Pacing – The Unsung Hero of Storytelling

You’ll often hear things like, “man, that was slow” or “it took a while to get into.”  Pacing is something that is often invisible if done well, but extremely obvious when it goes wrong.  Sadly, pacing is only touched upon in western disciplines.  Often, it’s considered merely a part of storytelling, but only as something to keep in mind.  It really is only somewhat a discipline within the context of film editing, for example.  Even then, it’s done as something that “looks right” or “feels right.”  It’s a blend of patterning and intuition.  Japan is a little bit different.

But what is pacing?  Pacing is the art of regulating the speed and quantity of information that is presented to the viewer.  It usually develops into a rhythm, almost like the “heartbeat” of a work. If you think about it objectively, certain works will be “faster” or “slower” paced, overall.  However, variation from the internal rhythm, either speeding up or slowing down, will affect the viewer in different ways.  The thing is, pacing is extremely fluid, ever-changing.  Think about the pace like a stream or river – it is overall pretty consistent, but can change based on the various contours.  The pacing is like the contour of the river that makes the water flow faster or slower.  

Pacing’s internal rhythm is something that is works-specific and highly varied.  Different kinds of works, even different kinds of stories, plots, and even scenes require different pacing to be effective.  Something that works for a light novel or manga may not work for a game or an anime.  When converting one medium into another, pacing becomes particularly important because you often have to make difficult decisions what to use or what to omit.  For example, is it better to start with a 5-minute flashback to quickly lay the groundwork for the next scene or do we space out the flashbacks over 9 episodes, so the viewer slowly builds to the 10th episode?  It depends.  How long do we linger, building the framework for a particular plot point?  If we spend 5 minutes vs 15, can we make the scene have the appropriate impact?  For that matter, if we do go for 5 minutes, how do we present it in a way that has the most impact?  Are we going to condense an entire plot arc to 15 minutes?  If so, how and what do we omit? It’s constant and delicate balancing act, divvying up the allotted time.

In Japan, they have effectively codified a powerful pace, calling it 序破急 (Jo-ha-kyū).  If you were to translate it, it generally means “prelude, climax, rapid resolution.” Jo-ha-kyū means a constant steady build into an explosion of action or intensity that ends quickly.  The most interesting thing about this pacing scheme is that it applies to everything internal to the work as well as overall.  In other words, it’s both the overall “heartbeat” and the internal variations to pace within the storytelling ideally follow this pace.  It’s at its most extreme in Noh plays, where it dictates the pace of each act of the play, each scene, each dialogue, and even each hand motion.  It is very difficult to explain it in the abstract.  However, the best way to think about Jo-ha-kyū is to think of it like waves at the beach.  You’ll have the basic ebb and flow of waves, with each wave getting a little bit higher, until a larger wave breaks.   You can also think about Jo-ha-kyū like a fractal.

Anime is well suited to this kind of pace because, like Noh, everything is scripted.  Everything in anime has to be placed there intentionally – it normally won’t be there unless you draw it in.  To illustrate, you have the overall story, spanning 12, 24, or more episodes.  You further break down those episodes into plot arcs of several episodes.  Then you break plot arcs down into individual episodes.  The episodes then are broken down into scenes, and so on.  Under ideal circumstances, each of the elements described would have Jo-ha-kyū applied to it, creating a powerful, ever-growing force.  Once the overall “heartbeat” is established, an excellent director can create some immensely powerful scenes by manipulating the anime’s pace to work at odds with the pace the audience is at.  If you’ve watched Evangelion 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance, the scene with the dummy system is a stellar example of this.  The pace was modulated to be at odds in such a way that it created a feeling of extreme wrongness and even horror. Unfortunately, not all directors are classically trained, and their level of skill with this varies.

I’ve been talking about what pacing is, structurally, but what does it do?  It’s responsible for modulating the mood and feelings of the viewer.  Think back to times when you’ve watched a scene that you know was supposed to be sad, but you felt nothing.  Conversely, think about a scene that you know is supposed to be exciting, but you felt, “meh.”  Improper pacing will sap those scenes vitality and strength, making it far weaker than it should have been. Without the proper pacing, scenes won’t build properly and lose their impact as a consequence.  That’s why Jo-ha-kyū is an extremely powerful, if not ideal, pacing format.  Part of what makes it so strong is that it creates seamless movement between elements, especially plot points.   Perhaps its strongest point is to present everything in an optimized way so that the viewer isn’t exhausted.

One of the problems with intensity is that it tends to numb people if it isn’t used properly. If there’s constant hyper-violence without rest, people become desensitized to it.  Similarly, if something is tragic, or even really happy, it will lose impact if dragged out.  What Jo-ha-kyū does is twofold.  First, if you’re following it closely, you will keep the climax and resolution short.  This actually increases the impact because it’s very pointed, literally and figuratively.  Dragged out climaxes are extremely mood-killing (3 episode power-ups anyone?)  Second, it allows for a break between each element – the prelude phase of the next element.  A fantastic example of Jo-ha-kyū in action is Grave of the Fireflies.  What makes it so exceptionally depressing is it follows this pattern very closely.  Thus, the viewer’s emotions are “reset” to a certain extent after each “act”, which paves the way for ever greater tragedy.

Make no mistake, Jo-ha-kyū is only one way of using pacing.  There are probably as many effective, yet different uses of pacing as directors and editors.  It’s also important to keep in mind that there are many other elements of storytelling that work together to make something great.  Just remember, if you don’t really notice the pacing of an anime, it’s doing its part – an extremely important part.


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