The phrase ‘arrive late, leave early’ has become a mantra for many screenwriters. Today’s audience is hungry for immediate entertainment and the average scene in a film lasts one to three minutes – or one to three pages. Screenwriter William Goldman says, ‘You always attack a movie scene as late as you possibly can. You always come into the scene at the last possible moment.’
Readers of fiction usually don’t expect a scene change every one to three pages, but the advice still applies – they don’t want to struggle through lengths of unnecessary exposition or aimless chit-chat before something happens in the story. And they don’t need to read about your protagonist returning to their car after the big argument with their boss. It’s a natural instinct to neatly set up and close down each scene, but to keep the reader turning pages, you often need to start at the moment of excitement and move on before things have settled down again.
“Readers of fiction usually don’t expect a scene change every one to three pages, but the advice still applies – they don’t want to struggle through lengths of unnecessary exposition or aimless chit-chat before something happens in the story.”
If you apply ‘arrive late, leave early’ to every scene with no mercy, you might end up with a disjointed or overly intense read. ‘Good pacing always involves compression and expansion of time,’ says Editor Rob Bignell. ‘In a story, events don’t unfold at the same rate as they do in real time.’ It’s important to judge each scene individually, figuring out which parts contribute to the story rather than trying to make the most accurate depiction of a real situation. Does the small talk before the key part of the conversation enhance the characterisation in a way that couldn’t be achieved later on? Do the goodbyes at the end of the wedding reveal the bitterness the protagonist has been hiding all day? In fiction, it’s less about the physical length of the scenes (you want a nice variety anyway) – it’s more about what each paragraph contributes to the story.
“It’s important to judge each scene individually, figuring out which parts contribute to the story rather than trying to make the most accurate depiction of a real situation.”
So, how do you put this advice into action? Editor Jessica Page Morell says, ‘When driving a manual transmission car, you choose the most effective gear needed for driving uphill, manoeuvring city streets, or cruising down a freeway. Similarly, when pacing your story, you need to choose the devices that move each scene along at the right speed.’
Six Practical Pacing Tips
- Go into summary mode to reveal important (but not very interesting) information.
- Slow into moment-by-moment action when you’re trying to build tension.
- Alternate between telling and showing. The majority of your writing should show but telling can save a lot of time and get the reader more quickly to the next big moment.
- Do your world-building as the scene unfolds. We can learn what a character looks like after they’ve started speaking. We can explore a room throughout an event.
- Use jump cuts. Putting a blank line between two paragraphs means you can jump from one scene to another without any awkward manoeuvring.
- Think about ways to progress the story in dialogue rather than in the narrative voice. This can be faster and more engaging.
It’s often easiest to spot ‘early arrivals’ and ‘late departures’ at the very beginning and end of the novel. You wouldn’t believe the amount of times I’ve encouraged a client to begin their novel at the second paragraph, on the second page, or even with the second chapter. There have also been many epilogues and tidy final paragraphs to be cut. The kind of paragraphs that read like the author taking a bow – the show is already over. It’s always painful cutting words, especially ones you deemed worthy to open or close your manuscript, but as you learn to trust your reader you realise that those deleted words remain in the white space of the page. The reader can imagine the getting there and the unwinding of each scene. Arrive late. Show your reader a good time. Leave early.