BAD TIMING: an essay on the passing of time in screenplays

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What time is it? It’s time. – Action
clock 1Has this ever happened to you? You’re watching a movie, a TV show, and suddenly a character mentions that “we’ve been dating for six weeks now” or “next week is out first anniversary” or “it seemed like only yesterday that I started this job and now I’m retiring”, and your reaction is, “but I did think it was only yesterday that you started that job, when did fifty years pass?”
Or maybe you’re watching a movie about a character and the story isn’t quite making sense and suddenly you figure out indirectly that the character is supposed to be in high school and your reaction is, “My god, he looks old enough to be my grandfather?”
Yeah, join the club.
In this essay I’m going to talk about two subjects that only have something to do with each other in a somewhat vague way, though they do at times overlap and have one thing in common: they both relate to time. So, though they are not exactly similar, I think it’s easiest to talk about them as if they had a closer connection than one might think. So…


One movie night, when I had a couple of friends over to watch something on Netflix, we decided to view a 1961 film called A Cold Wind in August, a melodrama about an older woman who seduces a teen and what happens when the teen finds out that she’s a, gasp, stripper.


It’s not a good movie. It was sort of important at the time in that it was a low budget indie and that it dealt with an unusual subject (May/December romance in which the May was male, rather than the opposite) in a more psychologically modern way (the 1940’s and ‘50’s were filled with movies with such a relationship, but it usually wasn’t so Freudian as here). New Yorker critic Pauline Kael trumpeted it.


cold wind

But overall, it’s badly written, acted and directed and is not nearly as shocking as it may have been at the time.


However, none of that is particularly pertinent to my topic at hand. The reason for my using this movie to introduce the topic is that we all commented on two issues that I think are often overlooked in screenplays I read: the use of time when it comes to its passage as well as how old characters are and how we know that.


At one point we were commenting how a particular scene seemed odd and didn’t make sense because the writer/director wasn’t that good at communicating the passage of time as well as commenting on how much older the actor playing the teen looked than his stated age.


And it really made the movie a bit ludicrous.


Now before continuing, I want to emphasize that I’m not going to give you a set of rules, because in many ways there aren’t any here. What I want to do is make you aware of these issues because not being aware of them can weaken your screenplay. And you might not even realize it because this is a topic that often just never comes to mind when a writer creates his script.


So with that being said, let’s talk some about age and time passing.





One of the issues with A Cold Wind in August is that the central male character is supposed to be 17, but he easily looked 24 or older. He just never remotely looked like a teen.


Now this isn’t, in many ways, the screenwriter’s fault because he doesn’t cast the film.


But at least A Cold Wind… did do something smart that all screenwriters should take note of: the character’s age was revealed in a line of dialog. Now, of course, this elicited unintentional laughter since he didn’t remotely resemble the age mentioned. But at least we had something to go by.


As a kind of reverse to this, I remember seeing The Reader and the central character goes from 18 to 28 and when he’s 28 he’s played by Ralph Feinnes.   How old the character was is clearly stated, but all I could think is, “My god, this character has aged badly in ten years”.


At the same time, I have seen a couple of movies where I was perplexed by what was happening because the actor looked far too old for the role and we were never clued into exactly what age the character was supposed to be.


running with scissorsThe first is Running With Scissors when everyone is, from my perspective, overreacting to actions by the central character Augusten Burroughs, the hero, played by the 20 year old Joseph Cross. It wasn’t until maybe a third to half way through that I realized that he was actually playing a character that probably was supposed to be around 14. And when I realized that, everything came together.


But I had to figure that out. I saw the movie twice and I don’t remember it ever being revealed how old he was supposed to be.


lolitaContrast this to Lolita, where Sue Ann Lyons may have looked a couple of years old for the part, but at the same time, the story made it perfectly clear she was a high school student so that I knew from the beginning her general age.


There was a similar issue in the movie Skin in which Sophie Okonedo played a character at a variety of ages. But the movie wasn’t always clear about what exact age she was when. So I was often mystified as to why the character was acting a certain way until I realized the 30-year old actor was playing, at times, someone who was 18. But again, I had to figure that out for myself.


Still, even though how old a character looks is going to be beyond the screenwriter’s control, I do think it’s important that the reader and audience know how old a character is if it’s needed for the story to make sense. And it’s better to let the reader and audience know rather than guess since that’s often the only part of this issue you have any control over.


For example, in many screenplays I read, the author often seems to think it’s only necessary to list a character’s age in the narrative. And actually, the vast majority of the time, that is all that is necessary.


