Do you arrive late and leave early as Syd Field advised?
August 7, 2014
A few years ago I was reading one of Syd Field’s books on screenwriting, when I came across a concept that has stuck with me.
“Arrive late and leave early,” the master screenwriter said.
The more I have thought about the concept, the more I see how important it is in all forms of writing.
The new writer has a tendency to tell a story chronologically. Begin at the beginning and move forward, she thinks as she enters the first words in her manuscript.
The problem with that approach is that often the good stuff doesn’t come around for a generation or two. That’s a long time for the reader to wait for a punchline.
This is especially true for me in my writing because I have learned I prefer to tell stories where the action is the result of things that occurred to people many years distant, things that have festered and boiled and churned in people’s souls their whole lives until they finally must act on them.
If I told those sorts of stories chronologically, I would bore the reader to death.
But if I apply Syd Field’s advice, I will kick off the story when the water is already boiling, when the characters have reached their tipping points. Then I can move forward and backward to show the consequences of their actions on the one hand and their motivations on the other.
If the first scene is a shooting, I then have the assignment of demonstrating to the reader it wasn’t a random act of violence, but rather something long in the making, the result, as Faulkner said, of “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
If the author arrives late and leaves early, he makes the story not just a who-dun-it, but also a why-did-he-do-it?
The why is always more interesting than the what.
And the best way to fire a reader’s imagination about the why is to arrive late and leave early.
Plus, it’s just good manners.