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Saturday, 26 October 2013

Writing tips - Begin late, leave early

No, I’m not offering advice to party-goers. This phrase – or variants of it – is used by screenwriters.

There are two reasons for advocating enter a scene late and leave it early.

One: a screenplay has a limited length of time – roughly 150 minutes.

Two: by following the guideline, the dramatic sense is maintained or even heightened. In other words, there’s no room for flab.

One scene tends to lead to the next. In order to move the story forward. And, remember, an author is in effect writing scenes in a reader's head.
Therefore, the same applies to genre fiction. There should be no room for flab – and often the word-count or page-count is limited too. Genre books are meant to be fast reads, spurring on the reader to keep turning the pages. That doesn’t mean they can’t be contemplative when necessary, or varied in pace as the characters’ mood dictates.

One way to maintain the fast pace is to be judicious where scenes and chapters begin and end.

I’ve seen it time and again. A writer lingers at the end of a chapter, or even a scene, writing inconsequential detail that doesn’t move the story forward.
Beginning the book, new scene or new chapter is just as relevant. Enter just before a dramatic highpoint, rather than a lengthy lead up to it. (Exceptions will be suspense stories where what is being said is not what is going on between the lines.)

Here’s a rough example of a chapter ending that involves two main characters.

“Right, now listen. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll phone in sick for work and we can go together, eh? You sort out your work and then come over tomorrow and I’ll show you where the swine lives.”
            As luck had it, tomorrow was my day off, so I agreed.
            The next morning, with jumbled thoughts of Marcus, the swine, infesting my mind, I picked her up and we set off.
             I drove for about half an hour and followed her directions, turned into a street of run-down town houses.
            "Slow down, pet, we’re here,” Grace exclaimed suddenly. “Find a parking spot here. His place is just around the corner.”
            I switched off my thoughts and slowed down, and then eased into a convenient gap of parked vehicles. Grace opened the passenger door and stepped out onto the pavement. I gathered up my belongings, locked the doors, and then together we made our way down the street.

[end of chapter]

The red-highlighted text doesn’t tell us anything. The ending works just as well if all that red-highlight was deleted. The beginning of the next chapter has the two characters approaching the front door of the town house, or better still, confronting the character Marcus - doing away with the introductions at the door etc. (Begin late...).

The above example’s at a chapter end. The same applies to the end of a mid-chapter scene. Cut out superfluous wording; it isn’t really precious, is it? End on a note of anticipation, rather than a fade out. For example, ‘so I agreed’ in effect says to the reader, turn the page and find out what happens next; ‘made our way down the street’ is just tedious. (If the reader knew there was a killer waiting, then yes the walking down the street would raise the tension!)

The end of a book presents the same problem. How to leave it. The writer has been living with these (surviving) characters for ages - months or even years. There’s an understandable tendency not to let them go, just keep writing a bit more, tie up those not really essential loose ends. Does the story ending have more power when the ending meanders to a close with everyone chatting and getting all the I’s dotted?  There are many authors who know how to close, and do it well. Adam Hall with his Quiller books didn’t linger. You arrived at the end breathless, and then you were left alone, gasping! The ending of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is memorable because it’s abrupt, and final for Leamas.
Quiller Solitaire - Adam Hall
The ending should be satisfying, but shouldn’t linger.

As Mickey Spillane said, “The beginning sells this book; the ending sells the next book.” If you leave the reader wanting more, then you’ve done your job.

I discuss the opening and closing scenes in Write a Western in 30 Days (pp142-144).


Jan Warburton said...

Excellent advice, Nik. Back to editing my WIP, with this in mind!

Nik said...

Thanks, Jan - and good luck with your next book!