Keeping Pace

Let me get this out of the way first: screw the Super Bowl. Couldn’t care less.

Instead of non-stop football bullshit, I’m puttering around the house today, doing some light cleaning while my usual background noise of bad horror movies drones on. My current viewing is Deadfall Trail, a tale of three men who go on your standard trip into the woods that goes awry, and it took maybe 15 minutes to make a common but crucial mistake of jumping the gun on the pacing of the story.

(Warning: spoilers ahead!)

Particularly with horror films and thrillers, the strongest stories build over time, starting off slow and quiet and ratcheting up the conflict and tension in increments. It would be easy to cite The Exorcist as a great example of this, but as I’m in a low-budget frame of mind, I’ll instead mention Grave Encounters, a “found footage” deal in which a team of ghost hunters enter an abandoned mental hospital and, well, bad stuff happens…but not for a good long while, and the worst of it doesn’t happen within the first act.

In Deadfall Trail, however, the characters are resorting to drinking their own urine to stave off death by thirst halfway through act one, declaring with teeth-gritting determination that they’re doing what they need to to survive. Drinking your own piss, fresh from the tap, is third-act desperation. Nothing feels quite as drastic after that. In harrowing tales of survival, the drama derives from watching the characters struggle on in the face of ever-worsening conditions, hitting a breakdown point, and then rebuilding themselves and fighting for their lives with renewed ferocity. When the characters break down after the first 15 minutes, you’d better have some industrial-strength shitstorm on the horizon or you’re just wasting the rest of the movie.

(Just ask the producers of 24, who in season six set off a nuke in the fourth episode and had nowhere to go for the next 20.)

Hillside Cannibals, The Asylum‘s knock-off of The Hills Have Eyes remake, makes the same mistake. A half-dozen victim characters head into the desert and are attacked by a clan of inbred cannibals — and 15 minutes after the opening credits four of them are dead, one is captured, and the other is on the run. The rest of the movie is pure tedium as the two survivors are tortured and pursued, and occasionally a random group of new victims wanders in to be unceremoniously slaughtered minutes after they show up.

In news writing, the standard model is the “inverted pyramid,” where you start with the most important stuff first and work your way down to the trivial details. I’d say that in fiction storytelling the pyramid should* be inverted to its normal pyramidal** position so you start small and work your way up to the good stuff, building conflict and tension — therefore, the readers’/viewers’ anticipation — over time. The payoff is the reward for making it to the end, not the reward for starting the story in the first place.

* There are always exceptions to any rule, but if you don’t fully understand the rule, you shouldn’t be breaking it.

** The spellchecker isn’t registering “pyramidal” as a non-word. And here I am, thinking I’m making a contribution to the English vocabulary.

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