I just watched half of a movie that provides a perfect example of the need for your script to have a clock. That is, a device that hints to the viewer where they are at in the story’s progression. When you don’t have a clock a movie can seem like forever, no matter if it’s three hours or 80 minutes long. The film I partially watched was a cop comedy on Netflix called Running Scared with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines. The movie is fine, except that once you think you know what you’re watching, the story takes a bizarre turn and once you think you know where that is going it changes again. My wife and I thought we had spent about 90 minutes watching set-ups for three separate movies, before I checked the running time and found that we were only 50 minutes in to a 1 hr 40 min. movie and turned it off. Another example of how you can be lost without a clock– although the film itself is quite superb– is The Fellowship of the Ring. If you are going into it blind and expecting the journey to complete and you’ve been sitting through three hours, then you’re wondering how, or if this movie is ever going to end no matter how great the journey is.
The easiest way to establish a clock is to provide a time-frame in which the protagonist must complete a clearly defined quest. 24 hrs., three days, two weeks… This helps the audience to keep track and stay invested. If we begin to sense that the movie isn’t going anywhere or start to wonder if there is a point, we are not far from losing interest, so a clock is a very important tool for keeping your audience’s attention.
Sometimes a story will drop off and pick up over a year later. This can work, but the storytelling has to be strong, so the audience stays revetted through the climax of the first part and wants to stay (even if there is no intermission) for the end. Gone Baby Gone is a great example of a terrific film that splits up in this way. The second part of the story has to build momentum all over again, so investment is important or the audience will be lost to whatever’s on youtube. Unfortunately, Zodiac bored me to tears.
You don’t have to be so overt in the use of mechanisms like quest and clock. It helps a lot but subtlety and cleverness are usually appreciated when they are implemented with artistry and skill. The more straightforward your quest is, the less of a demand there is for a time device. If the quest is a bit more open-ended a clock is definitely needed to tether your audience to the story. If you want to be a gutsy, artsy, deviant you can look to films by Wes Anderson, which are brilliant. I have a difficult time watching most of his films the first time around, because he is very disinterested in where the story is going. Yet, the films as a whole are terrific and only in retrospect, or on a second viewing can someone like me truly enjoy the amazing skill with which he works. Fight Club, an incredible film was the same way for me, though I believe the feelings it evoked on my first viewing were desired, though uncomfortable.
By no means am I suggesting a cookie cutter solution to screenwriting. This device is intended to help glue your audience down, but you ultimately decide your audience, and if you want a niche crowd with particular interests, all the better for you, who personally have the same interests. What is most important is that you, the writer, bear in mind that you are unfolding a story that is finite and will take somewhere between one and 3 hrs of somebody’s time. The arc of a film, if it keeps shooting upward–whether it raises more questions than answers, or just seems to deviate from the main course of action until the viewer is confused about the plot– will make the audience anxious, as though they are in a climbing rollercoaster that doesn’t seem to peak. There is a natural expectation of the story that dates back to ancient civilization.
In the search for originality, it is tempting to try to deviate from those expectations, but this small issue could be the difference between a script that goes in a box in the garage and a wide theatrical release. It is never the artists who adhere to founding principles and tradition who concern me. It’s the accidental writers on commercially driven projects who ignore, or abuse them that do.