A tricky story, intertwined plots, fascinating characters, powerful scenes… How do you write a story like Pulp Fiction? Let’s analyze it!
Space and Time in Pulp Fiction
Where does Pulp fiction take place?
Straight away, through the music, the types of characters or the sets of the movie, it is made obvious that all the plots take place in the USA.
Cafeteria, fast-food, Europe presented as exotic, the quote of the Bible, the black and white characters, the banality of firearms, the “Jack Rabbit Slim” with its old-fashioned stars and its Cadillac, the motel, the boxing and the bets… everything evokes the US culture even up to the caricature.
On the plan of the places now (see the table next page), we can observe that the plots take place either in public and commercial places – cafeteria, Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Maynard’s shop, street -, or in some private flats – at the 4-5 guys, at Butch’s, at Mia’s, at the dealer’s, at the motel… – or in cars (4 scenes take place in cars, and 5 if we count the Cadillac of the Jack Rabbit Slim’s) – all typically linked to the US culture.
All of those places produce a similar effect: a big banality, a sort of permanent anonymity, which at the same time make identification of the audience to the characters easier – they are familiar, evident, anchored in the everyday life – and they violently contrast with the exceptional nature of the actions that take place in it: robbery, quadruple murder, hard drug deal, overdose, rape, dissimulation of murder proofs and elimination of a corpse.
We can remark that:
- Nature is totally absent: no landscape, no contemplative moment, not the slightest piece of sky;
- There is no general shot of the surrounding human geography, no urban sociology, no context: the camera always follows the characters‘ actions from close, and it is always like those characters act and live in a permanent nowhere.
Time, durations, chronology
When is Pulp fiction supposed to take place?
All of the action takes place in the contemporary world (in the 1990’s) except the gold watch story that starts “before World War I”.
Over how much time do the plots of Pulp Fiction take place? Two days.
To make it sure, let’s put the plots back in chronological order of real time:
- 7. Story of the gold watch (decades ago)
- 3. Story of Antwan Rockamora (months or years ago)
- 2. Vincent and Jules vs. the 4-5 guys (one day, let’s call it Day 1)
- 10. Wollf, Vincent and Jules clean the car (later that day)
- 1. Ringo and Yolanda rob the cafeteria (later that day)
- 5. Marsellus corrupts Butch (in the evening)
- 4. Vincent vs. Mia (the same evening)
- 6. Vincent saves Mia from the overdose (later that evening)
- 8. Butch vs. Marsellus (Day 2)
- 9. Butch & Marsellus vs. the 2 perverts (later Day 2)
Indeed, various clues brilliantly distributed allow us to rebuild this general chronology:
- The link via the place of the cafeteria, after Jules and Vincent left Wollf after having cleaned the car from Marvin’s blood;
- The outfit of Vincent and Jules when they arrive in the club where Marsellus corrupts Butch; the fact they bring a suitcase to Marsellus, and that Butch bumps into Vincent;
- The dialog between Vincent and Jules just before they go and kill the “4-5 young men”, dialog which evokes the date of Vincent with Mia;
- The night of sleep of Butch after he won his match.
Real time and told time
Now, how much “real” and told time do each of those plots last?
(Reminder: one distinguishes the “real” time, the one necessary to a given action, from the told time, the one necessary to evoke the real time in a narration. Thus, an 8 hours night can be told in two minutes, while the blink of an eye or the trajectory of a bullet can also be shown in 2 minutes, playing on effects of shortening or on the contrary of lengthening of the real durations. Those notions are studied further in Story&Drama 2 – Advanced.)
- The plot 1 only lasts 7+12 minutes in real duration, and 7+15 minutes in told duration – there are TWO numbers because the plot is told in TWO parts. Where does the difference of duration come from? From the superposition of the scenes, when Jules and Vincent discuss about the “miracle” just before Ringo and Yolanda begin robbing the cafeteria.
- The plot 2 lasts 13+3 minutes in real duration, and 13+4 minutes in told duration. The difference? It comes from the same superposition process, from the fact we see the execution of Marvin a second time from the point of view of the 4th young man hidden in the bathroom.
- The plot 3: we can not know about its duration. But anyway it takes place in two steps: 1/ Rockamora massages Mia, and 2/ Marsellus’ men throw him out by the window. When Mia tells Vincent in the restaurant that this story is fake and did not take place, then we conclude that the story took NO real-time duration. But once again, we will never know, because Mia could be lying.
- The plot 4 – without taking account of the purely informative exposition – lasts a whole evening until the morning, and 27 minutes in told duration. We observe here a very strong time ellipsis.
- The plot 5 lasts over a few hours (Marsellus corrupts Butch, then Butch goes to his fight then gets out of it), and only 3+1 minutes in told duration, because of the spectacular ellipsis of the match that stays totally off screen.
- The plot 6 probably lasts less than one hour (essentially, the time that Vincent needs to bring Mia to the dealer, then to “cure” her), and is told in 6 minutes.
- The plot 7 lasts around 70 years, from “before the first world war” to “now”, and is told in 5 minutes! HUGE ellipsis!
- The plot 8 lasts about half a day in real duration (Butch goes back to his motel in taxi, sleeps, wakes up, gets his watch, is kidnapped with Marsellus, and leaves the city with Fabienne just after) and 40 minutes of film – including the 15 minutes of the plot 9, that in real time lasts a little bit longer, because we have to add to what is shown the time that Zed needed to come to Maynard’s shop (in the movie, he arrives nearly instantly).
- And finally the plot 10 takes place over 9 minutes of film whereas the audience was told about a maximum duration of “40 minutes” between the moment where Jules and Vincent bring the bloody car to Jimmy’s house and the moment when Jimmy commanded them to have left his house. In this part of the movie, we can notice the somewhat meta-fictional joke of Wollf announcing “It is about thirty minutes away, I’ll be there in ten”, then a voice over says “And 9 minutes 37 seconds later” and Wollf is already there. Just after that scene, Wollf asks: “If I was informed correctly, the clock is ticking, is that right, Jimmy?” Jimmy answers: “100%!” The director and scriptwriter Quentin Tarantino, who plays Jimmy’s role, is indeed perfectly aware of the fact that he placed the narration figure we call a “time lock” in this scene 😉
Conclusion: the expansive and intensified nature of the action by the deletion of many dead times also belongs to the long list of processes that give Pulp Fiction such a thrilling rhythm, while in parallel to these cuts the scriptwriters also often took pleasure to extend our perceived time precisely by telling us some dead times, as during all the superficial and futile conversations, just before shocking us with highly dramatic pieces of action.
Did you enjoy it? Want to know more? Then read the full story analysis of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and improve your scenario writing skills from the study of its script.