Thursday, May 12, 2011

In Late, Out Early

Reading thuRsday

Heidi M. Thomas said, in a recent post on pacing in writing at the blog The Blood-red Pencil:

"Most writing gurus these days advise to “arrive late and leave early.” By this, they mean, start in the middle of the action or with an element of suspense that will help prompt the reader to keep reading."
Heidi is right that stories should (and readers expect to) skip the boring bits. Why slog through the dull set-up and waiting when you can jump in right at the point where things get interesting. By the same token, why hang around after the interesting bits when you can jump away to the next interesting thing. And what prompts the reader to keep reading is that they come to trust that you won't bore them with dull stuff.

But in-late/out-early is more than simply a way to keep your reader hooked. Once you develop a masterful sense of just how long a scene needs to be, in-late/out-early evolves from a mere technique into a tool for directing reader's attention and encouraging their engagement by inviting them to fill in the blanks.

Directing Focus

Like their visual counter parts, scene breaks and "screen" (or page) time tell the reader where to focus their attention. In a long scene, where several characters come and go and other things transpire in the background, readers can pay attention to many things so no one thing will have their full attention. In a short scene, they can only pay attention to what you give them.

For example, let's say you have a scene whose purpose is to show the reader that the main character notices another character acting strangely. If you show the main character strolling through the hall at school, greeting friends and chatting about the prom, until the boy she's had her eye on runs into them, nearly knocking her over while muttering something about the penguin revolution, and then the character and her friends spend a few more pages talking about what just happened, the reader may miss the key revelation about the penguin revolution. If, on the other hand, you jump into the scene moments before the collision and then jump out right after the first, "What was that?" comment, there's no danger of distracting the reader with the other people or the pending prom.

Fill in the Blanks

However, the most subtle use of in-late/out-early--at a level that approaches zen mastery--is to leave as much unsaid as possible. On several occasions, I've heard Howard Tayler say, "The monster you imagine when I say something goes bump in the dark is far scarier than anything I could describe."

By showing only the most critical part of the scene, we allow the readers to fill in the blanks by imagining what happened before and after the scene. In so doing, readers create a far richer experience for themselves than you as the author could by describing it all for them.

Think about it.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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