We all have our preferences and quirks about our entertainment, the things that can make or break a story for us. For me, it’s pacing. I am an absolute pacing fanatic. If things stop moving forward, I can flip immediately from dewy-eyed fangirl to harsh critic.
Good pacing is not necessarily fast pacing, however. Whizbang action sequences and explosions don’t save something from being a plodding mess. (I’m looking at you, King Kong.) Thus, I often hold up Finding Nemo as a gold standard. It’s an extraordinarily tight movie, without an ounce of fat. Every little moment pushes us forward.
Hey, fun fact! Did you know that there’s a musical version of Finding Nemo? It’s true! It was written by Robert Lopez, he of Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon who has most recently taken over the world with Frozen. You can even watch the whole thing online:
Now, the sharp-eyed among you may have noted that 34-minute runtime. Yes, this plays at Animal Kingdom in Florida, and as live, free, in-park entertainment, it’s relatively short and runs multiple times per day. So if the 100-minute film is so tightly paced, you might be wondering, how can you possibly cut away 2/3 of it and still end up with the same thing?
Glad you asked, hypothetical reader! It all comes down to the difference between plot and story. They’re frequently used interchangeably, but there are subtle and extremely important differences. To wit:
Plot is the sequence of events.
Story is the point of those events.
Plot is setup, story is payoff. Plot is head, story is heart. Plot is “What happened?” and story is “Why should I care?” So many times when critiquing blurbs and queries, I see authors that just list off several scenes or setpieces in a total vacuum. They’re so focused on the plot that they don’t give any indication of the story. Perhaps they’re assuming that we’ll connect with the hero just because they’re the hero, but this is a dangerous assumption that will get you into a lot of trouble. There’s a reason for the saying “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”: We’re not psychologically capable of taking in the depth of loss, the hopes unrealized, the vacuum left behind for that many people. We’d just shut down. Beyond a certain threshold (sometimes known as Dunbar’s number) we have to simplify just to cope. Something has to break through that compartmentalizing mechanism and force us to connect with the characters. That something is the story.
So circling back to the example at hand: The plot of Finding Nemo is Marlin’s quest to find his son. The story of Finding Nemo is what drives Marlin and Nemo apart (hint: it’s not the diver) and how they’re able to reconnect. It’s not enough to just put them back in the same space; they each have to discover what they have in the other and become worthy of it.
This is why the musical version can successfully be so much shorter than the film. Couple of reasons: First, this story is a quest. The individual incidents along the way aren’t as important as the end goal and how those incidents affect the characters. So seeing the attempt to jam the filter of the tank isn’t as important as knowing that it failed and left both Gill and Nemo distraught. Secondly, musical theatre allows for certain conventions that wouldn’t work in regular film, specifically the way that characters can just turn to the audience and vocalize their thoughts and feelings. “Where’s My Dad?” and its reprises concisely but effectively convey Nemo’s emotional journey, allowing many of his scenes to be trimmed or left out without losing that crucial dimension.
To bring this rather circuitous post back to the original topic, the film version is well-paced because each and every scene is moving both the plot (getting Marlin closer to Nemo and Nemo closer to escaping Darla) and the story (helping them both get past their own hangups and better understand each other). Of course, that can’t be the only purpose of a scene, so each beat is also packed with entertaining elements like humor and action. But the important thing is that the overall propulsion through the story never flags, and at no time is the audience left to wonder what the point of watching that bit was. Every part needs to be there, and that’s what makes it elegant.