Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Perfect Timing

At most concerts performed in the Western world, the concertmaster arrives on stage with a pre-tuned violin, a particular tuning fork or, in more recent times, an electronic device which sounds the Concert A, the A above middle C, which vibrates at 440 cycles per second. The orchestra then proceeds to tune their instruments on that Concert A,

In many motion pictures involving men in the midst of war, some individual of leadership role makes a count-down with his watch, directing all others to synchronize their watches NOW.

Both rituals are signals: some concentrated and coordinated form of behavior is about to take place.

Scenes in short stories and novels are ultimately concentrated and coordinated as well. Interestingly enough, some concert conductors will set the level of the Concert A at 442 cycles per second when the work to be played might profit from a sense of faster pace. The Concert A may be dropped to a 438, as well to suggest a subtle adjustment to tempo.

The writer is more or less the literary equivalent of the concert conductor, most likely to use length of sentences, choice of words, and details or their lack thereof as adjuncts to tempo, and since the writer also has in the literary tool kit the ability to suspend or compress time, the count-down with a wristwatch is not always employed.

Nevertheless. Timing--pacing, if you will--is an important element in a scene, and a musical composition is a nice analogy to have in mind, if not while constructing the scene, then certainly when revising the scene.

By the time we've finished writing the scene, we have a fair idea of how long in virtual time it covers, how much action, how many exchanges of dialogue, how many reactions, how many pauses are part of the recipe. The one ingredient most likely to be overlooked is the pause. Another way to express this situation is to say that there is never nothing going on, no pace, tempo, action, or movement. Rather there is the coordinated form of characters reacting to their surroundings, to one another, to the unexpected circumstances that emerge between them, complicated, perhaps even inhibited or driven by their individual agendas and their fears of being found out.

These moments of drama are called beats. A character doing something is a beat. A character not doing something produces a beat which is the equivalent of a return volley in tennis, an arcing lob or a forehand smash. A scene begins when characters do something or do not do something. And then someone responds. And then someone reacts. And then...

It is not always necessary to have unrelenting action. Indeed, too much action can cut off the emotional responses of the characters, responses which, according to the rate with which they take place can inform the tenor of the scene. Fast action can remind the reader of those iconic film clips of The Keystone Kops, erupting forth in lock-step idiocy; slow action can project lugubriousness or its first cousin, careful concern.

Some scenes need to have the author removed from them, particularly if the author seems to be embarrassed by the pace, the pauses between words or kisses or looks. One way to look at a scene is to consider it as a complex series of reactions between characters who can't fully grasp what's happening to them and who are trying to accommodate to events as well as possible. They are individuals who are facing examinations, performance reviews, legal trials, declarations of love, desires to perform or not perform, called upon under extreme circumstances, absolutely certain of success or failure, morally certain, morally uncertain, wanting to be somewhere else. They are us and we have put them there because we had to out of curiosity and a wish to know.

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