Enter scenes late, leave early

I just got a tip which I’m sure isn’t original (Michael Ferris says so, up front), but I hadn’t seen – about scenes:

“2. Be Late for the Party, and Then Leave Early  You may have read this in other places before, but seriously, in EVERY. SINGLE. SCENE. you want to enter late and leave early.

This goes hand in hand with what I was just saying about writing a fast read, but at the end of the day, you don’t want to describe every little thing. Whether its setting, or character actions, or anything else. Give us just the essentials — and no where does this apply more than to entering late and leaving early.

…One benefit of entering late and leaving early is that the audience has to catch up with what’s going on, thus engaging them. They’re trying to figure out what they missed before they got to the scene, and maybe even what they missed when they leave a scene early. Creating this mental intrigue may only affect people on a subconscious level, but regardless it makes you look like a pro.”

His examples are from scripts, so of course I went and dragged out the beginning of the first scene in chapter 1 of Pride’s Children:

11 p.m., February 11, 2005, New York City

I, Karenna Elizabeth Ashe, being of sound mind, do… But that’s it, isn’t it? Being here proves I am not of sound mind. She wished, for the nth time, she had not agreed to tonight’s interview. They have Laura Hillenbrand—isn’t that enough? But, “…we need more people like you”—meaning ‘damaged like you’—“to speak up…” The handwritten note from Night Talk’s host put the burden of duty on psyche and skeleton held together by spider’s silk. Dana didn’t know what she asked for. But I know. Winter dies tonight. Of exposure.

“Kary? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Why?” Kary felt like her own straitjacket, hugging herself tightly with goose-bumped arms.

“You seemed startled,” said Elise Carter, her face a study in tact, “and then you went further into that head of yours.”

There is only the skimpiest of settings, and we go crashing into Kary’s skull to a very tense woman thinking of death. Metaphorical death, but you’ll find that out soon enough.

What I try NOT to do at the beginning of a scene

I don’t tell you where we are, how Kary got there, what she’s there for. I realize I try very hard to not do this, because the pieces that are the extra stuff are essentially what some writing teachers call ‘sequel’: the slow parts explaining and musing on the action parts, a.k.a. the parts people skip.

Get into the bad habit of starting scenes with a bit of scene setting, and a quick update for the reader on what has happened since the previous scene (the part you did NOT write a nice action scene about), and readers will very quickly get into the habit of skipping the beginning of your scenes, possibly with a quick skim for key words – ‘back at the RANCH’ or ‘meanwhile, in TEXAS,’ and skip the lovely description because they just want to get to the STORY.

Readers are SMART

So the better idea is to TRUST Readers, who are, after all, smart people, and perfectly happy to be invited to contribute their overall understanding of the story so far. Trust them to get it when you switch to another location, but it’s the same one you ended some previous scene with. Give them a quick clue as to who is the pov character (if you’re doing different ones); the relevant bit is ‘quick’: the fastest way you can get them to switch into the new pov’s head. If you’ve brought them along properly, they even probably know when that character is due for a turn at the helm – and will take the tiniest of clues, say, ‘Okay, I got it,’ and slip right back into that pov.

As a side benefit (for me, as the writer – hope you like it), you also get subjected immediately to almost all the punctuation and formatting devices you will have to cope with through a long novel – direct inner thoughts are italicized, generalized thinking is not, quotation style for dialogue and remembered dialogue. Since this follows a short prologue in the style of an insert supposedly from the New Yorker, and a couple of epigraphs (one biblical, one a website about the media), and a bunch of other tiny indicators, you also know that there will be pieces of the outside world, the world of entertainment, and the kind of guests that show up on late night NYC talk shows.

I have so much to do in scenes – and the book(s) is getting so long – that trusting readers to be ‘with it’ is getting easier and easier. My job is to keep them excited and interested, not to mollycoddle them and hold their hand.

Extra bennies

For a great side benefit, when you NEED people to pay attention to that blob of description at the start of your scene, if you already have them trained not to skip beginnings because they’re usually irrelevant and boring DESCRIPTION, this time they will be halfway through it, and will have absorbed that it’s important, before they stop to realize ‘I don’t read beginnings.’

Sort of like the suggestion that if you swear all the time, people will stop listening, but if there is a single DAMN in the middle of the ms (think Gone With the Wind), EVERYONE will sit up and take notice, use your exits and entrances to scenes as training for readers – and then break that training* when absolutely necessary to give them BIRTHDAY CAKE. AND pizza.

*Reminds self to go check every scene, and make sure I’m not making the reader come early enough to help clean the bathrooms and set the table before the party.

‘Fess up – do you skip the beginnings of scenes when you read? How fast do you start scenes – if you write?


9 thoughts on “Enter scenes late, leave early

  1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    I would take “enter late, leave early” to refer to the events of the scene. Don’t walk to your story. That works in television shows, where they roll the opening credits as the characters exit the elevator and walk to the forensic lab. It doesn’t work in written fiction. (Boring.) So, yes, “enter late, leave early.”

    If you use the advice to avoid setting the scene – what does the POV character see, hear, smell, touch – you risk making the reader do too much of the work, then growing fatigued and leaving your story. YMMV 😉


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      One of my few rules is: Don’t confuse the reader. Not very much, and not for very long. And make it worthwhile. Within a paragraph or two, the reader has to be able to answer the 5 Ws and H – Who (pov), What (some meaning), Where (setting), When (time – and time since last scene), Why (character motivation) + How (action). And it should slip in seamlessly. And silkily.

      But it can still be artistic and surprising and well-written and better than ‘Just the facts, ma’m.’

      After that, let the reader provide about half from her own mind, and you’re good.

      Those are my goals, at least – how often I achieve them, readers will tell. But if I don’t even know my goals, I only achieve them occasionally by accident – and I’m not doing my job. When I do something right, I want to know, and I want it to be deliberate – so I can do it again.


      1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

        But it can still be artistic and surprising and well-written and better than ‘Just the facts, ma’m.’

        Yes, indeed. A mere “listing” of the facts will push the reader out of the story so fast.


  2. juliabarrett

    This is the best post! I love dropping a reader into a scene and letting her figure out things along with the character. Wonderful advice!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      As soon as I saw the tip I went to make sure I didn’t need it too much!

      Figuring things out is good for the character, great for the reader – as long as you really do provide the clues. Enough clues so that if a reader misses one or two she can still figure it out, not so many that you might as well put in a paragraph of backstory and be done with it.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      There’s the scene/sequel school of thought – and there’s the jump cut, do only the scenes school. I seem to be philosophically more comfortable in the latter.

      I work hard to bury whatever back story is absolutely necessary in dribs and drabs here and there – when a character has a moment where the subject would come up, in a line of dialogue, in a thought, or in a quick observation from a particular pov.

      I learned that technique from a romance novelist (Regency period, I believe) who blogged about how to do it. Wish I could remember her name to give her credit. I’m sure the method isn’t unique, but she made it very vivid. The situation was that there was a law passed which allowed only members of royalty to have a certain width of lace – and the character, who was not royal, disparaging the law as she checked th over-wide lace she was wearing, telling herself the law didn’t apply to her. So well done – I still smile at her execution of tucking that little bit of boring backstory in.

      If the writing tip fits, wear it.



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