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.
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.