Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Acts and Scenes Make Life Interesting – or – Pacing

I meant to post this on Monday. I managed to pre-write my ginger beer posts, but in spite of bringing writing along with me on a vacation-ish couple of days with Lisa, all I did was read. And hang out with friends. And watch MST3K and go on hikes and see some really, really amazing artwork.

We started off with friends in Brooklyn (check out Dave’s weekly blog on animation and careers in animation and news on his award-winning memoir short here), then off to ye olde Newe Englande to visit archivist and experimental filmmaker extraordinaire Rich Remsberg, and Lisa Nilsson, who is one hell of an amazing artist (sing the title of this piece to get the pun).

But I’m supposed to be getting back to structure. I may have made some vague promise to talk about acts and scenes and Joss Whedon.

I’m starting with the opening sequence of the Pilot episode of Firefly (not the The Train Job that aired as the pilot). You can watch it on Hulu or Netflix to see the bits that I’m talking about. Also, to my great delight, over on Wikipedia there’s even a perfect quote (with citation!) for what I’m talking about – keeping people’s interest.

From writer Jane Espenson:

For the team, one of the key components to devising acts is deciding where to break for commercial and ensuring the viewer returns. “Finding these moments in the story help give it shape: think of them as tentpoles that support the structure.” For instance, in “Shindig”, the break for commercial occurs when Malcolm Reynolds is gravely injured and losing the duel. “It does not end when Mal turns the fight around, when he stands victorious over his opponent. They’re both big moments, but one of them leaves you curious and the other doesn’t.”

The way I used to talk about act and scene breaks in my old theater history class (I expect none of my students to remember that I so much as mentioned this) was that the writer would end on some peak moment, but Espenson’s “leaves you curious” is a much better formulation (go figure). Agents talk about never wanting to give the reader a reason to put the book down – that’s what the curiosity is for. Go ahead. Turn the page.

What follows are my notes for the opening pilot episode. I watched it streaming on Netflix and considered the commercial breaks to be at the moments where the action faded to black. For all that, there seems to be remarkably few breaks and I suspect I’m missing one or two. My goal isn’t to have a perfect outline, only to illustrate how the writers use the breaks to keep you invested in the program (whether they succeed is a separate matter altogether; if you hate Joss Whedon, feel free to replicate this exercise with the Show of Your Choice).

I’m not talking about dramatic tension per se so much as the use of dramatic tension to keep the audience intrigued. Mostly we know the kinds of stories we’re reading or seeing – the protagonist is going to succeed, perhaps only to a qualified degree. It’s mostly about the journey. Here’s Firefly’s opening.

0:00-5:05            In media res beginning with the Battle of Serenity Valley. It’s a world with lasers and projectile rifles and pistols, a mix of high and low tech. Characters are religious. Our lead man, Mal, is the leader of a group of people who just lost the fight. Time to surrender.

5:06-10:58            Graphic six years later; Zoë (seen previously) and Mal and a new guy, Jayne, in spacesuits, are doing some kind of salvage operation. Wash, the pilot, is dressed down in a Hawaiian shirt and playing with two plastic dinosaurs back in the ship. He signals the three outside that there is an Alliance cruiser on its way. They launch a decoy signal (the “crybaby”) and flee with their ill-gotten salvage gear. The crew tries to cheer Mal up, they got the stuff for the job (now clear they’ve been doing work-for-hire), no one’s dead. “Yeah,” Mal repeats, “we win.” He sounds depressed.

10:59-11:50            Opening Credits

End of Act I, which has been packed with exposition, shades of character development (often via the way people deliver their lines), action (are we in trouble? We seem to be in trouble a lot…), and world-building (civil war; space; the authorities in their Metropolis-sized ship). The writers are using narrative, the world, and the final line to grab our curiosity. Narrative: so far there’s nothing cohesive – what’s going on? World-building: so far this place is a serious mix (including corrupted English and Chinese phrases) – what is the shape of this place going to be? Final line: for a guy who just succeeded in his job, Mal is pretty depressed. What’s up with that?

In more schematic detail:

Act II addresses the problem with the bricks the crew has recovered. We meet Inara. We see the planet Persephone, filled with vendors in a variety of cowboy and traditional Chinese clothing. The engineer Kaylee has more interaction. We meet the preacher, Book. Mal’s deal with a vendor named Badger goes south and we learn the nominal stakes for the episode – with no pay, there’s no fuel and no means of keeping the ship flying. Kaylee takes on passengers (easy money) – Book, an uncoordinated, unnamed man, and a well-dressed fop, Simon, on whom the act ends, looking nervous and with music underlying his last image to foreshadow more problems. (Ends at 27:35)

Act III begins with a tour of the ship to the new passengers (good excuse for a simple infodump). More character interaction and development via interaction: Jayne is a foul-mouthed thug; Zoë is unwaveringly loyal to Mal; Hoban (married to Zoë) resents his wife’s unwavering loyalty to Mal; Kaylee’s got a crush on Simon; Mal and Inara have an uncomfortable, hostile and attracted-to-each-other relationship. Inara and Book discuss Mal – a man of honor in a den of thieves, a mystery. The big lead comes toward the end of the first half of the episode when Kaylee is shot. The screen goes to black at 41:38, after Simon has agreed to save her life in exchange for the ship running from the cops. Her living is not a sure thing. (Also note the use of hand-held camera beginning sporadically at 38:00 – its uncertain feel is a visual way of heightening tension).

The abbreviated Act IV starts at 41:40. Music and camera tell us this is serious, but the timing in the episode suggests that Kaylee won’t die at this moment (though of course she could still die later in the episode). A series of brief fade-to-blacks suggests time passing. Then we end very abruptly at 43:19 upon Mal’s discovery of the cryogenically sleeping girl and his line, “Huh.”

Interested? Curious? Keep watching.

That’s the idea. That’s pacing.

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