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To illustrate the value of a pacing structure lets look at a typical blockbuster example -- say, any of the James Bond movies. A Bond movie starts off with a prologue at some high intensity scene (usually 007 is tying up some major loose ends on some previous mission).
Next, after the resolution of that prologue scene, it transitions into the opening title introduction, after which there are some peaceful exposition scenes with lots of dialogue and limited action (James gets the new mission briefing). Then the intensity increases to the next action scene (a new peak, but much lower in intensity than the prologue), after which there is another lull occurring around the start of Act II.
The intensity of the scenes builds from the lull until another major action scene hits that is more intense than the previous Act I peak and that signals the end of Act II (the top henchmen often confronts Bond here). In some cases, there will be a series of increasingly intense events during the third, confrontation act, or perhaps just a series of obstacles to be overcome during one longer action scene (the villain often gains the upper hand here).
Finally, the climax occurs towards the end of Act III (Bond cunningly regains the upper hand) with only the final resolution to finish off the movie in a riveting action scene like only a Bond movie can deliver (the villain is killed in some clever way, and in a final calming lull, Bond gets some quality alone time with the girl).
Some critics say Bond movies are formulaic, but that doesn't seem to have inhibited the growth of the franchise any over the past 46 years, and most fans leave the theater every two years giddy and satisfied.
I am far from an educated screenwriting expert, but I do know there are more precise rules in film to deliver the most satisfying experience -- but that level of movie detail is out of the scope of this article.
Suffice it to say that Hollywood has the ability to control the emotions of the audience and lead the viewer on a rollercoaster ride of excitement. Sadly, they fall short on this level more often than not. But when they get it right, the result is pure movie magic, and the majority of the Bond films are a true testament to that magic.
Fig. 3: Intensity Graph for an episode of a TV drama (note the increase in intensity peaks)
Similar to their movie counterparts, the creative teams behind 24, Prison Break and Lost plan multiple action events into each 42 minute episode. They also sequence these events based on their own deliberate intensity ranking, in order to control the order of events and therefore the pacing and intensity of the episode.
They control the intensity based on the magnitude of impact and the ranked order of the action events. They control the pacing based on the duration between action, creating a rhythm to the events.
For a typical episode, they place one of the more exciting events at the front (often a resolution to the cliff-hanger from the previous episode) and the most exciting event or plot twist at the end to serve as a climactic cliff-hanger. So, an intensity graph for a single episode may look something like a sine wave with an initial spike and drop and then an ever-increasing amplitude (Figure 3).
Fig. 4: Increasing Episode Pacing & Intensity
Since television is advertising-driven, these dramas tend to utilize multiple intensity spikes as mini cliff-hangers and insert a commercial point in order to keep as many live viewers as possible riveted to their seats during the break (allowing them to charge more for their commercials).
The creative team may also sequence the events together in shorter and shorter duration within an episode in order to increase the pace of excitement along with the magnitude of the intensity (Fig. 4 -- with increasingly shorter/faster frequency and taller amplitude).
With or without duration changes, the result of their pacing and intensity structure is an amazing roller-coaster ride of an episode that keeps viewers riveted to their seats each week (and keeps the advertisers forking over top dollars).
If the magic behind the intensity and pacing for a single episode of 24, Lost, or Prison Break is impressive, then the continual increase over the entire season is sheer unadulterated genius, and the results are simply spectacular; many would argue the first few seasons of these series demonstrate the best in TV drama history.