Mad Max and the Art of Pacing

Last night I saw Mad Max again, because my friend wanted to go see it and I easily enjoyed it enough for a second watch. Also, I thought a second watch would help with the second blog idea I got from the movie. Earlier I wrote about how it used the female characters, and specifically how it subverted the Damsels in Distress trope. The other thing that stood out to me was the action, not just the adrenaline of it, but the way they used it.

The typical action movie alternates prolonged scenes of battles, chases and stunts with quieter scenes. The quiet moments allow the audience to take a breath and let the action sequences stand out more. They are also the place where much character, plot and setting is developed. Mad Max omits these quiet moments almost completely. There are a handful, but they are so short, and so tightly hemmed in by mad paced action the movie feels like a massive chase scene. This is both the source of my biggest criticism and my biggest (story-centric) praise for the movie. On the one hand, a little more time taken to establish some more about the world and the characters would have been nice, as would a few more breathers. On the other hand, the way the action is used is better than what I see in the vast majority of films of its kind.

Ostensibly, the slow scenes in the typical action movie are supposed to flesh out the characters and fit in all that story stuff. In practice, because the writers are often far more invested in getting to the “cool scenes,” these scenes are rushed. They often include the dreaded infodumps, which are not only dull but also have the effect of pushing the audience out of the story. Writing teachers say “show don’t tell” because showing draws the audience in, makes them feel they have experienced the story. Telling the audience something blocks that experience. I know that in last year’s Guardian’s of the Galaxy, Gamera was stolen (research?) from her family. I don’t know anything about how the escaping wives in Mad Max ended up where they are, but I don’t care any more about Gamera than any of them. I do care more about (name) from Pacific Rim, because I didn’t get told about how the Kaiju destroyed her town. I saw it.

The action scenes run the risk of another problem. In many action films I’ve seen, there is plenty of punching, kicking, dodging, blocking, more kicking but different, and after a while all the moves and stunts run into each other. As Confused Matthew often says, they are video games that the audience can’t play. Nothing relevant to the story is actually changing.

One of my favorite books on writing, Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, invents a word that I want every writer in the world to know; position. Position means where the character stands in relation to everything else in the story. Suppose the protagonists are running from a villain who wants their family heirloom that unlocks a portal to another world. If the villains catch up, the characters fight and the protagonists get away, things have happened, but nobody’s position in the story has changed. For that to happen, the villains would have to get the heirloom, or the heroes would have to lose it in a swamp, or they could come to trust a previously untrusted companion because of how they fought, or the heroes learn a weakness of the villain, or the heroes lose all their water, then in story terms something has actually happened. Still, even then, if there is five minutes worth of action for a single position change, this can actually slow the overall pace down.

Mad Max’s format forces it to avoid both problems. For one thing, because everything that had to be established also had to fit itself into an action scene, nothing was told. Everyone is characterized by what they do, every bit of worldbuilding is shown or implied or comes out naturally in dialog, and in short all the information you need to understand the movie comes to you in the middle of action.

The action, meanwhile, becomes full of changing positions. In one of my favorite scenes (early film spoiler ahead) Furiosa and Max are trying to outrun the villains in their big badass truck. At first they have the advantage, but then a henchman, who has sneaked on board, sabotages it to slow them down. Furiosa doesn’t quite trust Max yet, and neither do the rest of the escapees, but they are forced to cooperate to repair the truck without slowing down, and as the scene progresses there are numerous subtle signs that they are coming to trust each other. Despite their repairs, the bad guys catch up and it’s time for the chase scene to get a little more battle-y. The villains are getting close enough to get some good shots at Max and Furiosa. One of the escaped wives, Angharad, takes change and , hangs herself out of the cabin, blocking the shooters. Because she is the most prized wife of the villain, his snipers are no longer willing to take their shots. However this risk results in her falling to her death. This is incredibly tragic for the heroes, especially the other escapees, but it does save them all, as the villains stop to recover the body for the villain.

That’s 6 position changes, and I haven’t even covered what happens to the henchmen who got on board. Reading it written out takes some of the drama out (as you can see) but you can still imagine how this is much more engaging then fancy punch, fancy kick, duck, dodge, punch that looked like it hurt, different punch, on and on for even a quarter of the time. Stunts are awesome, but they can’t carry a story on their own.

This is one of the reasons that I’ve seen Mad Max twice, would definitely see it again, and highly recommend it to anyone in the mood for a two hour chase scene.

It’s also a good thing for me to watch as a writer. I work primarily in prose. I like action. I want to write stories with battle scenes, but thrust, parry, thrust comes across far better in a visual medium. I’ve heard people ask how to write good action scenes in these situations, and I think this is an answer. Let the disadvantage become an advantage. Change the positions of your characters within an action scene. Let things actually happen.

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