The speed of the dialogue in a scene is difficult to nail down. And often – you prepare certain rhythms and emotions tied to the pace of your scene, but when you get that dreaded note: “Speed it up” or “Slow it down” it throws you off, and you lose elements in the scene that you know you wanted to hit. Often it feels like when a casting director asks you for a different pace, they just want to squash everything you just did into a shorter time frame or stretch it out and make it cheesy – but that’s not the case. In general, they’re looking for an entirely different feel for the scene.
First I’d like to explore the reasons why we give the notes to change the pace, and then I’ll give you an exercise to make you ready for whatever happens in the room.
Often, when I ask someone to speed something up – I’m looking for one of four things.
One – I’m looking for urgency. This one scene, that you’re performing in an audition – I know you want to make the most of it, but this scene ties to the next scene, and in order to fit this puzzle piece in – it needs to feel like part of a larger whole, instead of an entire production on it’s own. A quicker speed gives the sense we’re leading to the next scene, instead of sitting back on our heels for this one. It gives importance to your character and depth to your character’s life, implying there’s more than just this scene. “Oh my gosh, I love you” becomes “Ohmygosh I LOVE you (let’s get out of here)!” It shifts the entire subtext towards the next scene for the character, and gives us a greater sense of where they are going.
Two – perceived intelligence. It’s very kind of you, to explain things slowly and carefully, but we as humans tend to speak quicker in regular conversation than we do when we’re explaining something, and your slower pace can make it seem like you aren’t totally sure what you’re talking about. A very easy tool to make someone appear more intelligent, is to have them speak faster. It can read as though their thoughts come faster and process faster than the rest of us – so if I ask you to speed up the pace of the scene, there’s a chance I want to use this tool to make your character seem more intelligent. Lightning-quick words can imply a lightning-quick brain. “Oh my gosh, I love you” becomes “Ohmygosh Iloveyou (there’s so much more going through my head right now because of everything those words mean to me to you and to our relationship)”. Again – it gives depth to your character, because it comes across as though there’s so much more happening in your mind and your life. It also makes you seem two steps ahead of yourself and whoever else is in the scene – you’re so smart, that not only did you get the information out quickly but you can also anticipate the response you’ll get and formulate a return before they’ve even finished their line. Or if your character is a less on the intelligent side, perhaps they use a faster pace of speaking to avoid listening to others. If you bulldoze the scene, it can convey a lack of wisdom that moving slower and listening more provides. All of this adds all the layers necessary to make this a three-dimensional person, instead of a two-dimensional character on a page.
Three – I want you to throw away the words. Speaking faster makes the words have less meaning, which can serve a couple very important purposes. It can literally give the words less meaning, which clarifies your character’s subtext: “Ohmygosh Iloveyou (I’m only saying it because you needed to hear it are you HAPPY now jeez)” and we now know this character doesn’t care about the person in front of them really getting the message. Or, it shows how closed off your character is because they are unable to open up: “Ohmygosh Iloveyou (don’t make a big deal of it because then I’ll break and this is so much bigger than I’m capable of handling let’s move on so that I don’t have to experience you not saying it back)” is a more interesting character to watch, because it’s hard for all of us to be vulnerable and speak from the heart. When you throw the words away, it shows me how strong this character’s shell is, and how hard it will be to crack (the harder to crack, the more satisfying when it does).
Four – I’m looking for presence. If this character is someone whose words fly out of their mouth as soon as they speak them, I’ll ask you to pace up the scene in order to have the words feel stream of consciousness. A faster pace may pull you out of your comfort zone as an actor, and force you to feel a little out of control and totally present for the words you’re saying. If you combine that with the fact that the words are spilling out of your mouth at the same pace of your thoughts – it gives us, the viewer, a beautiful moment of raw honesty. “Ohmygosh Iloveyou” now has the context that the character just realized it, and couldn’t keep it in – there’s literally no subtext because you’re being utterly open and honest in that exact moment. And it’s a rare and beautiful moment to witness.
Conversely, if I’m asking you to slow down a scene, it’s usually for one of four reasons.
One – pure logistics. If you’re stumbling over your words and I can’t understand them, I’ll ask you to take it just a touch slower so that you can refine your diction. I’m sorry – it’s one of the difficult things about being an actor – you have to speak naturally and quickly like a real person, but your elocution needs to be impeccable or the audience will have no idea what you’re saying. A lot of actors will get nervous for an audition, and when that adrenaline hits – they don’t realize that they’re speaking so fast the words are unintelligible. I’ll ask you to breathe, and slow down – and it’s not really that I need a slower pace, it’s that I want the nerves to go away. I may tell you to slow it down just so that you feel more comfortable, because that’s what the character needs – your comfort, not your nerves.
Two – perceived intelligence. “Wait – you just said that about speeding up?!” Yep, I did. While speaking faster can denote faster brain activity, slowing it down can as well. Think of the person who watches you, like a cat, and waits for the moment to drop a bomb on you – that slow pace can also belies intelligence. It’s a more careful intelligence – likely I would simultaneously give you the note that this person is careful, and plays their cards close to the vest. The reason I want you to slow it down is because I want to see all the thinking you’re doing, in between every line. Not only does it imply far more subtext if the pace is slower and more thoughtful, but it also implies that your character has already thought of their next line, and is thinking of all the possible outcomes that arise from them saying it, and weighing their options. Or maybe – your character actually isn’t all that intelligent. Slow it down, then, so the viewer can see that your thoughts process a little differently.
Three – I’m looking to make the words matter more. I may have you slow it down to make this scene, really, the pinnacle of your character. Where I was just discussing that this scene leads to the next – it’s also possible that this scene is the climax for this character. Slowing it down, taking away any urgency, emphasizes the importance of your character’s journey, and it takes time to watch a character come to a conclusion. If this is the moment we’ve been waiting for – stretching it out makes the moment that much sweeter. I may also have you slow it down in order to let each line come from a deeper place. It takes time to lay yourself bare, and strength to pull those words from the deepest, darkest places in you; by slowing it down, I see the effort it takes to say the words, and how hard they are to say. It gives every word a deeper meaning, and shows the true depth of your character.
Four – presence. It’s the opposite of the stream of consciousness idea – I may want you to slow it down because I want to see you struggling, and searching, for the right words. If you’re anticipating the words and they come quickly, I may not believe you’re really listening to your scene partner. By slowing the pace, I can watch you listen and process each thing being said, and watch you come up with a response or reaction. Again – I’m looking for that utterly open and honest moment, and by slowing it down – I get to see it happen.
One of the biggest pitfalls I watch actors make is when they haven’t thought enough about the scene. That may not sound like it applies to pacing, but it very much does. So often, I’ll have an actor come in, and when they read the scene at home, they felt the rhythm of a certain line, and then they can’t get out of it. They hear it a certain way in their head, and no notes I give can change the cadence.
The problem is – I’m not getting a real emotion from you. I’m getting what you think I want. Everyone’s cadences are different, and everyone has their own natural rhythm when they speak. Sure – a lot of people say it similarly: “Oh my gosh, (small pause) I love you” but your rhythm, your cadence, is as unique to you as your fingerprint. And I can feel it, the viewer can feel it, if you’re not thinking about any subtext and you’re only thinking about how it’s supposed to sound because the writer put a comma in there.
If you say all the words the way “they’re supposed to sound,” and there’s no real emotion for me to watch – then why the hell are you an actor? I’m hiring you to portray real emotions on screen, not sing a song like a bored kid in mandatory school choir.
It’s very easy to fix this. Just think about your scene.
This exercise is simple, but surprisingly difficult. In your scene – take out every comma, every period, every “(…beat)”, every breath, and blow through the entire thing. I guarantee you won’t be able to do it easily the first time through. But while you’re doing it – pay attention to the flow you find when you force yourself through the words as fast as possible. What new meaning comes from each line? How do they fit together? Where do you find yourself actually taking a breath? Where do you find you just have to stop, because it’s too important to blow through? It’ll give you a better idea what your character is trying to say.
Then, go through and this time, add a pause after every word or three. Force yourself to take time, and if you’re just waiting to say the next word because it seems like it needs a pause in front of it – I’m gonna come through this computer screen and smack you upside the head. I want you thinking about every bit of subtext that runs in between each word. If you’re searching for words – I want you to think about three other perfectly good words you could use instead of the word you’re about to use. If it’s difficult to say the words, I want you to worry about every possible negative or positive outcome from what you’re about to say and I want to see you steel your strength in order to get the words out. If you’re playing a cat and mouse game, I want you to make every assessment of the person in front of you before you utter a syllable. Fill every single pause with thought. If the character is stupid, I still want every pause filled with thought, it’s just that those thoughts move a little slower. In fact if that’s the case – you’re actually going to have to force your brain to slow down, it’s one of the reasons I think unintelligent characters are genuinely hard to play. Because I can tell when you’ve thought something through already and you’re just waiting to say your line. It’s not exciting to watch.
After doing this exercise – find the moments you really want to portray, and find the character you really want to portray. In making those choices, let your instinctual rhythm and cadence take over, so that any true emotion can come through naturally. That way, when we ask you in the room to change the pace – you know your character, you know how they think, and changing the pace won’t make you stumble or lose any depth. Instead, it’ll only strengthen your scene.