Slow-Mo Is Dangerous

A few months ago, I sat down with the clan to watch a new family movie. Very clean, decently executed, and for the most part well-acted- but I didn’t enjoy it. It felt slow and stuffy for some reason, almost as if I was watching a series of gifs, and I wondered why. I only realized the reason when, in our traditional discussion that finishes off any family movie night, my brother commented, “The entire thing was in slow-mo!”

I (internally) snapped my fingers. That’s it! The whole movie was chock-full of slow motion scenes; probably 1/5 at least of all the scenes had some amount of slow motion. We all chuckled, but everyone agreed. The cinematography had pulled the audience out of a perfectly good story and thus killed the entire project.

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The point I want to make is this: don’t kill your story with slow-mo. How is that possible? Writers don’t tell stories using hi-def cameras, so how can we do slow motion scenes at all?

I’ll show you how with an excerpt from one of my new favorite books, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (page 368, if you care to read the rest of the story):

They rode toward the corner, where the day’s importance reached them. Liesel knew. It was that feeling again, of being watched. A voice pedaled inside her. Two laps.

Look at the window. Look at the window.

She was compelled.

Like an itch that demands a fingernail, she felt an intense desire to stop.

Those paragraphs breaks are not my own additions. They are Zusak’s. He means to convey tension, and he does it splendidly. Read it again- you can feel the strain in the bleak air, the terror of the moment. Visualizing this in your head, you can’t avoid imagining this scene in slow motion. And that’s what I mean.

Isn’t this wonderful, you say? We have the ability to tell stories the way directors do, with colorful mental images. Our jobs just got ten times better.

Seriously. It gets stranger the longer you watch it.

And ten times harder. You see, going back to the movie I mentioned at the beginning, it’s quite possible that we can overdo the dramatic side. Don’t get me wrong; a little drama, while nothing short of annoying in real life, can enliven a story and deliver just enough impact to make the reader care. On the other hand, too much drama will make your story feel like that movie: a collection of slow and stuffy gifs. It’s like the overuse of participle phrases. It’s not a bad thing to use, but too much is simply too much.

What is the simplest way to avoid this problem? I would suggest that we follow a simple two-step plan:

  1. Read what we have written.
  2. Have someone else read what we have written.

Simple as it may seem, we writers tend to be blind to the weaknesses of our own writing. Re-reading and visualizing the scene and then getting someone else to do the same can be a tremendous help. After all, we wrote the story so that readers would enjoy it to the fullest; why not get a test-reader to see if your approach worked? Get a second opinion, and then get down to editing.

Have you ever used slow motion? How did it work for you?

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