Do you arrive late and leave early?
December 10, 2012
I was reading one of Syd Field’s books on screenwriting a while back and came across his advice that in script writing one should always arrive late and leave early.
I take that to mean that the best way to tell a story is to start when the action has already begun, maybe even reached a fever pitch.
This is not intuitive for a lot of story tellers. The natural way to unfold a story is to begin at the beginning and unfold it as it develops.
“I was born at an early age,” and so forth.
The problem with rolling out a story chronologically is that doing so makes it difficult to build suspense or to engage the reader early. If something dramatic doesn’t occur until page fifty, most readers will abandon the book before it gets to “the good part.”
But if a writer follows Field’s mantra, he will capture the reader at the outset. Here is a little snippet of the technique. (Remember that I just wrote this off the cuff for purposes of this blog, so don’t judge it too harshly, please.)
Pellie Jacobs looked at the second hand on her watch and wondered if it had happened. She sat glued to Fox News waiting for the first report, the signal to the world that the end was at hand, that her years of planning were worth it, that revenge was hers.
Across town, Saul Hampshire sat in the fire station three hours into his shift. He reached down and picked up a boot, polished it while he watched the football game. He shined it ’til he could see his reflection in the black leather, placed it on the floor and grabbed the other shoe, dropped it when the bell sounded calling his crew into action.
“What is it?” he asked Chief Wilson.
“A bomb just exploded at City Hall. A big one,” the chief said as he jumped on the fire engine.
When Pellie saw the first news bulletin, she turned off her TV, swung her back pack on her shoulder, walked out the door and closed it behind her, leaving her cat, her fish, and her love letters to fend for themselves.
“Lesson one,” she said.
The reason this device of arriving late and leaving early works so well is because it fires the reader’s imagination and catches her up in the story.
From such a start, a writer can go any direction. He can describe the carnage at City Hall, cut to an earlier part of the story, pick up with Pellie again.
By beginning where a decisive action occurs, the author reaches out to the reader to show her why Pellie’s story is important enough to read. He also creates endless options for the development of the rest of the story.
So, would you rather have a book’s story begin in the middle, or at the beginning? Does it make sense to arrive late and leave early?
(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author of legal thrillers. Please visit his Amazon author page by clicking here.)