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What does a slow burn movie or TV show mean?

Some movies and TV shows like to take time to tell their stories …

Have you ever gone to the theater and been so encapsulated by what you’re seeing that you forget the running time? You know in the back of your mind that it takes longer than usual for the story to feel like it started, but you also like just hanging out in this world.

We call this type of storytelling “slow burn”. And similar to that Kacey Musgrave’s songIt is very pleasant.

Today I want to go over the definition, meaning, and some examples of this type of screenwriting in film and television.

Let’s dive in.

What does a slow burn movie or TV show mean?

There are several definitions that we will discuss below. The point of all of this is that slow burning is more of a feeling than anything else. You know when you feel it.

So if you have better ways to define it, throw it in the comments!

The slow burning movie meaning

Traditionally, a slow burn is a story that moves at its own pace, usually not very fast, and with characters, obstacles, and storylines that can take a while to develop.

Slow burning filmmaking

According to Premium beat“A ‘slow burn’ is a style of film, usually in narrative productions, where the plot, plot, and scenes slowly and methodically evolve towards a (usually) explosive boiling point.”

While this is a general way of talking about it, we’ve found that this is actually changing across genres. Let’s examine this in more detail.

Slow burn in comedy

For comedy stories in film and television, a slow joke is one that takes a couple of punches to get going. For example, when Lucille Ball eats chocolates on the conveyor belt. The slow burn is that things keep coming and it takes a few beats before it gets too hectic.

Or what about one Three Stooges Routine where things go from normal to chaotic as the situation increases.

Another would be in there Meet the parentswhere Greg goes up on the roof to smoke and it just keeps getting worse when the cat gets out, he drops a cigarette, burns a fire and he blows up the back yard and chuppah. That’s a slow joke.


‘Meet the Parents’Recognition: Amblin

Slow burning in character relationships

Sometimes people relate to a character relationship that is slowly burning. Then two characters meet, and although they don’t immediately share the open chemistry, you get the feeling that there may be romantic entanglements in the future. It may take a while to get there, but as time goes on it becomes clear that there are feelings there.

This is much more popular on TV. Think of Ross and Rachel, Jim and Pam and Sam and Diane.

It also happens in movies, like the most famous slow burn romance … When Harry met Sally.


‘When Harry Met Sally’Recognition: Columbia pictures

Examples of slow burning films

Now that you know some of the subcategories, let’s check out some more traditional movies that might fit you. Remember, we want movies that take up your time and end up thundering.

These Movies are more artistic than the standard Hollywood blockbuster, but they have a lot to say.

One of my all time favorites is Donnie Darko. This time travel story about a kid who got used to their nightmares really takes time to set up Donnie, his school, and the way the world works around him. The surprise ending pays off for everything we learned from start to finish.

Another one you probably know is Rosemary’s baby. This film is over two hours long and shows the slow descent into madness of a pregnant woman who fears she will bear the brood of Satan. There are plenty of clues, characters, and backstories to discover along the way.

After all, you’ve heard of Wait until it gets dark? Starring Audrey Hepburn, this amazing thriller is about a blind woman who is traumatized when burglars enter her home. The film takes the time to build what the burglars want and gradually develops Hepburn’s character and relationships. It is slowly paying off who she is and what skills she has to deal with these men.

It’s one of the best highlights I’ve ever seen.

Have I missed any?

Let me know in the comments.

So much of what we talk about at No Film School when it comes to screenwriting is wrapped up in our new eBook. It also helps you create a 10 week writing schedule that will actually finish your script.

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