Getting into scenes late and leaving scenes early

C. E. TuckerLast updated: Screenwriting

Alfred Hitchcock with a gun saying "Arrive late, leave early, and bore me at your peril."

Alfred Hitchcock with a gun saying "Arrive late, leave early, and bore me at your peril."Getting into a scene late and leaving it early. It can be difficult, even for expert screenwriters. But in Hollywood filmmaking, screenwriting lives or dies depending on how well it can dance on the ever-shrinking stage of audience attention span.

In other words, there’s not much space to tell the whole tale in exhaustive detail, so savvy screenwriters know they have to constantly make judgment calls: nix what’s “nixable” and skip to the good parts.

Arriving late into a scene (aka “in media res,” which is Latin for “in the midst of things”), and leaving that scene early is the best way to make a splash at a party, but that same panache applies to writing scenes as well. Arguably, Alfred Hitchcock summed it up the best when he asked:

“What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?”

The goal is to pace the screenplay so that the audience is constantly being pulled to the next story beat before they get bored of the last one. The mindset of getting into a scene late and leaving it early forces the screenwriter to focus on what’s most important — the core purpose or function of the scene in question.

Let’s look at an example and see how the technique of getting into a scene late and leaving it early plays out:

INT. MANOR LIBRARY -- NIGHT

Searching through the book-filled shelves, GREG and LUMP can’t help but make noise in their ill-fitting tuxedos. They look at the top shelves. They look at the bottom shelves. Behind a desk, Greg finds a small stand of paperback novels.

GREG

Lump, come here and take a look at this. Madam Celeste loves hardcore--

LUMP

Don’t you say that. Mama says we ain’t allowed to say those words, Greg.

GREG

They’re hardcore science fiction.

Greg holds up the book, it’s FOUNDATION by Asimov.

LUMP

Ass-imov? Doesn’t sound scientific to me.

GREG

Don’t make me throw this at you.

LUMP

Mama says the judge threw a book at Daddy.

GREG

I’m gonna throw this book and then the desk is next.

From outside, a THUMP is heard. The two men stand still.

LUMP

You hear that?

GREG

Just keep looking for the jewels.

The doors to the library open. MADAM CELESTE, in her regal gown, enters with contempt.

MADAM CELESTE

Aha! I’ve found you. And they said you can’t play Sardines-style hide-and-seek at a gala. Lady Everclear informed me of such rules but that nosy dilettante can kiss my trust fund. Okay, boys, under the desk. Let’s go.

Greg and Lump exchange looks but obediently crawl under the desk. Madam Celeste follows. Underneath the desk, the three people barely fit. Their squirming shakes the desk.

LUMP (O.S.)

Someone’s touching my foot.

GREG (O.S.)

Scoot over, Lump. The Madam needs more space.

MADAM CELESTE (O.S.)

I love a good contact sport. This is far better than Cynthia’s Hide and Seek soiree.

While this scene is far from perfect, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about the brief narrative it constructs: Two thieves looking for jewels are interrupted by the host of the party.

Now that we have the source material, let’s apply the technique of “Arriving Late” to this scene by cutting as much from the beginning as we can. Even action/description text.

Consider the difference between this version of the scene and the previous:

INT. MANOR LIBRARY -- NIGHT

Greg finds a small stand of paperback novels.

From outside, a THUMP is heard. The two men stand still.

LUMP

You hear that?

GREG

Just keep looking for the jewels.

The doors to the library open. MADAM CELESTE, in her regal gown, enters with contempt.

MADAM CELESTE

Aha! I’ve found you. And they said you can’t play Sardines-style hide-and-seek at a gala. Lady Everclear informed me of such rules but that nosy dilettante can kiss my trust fund. Okay, boys, under the desk. Let’s go.

Greg and Lump exchange looks but obediently crawl under the desk. Madam Celeste follows. Underneath the desk, the three people barely fit. Their squirming shakes the desk.

LUMP (O.S.)

Someone’s touching my foot.

GREG (O.S.)

Scoot over, Lump. The Madam needs more space.

MADAM CELESTE (O.S.)

I love a good contact sport. This is far better than Cynthia’s Hide and Seek soiree.

To begin with, it’s obviously a shorter, faster scene with the banter at the beginning cut out.

 

"Is your script ready? You get one shot with agents and producers. Make it count."

 

Of course, there might be an argument that the banter adds to the narrative and it was certainly quite fun to write, but does it really push the story forward? No. It doesn’t.

After we’ve arrived late to the scene, now let’s see what happens when we get out of it early as well:

INT. MANOR LIBRARY -- NIGHT

Greg finds a small stand of paperback novels.

From outside, a THUMP is heard. The two men stand still.

LUMP

You hear that?

GREG

Just keep looking for the jewels.

The doors to the library open. MADAM CELESTE, in her regal gown, enters with contempt.

MADAM CELESTE

Aha! I’ve found you. And they said you can’t play Sardines-style hide-and-seek at a gala. Lady Everclear informed me of such rules but that nosy dilettante can kiss my trust fund. Okay, boys, under the desk. Let’s go.

Slick and lean, this scene now conveys the essentials of the situation and uses every inch of the audience’s attention span far more judiciously.

While the length on the page might indicate this final scene will have a running time of around 30 seconds (and it might in the film), there’s still plenty of breathing room for the director to play with the pacing of the scene because the screenwriter has given her only the vital parts of the narrative.

That is, the dull bits have been cut out. Well, mostly.

A few caveats with this handy screenwriting approach:

Just because it was liberally applied to this particular scene doesn’t mean it can apply to all scenes in all scripts. e.g. If the paperback novel had been hollowed out to hold the jewels Greg and Lump were looking for, then the part of the scene where the book falls open would be important to show.

Similarly, if this is the first time we’ve met Greg and Lump and they’re supposed to be main characters, the banter at the beginning might serve as entertaining exposition. However, more often than we’d like to admit, we end up with scenes that have a lot of inactive, dead space that a vigorous application of this pacing technique might solve.

Show up late to make an entrance and leave early. Good for parties, good for screenwriters, good for Alfred Hitchcock.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *