Give me (and your reader) a break



You want to know what I miss?

I miss intermissions in movie theaters.

You remember those; at least some of you do.  When half way through the show the word “Intermission” would spread across the big silver screen, the theme music of the film would start to play, the house lights would go up, and you’d have ten minutes or so to stretch your legs and pay a visit to the rest room and the snack bar without missing anything.   Smokers could light up right there in the lobby.

The big blockbuster epics back then usually lasted upwards of three or four hours.  And by the time Ben Hur or Moses or El Cid or some other character played by Charlton Heston had been on screen for the length of an average flick, your rear end, leg and back muscles, and bladder were screaming for relief.  When I was a teenager and went to see one of the revival showings of “Gone with the Wind” in the old Texas Theater up in Palestine, I remember needing that break pretty badly.  By the time Scarlett O’Hara waved that shriveled turnip in the ruined vegetable patch and made her vow to never go hungry again – the last scene before the intermission – I was in complete agreement and made the same vow (I’ve pretty much stuck to it ever since) and got myself to the snack bar.

I don’t miss the smoke in the lobby bit, but the recent bevy of cinematic marathons currently in theatres makes me pretty nostalgic for intermissions. Plus there’s the fact that sitting down than long is unhealthy.  Getting up and moving around pretty often – at work, during long drives, in airplanes, or in other situations where held captive – is a good idea.  Even we diehard baseball fans know that.  That’s why we have the seventh inning stretch.  Of course some fans are so full of cheer and beer by the seventh inning they feel the need to sing badly out loud, but most of us just need to stand up and stretch.   We need a little break.

By its broadest – and only – definition that little break is all an intermission is.  It’s a pause between two much longer segments on either side of the respite that separates them.

A good example for writers is providing occasional page breaks, those white spaces that indicate a new scene or a shift in the storyline. Readers need a break every now and then as much as moviegoers do.  That’s why I try to provide that magical little open space often when I’m writing a book.  I also try to keep chapters as short as possible.  I figure when my readers are in bed at night and have just finished a relatively brief chapter that kept their interest, then they’re likely to read another short one before calling it a day.  But if an intimidatingly thick bunch of pages looms up before them the book is likely to get shut and the lamp turned off.  Short chapters keep readers reading.  And on a purely practical level authors need to keep their fans reading as surely as sellers of other commodities need to keep their customers coming back for more.  Granted, keeping your audience on board depends on many more things than doling out text in agreeably brief spurts.  But every little trick helps.

Well, if you’ll excuse me now I have several old movies recorded and need to make a choice. Let’s see, here’s “Exodus”, “In Harm’s Way”, and “Advise and Consent”, all made by Otto Preminger, my favorite director.  Each of them runs around three hours.

I recorded them from TCM, the channel that runs the original prints with the overtures up front and intermissions in the middle. Of course the pause or stop buttons on my handy remote control provides breaks whenever I need them, but I’ll try to wait for the official one with the theme music.  That way I can imagine watching the film in one of those long-gone downtown theaters and rushing out to the concession counter for a Dr. Pepper, popcorn, a hot dog, and a big box of Milk Duds.

Alas, in my house it will be a handful of grapes and a diet soda or mineral water.



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