcome stress by scrunching his toes in a carpet, which foreshadows the hero’s eventual hardship when he’s forced to battle terrorists while barefoot.
End a mini-story with a cliffhanger and cram information in the middle that sets up the future, and your story suddenly seems fast paced. Now compare the fast pace of “Die Hard” to the leisurely pace of “10,” the comedy starring Bo Derek back in 1979.
In “10” the story is basically one-dimensional. A hero wants to get to know a beautiful woman. The only other character who seems to have a goal in “10” is the hero’s girlfriend, but she doesn’t change in the end. In every scene in “10,” we’re just following the hero as he pursues this mysterious woman. While amusing, it’s very slow paced. One scene shows the hero arriving in his hotel room in Mexico where Bo Derek is staying. The hero shows up at the hotel, checks in, then falls asleep on the bed. No cliffhanger ending to hold our attention and make us wonder what will happen next. No information setting up future events. What you see is what you get, which is a straightforward scene that’s mildly amusing and that’s it.
“10” moves at a glacial pace compared to “Die Hard” because “10” simply focuses on the hero and no one else. At the end of “Die Hard, the hero has changed, the villain has been killed, the terrorist vowing revenge on the hero has been killed, the FBI agents have been killed, and the TV newscaster gets punched in the face by the hero’s wife. So many people have changed by the end of “Die Hard.” In “10,” only the hero has really changed.
The writing partner of the hero in “10” sort of changes, but it’s not due to the hero’s actions. In “Die Hard,” everyone who changes does so as a result of the hero’s actions from the police officer who couldn’t draw his gun to the the hero’s wife who punches out the TV newscaster.
In “Die Hard,” the story seems fast-paced because multiple stories get told and resolved. In “10,” the story seems much slower because it only focuses on the hero and no one else. As a result, “10” feels slower paced than “Die Hard.”
The more your scenes include a cliffhanger as well as information that sets up the future, the faster your story will feel, especially if multiple characters change over time. If you only change your hero over time, your screenplay will likely feel slower paced like “10.” It might still be a good story, but if the pace is too slow, it might not survive in today’s story telling climate.\