There are a lot of screenwriting maxims out there for writers to learn and compile into their personal bibles. The only problem is that there's so many it can be hard to keep track of them and remember what they mean.
Today, we're going to focus on my favorite of the bunch, the "Start Late, Leave Early" principle.
The concept, often attributed to the late screenwriting professor Syd Field, is about as straight forward as it sounds: enter a scene as late as possible, and exit it as early as possible.
It's a technique that streamlines storytelling, keeping the audience engaged and the narrative moving at a brisk pace.
Let's dive into how you can use it to your advantage.
Understanding "Start Late, Leave Early"
The idea behind "Start Late, Leave Early" is simple yet so useful. In traditional storytelling, scenes often begin with the setup, include the confrontation, and conclude with the resolution.
However, this can lead to unnecessary exposition and dilute the impact of key moments.
You may get bogged down with entrances and exits, or just the meat of the scene.
So, why not start late when writing the scene?
By starting a scene late, the writer jumps directly into the action or the crux of the conversation, bypassing preliminary fluff.
Similarly, leaving early means exiting the scene before it reaches a full resolution, often leaving the audience wanting more and creating a sense of anticipation for what's to come.
Why Do Filmmakers Use "Start Late, Leave Early"?
Now, this is a maxim I swear by because I think it vastly improves the pace of my writing and keeps the audience interested in what they're reading.
The "Start Late, Leave Early" technique is a fundamental principle in filmmaking and screenwriting, employed for several compelling reasons:
- Enhance Pacing: By cutting out the preliminary setup of a scene and avoiding its dragging conclusion, this technique keeps the story moving briskly. This is crucial in maintaining the audience's attention and engagement. Films are often a balancing act of pacing—too slow, and the audience loses interest; too fast, and they can't keep up. Starting late and leaving early helps find this balance, ensuring that each scene delivers its message efficiently and effectively.
- Increase Narrative Tension: This approach naturally creates suspense and intrigue. When a scene starts in the middle of the action, viewers are immediately drawn in, curious to understand what's happening. Similarly, by leaving a scene unresolved, it leaves the audience wanting more, eagerly anticipating how the unresolved elements will play out later in the story.
- Economic Storytelling:Screen time is precious, and filmmakers must tell their story within a limited timeframe. By trimming the fat and focusing only on the crucial parts of a scene, filmmakers can tell a more streamlined, focused story. This approach is particularly important in today’s media landscape, where viewers are often looking for more concise, impactful content.
- Character Development: This technique allows for more nuanced character development. Instead of relying on expository dialogue to explain a character's thoughts or background, filmmakers can reveal these aspects through their actions and interactions in the midst of a scene. This not only respects the audience's intelligence (by showing, not telling) but also creates more layered, realistic characters.
- Realism: Real life doesn't play out in neatly packaged scenes with clear beginnings and endings. By starting late and leaving early, scenes can more closely mimic the unpredictability and unfinished nature of real-life events, adding a layer of realism to the film.
- Creative Storytelling: This approach encourages filmmakers to be more creative in how they construct and execute their narratives. It challenges them to find unique ways to jump into a scene in an engaging manner and to leave it in a way that’s impactful, yet still drives the story forward.
Things to Avoid When Starting Late and Leaving Early'Tenet'
While effective, this approach can be challenging to execute correctly. Misinterpretations of this concept can lead to confusing narratives where key information is omitted, leaving the audience bewildered rather than intrigued.
Scenes still have to make sense. We have to understand why we're cutting into a scene and why we're cutting out of it.
It requires a delicate balance—providing enough information to keep the story coherent while omitting unnecessary details.
Examples in FilmPrologue in 'Pulp Fiction'CREDIT: Miramax Films
One of the best examples of this technique can be seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Pulp Fiction is rife with scenes that begin in medias res (fancy term for "in the middle of the action"). Take, for instance, the iconic diner scene that opens and closes the movie. The scene begins with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny already in the middle of a conversation.
The audience is thrust into the dynamics of their relationship and their plan to rob the diner without any preliminary setup. The scene ends abruptly as well, right after the tension reaches its peak, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats.
Another classic example is the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's Jaws.
The film starts with a terrifying shark attack, bypassing any introductory elements and immediately immersing the audience in the horror and suspense that define the movie.
In Anatomy of the Fall, 2023's foreign Best Picture frontrunner, we're thrown in media res into a seemingly antagonistic, somehow equally flirtatious interview with no context that's ambiguity leads to be the center piece of the entire film.
Examples in TV'Game of Thrones'HBO
In television, the principle is equally effective. Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan, exemplifies this approach. Many episodes begin in the midst of a tense or intriguing situation, immediately capturing the viewer's attention.
For instance, the pilot starts with Walter White in a dire situation, without initially explaining how he got there. This compels the audience to keep watching to piece together the events leading up to that moment. Season 2 even went so far as to structure its cold opens around an eerie reveal not addressed until its finale.
Game of Thrones also employed this technique effectively, particularly in its earlier seasons. Scenes often started right in the middle of a political intrigue or a character confrontation, creating a dynamic and fast-paced narrative.
In an age where audiences are inundated with content and have shorter attention spans, this principle is more relevant than ever.
It’s a reminder that, sometimes, less is indeed more, and the key to gripping storytelling lies in what you choose to leave out, just as much as what you choose to leave in.
Let me know what you think in the comments—bonus points for comments in media res.
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