But if you have a character and it’s important for the audience to have an idea as to how old he is, don’t depend on the casting. You should probably find a way to do this in the dialog or in the context of the plot or character’s background.


This is especially true if the story is taking place at different ages of the character’s life. I have read many, many screenplays where there is an eight year old character and a couple of scenes later, the narrative says he’s now ten and I have to tell the author that an audience can’t tell the difference between an eight and ten year old especially since, in a movie, if time passes and the character only ages a few years, they will be played by the same actor.


As a corollary to this, I will sometimes read a screenplay in which a character is acting in all sorts of Peter Pan and immature ways. The problem is that if I’m not told how old the character is, I, as a reader, will assign an age based on the character’s actions. And it has happened many times when I have assumed a character is early twenties or younger and it turns out that he is in his 30’s or older. And I’m really taken out of the screenplay because I have to look at everything now from a different perspective.


I think the basic point I’m trying to make here is that the age, even the general age, of the character is usually important and you need to find ways to let us know both in the narrative as well as non-visually.


So basically, be aware of your character’s age and whether you have made it clear to the audience what that age is or whether time has passed. And every time your character ages, ask yourself: will the audience know? How will they know? Is it even that important to let them know the character has gotten older (it’s not always)?


This is especially true of plots that are not told linearly or jump around in various time periods. Will the reader and audience have visual and aural clues as to the different ages of the characters? (For example, you’ve seen the films where hair style changes or the male character suddenly sports facial hair of some kind.)




clock 3One of the most difficult things for a movie to do is show time passing (this is also true of stage plays). Unless you are very careful at letting the audience know that time is moving on, a movie will often feel like it takes place over a much shorter period than it does on screen.


As an extreme, think of the TV show Law&Order in which it feels like a story takes place over a few days, or couple of weeks or a month, when in real life, some of the stories would take a year or more to play out.


I think the main reason for this is that unless you let it be known that time is passing very concretely, a reader or audience member will generally just assume that the least amount of time has passed between scenes. It’s just the way we are.


Sometimes it’s fine to play fast and loose with time in this way. William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe have stories that in real life took years or even a couple of decades to take place but only feel like a relatively short period of time has passed on stage. And no one seemed to notice or care.


But at other times, not being away of how much time has passed and clearly communicating it can cause some problems.


In the movie mentioned first, A Cold Wind in August, there’s suddenly a scene which just seems a natural continuance of what’s come before, but in reality takes place many days, if not weeks later, and the film didn’t let us know it.


readerAnd this can be the same problem in a screenplay when the screenwriter says in the narrative that a certain amount of time has passed, but there’s nothing in the story itself to suggest it, I have to tell them that the audience isn’t going to know this, so if it is important you need to let us know in some way. And putting in the slugline something like “ONE WEEK LATER” isn’t going to help the audience since they won’t have the script in front of them to read.


This is especially true since the characters themselves in these circumstances are played by the same character and we can’t tell from looking at them that they are any older (which, as I mentioned before, is why in some films a male character will suddenly have a mustache or beard).


So like the issue of the age of the characters, always be aware of how much time has passed in a story; whether it is important for the audience to know this much time has passed; and if so, have you clearly let the audience or reader know that time has passed.


There are tons of ways to do this. Sometimes it can be something in the dialog (this is usually a bit clunky, so be careful here). Sometimes the structure and plot of the story is just so clear as to how much time has passed (it has been clearly set up that a movie is going to take place over a certain amount of time), that there’s little you have to do. Other writers use such things as text on screen; narration; changes of weather; montages and series of scenes, etc.


There is no one right way to do it, but I do think it helps to be aware of it.


In concluding, I will list some movies and how they show that time is passing.


high noonOne is a group of films that basically take place more or less within real or a very short period of time like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Grand Hotel, Sleuth, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Baghead, High Noon, etc.


Another is one that makes it clear from the beginning or even in the title how much time will pass: Seven Days in May (which also lets us know when a new day starts), Fourteen Hours, Three Days of the Condor, 25th Hour, etc.


pianistOther’s tell us through a somewhat complex use of weather, holidays, and historical incidents. One of the best films that clearly demonstrates how much time is passing is Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. You are always aware of time marching on through a constant change of weather along with historical incidents that clue you in when something is happening. Fellini’s Amarcord takes place over one year and separates the story into clearly changing seasons.


A film that is far less effective here using some of the same methods is Ordinary People in which all the scenes tend to happen during a holiday. It’s rather clunky, especially in retrospective.


Other films depend more on voice over narrative such as Jules and Jim and The Wolf of Wall Street.


So always be aware as to whether you are being clear how old your characters are, that time is passing and how much has passed.


So tell me what you think.

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