Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Arrive late, then leave early

Last Wednesday, we talked about arriving fashionably late in our scenes. (Click here if you missed that post.)

I said Creating scenes full of tension = Creating a page-turner of a book. One of the ways you can keep the tension high is to arrive late and leave early. Today we're going to talk about that leaving early thing.

Let's say our characters, Joel and Susie, have been married for 6 blissful months, and are having their first big fight. He drops the bomb on her that he's just gambled away what meager savings they had. In real life when people have a fight, it may drag on for hours. And if you're fighting with someone in your house, you then have the yucky tension of having to coexist with them the remainder of day/week/month.

But when we write fight scenes, they're rapid fire, saying what the characters need to communicate to each other (and the reader). And then we're going to leave as soon as we possibly can.

Here's how this might look:

Susie stared at Joel as he paced around their shoebox of an apartment. With his ragged hair and wild eyes, he hardly resembled the man she'd pledged herself to just six months ago.

"There's something else, isn't there?" Susie said. Joel only paced like this when he was wrestling with something.

He glanced at her. "No."

But she knew better. "Out with it, Joel. I know you've got something else to tell me."

"You think you're so smart, don't you?" He sneered. "You've got this whole world figured out, huh, Suz?"

Her teeth ground together. "I'm smart enough to know when you're not being honest with me."

"Fine. You wanna know what's going on? You wanna know why I haven't been sleeping? Because it's gone, Susie. It's all gone."

Susie's stomach twisted into an aching knot. "What's gone, Joel?"

He leveled his gaze on her and said it oh-so-quietly. "The money."

"No." She pressed her eyes shut, willing this to be some kind of strange, sick joke. "It can't be."

He handed her the receipt from the ATM that declared their account balance to be $2.30. "It's all gone."

Were that a real scene in a real book, I would probably have Joel withhold his information a bit longer, but that's definitely where I would end the scene. Because that is the critical information we were working our way toward. That was the goal we likely would have defined when we first started writing this scene. We would have thought, "Okay, in this scene, Susie is going to find out that her worst fear has come true - their money is gone."

Once we achieve our goal, we get out of there. Do we need another couple paragraphs? Not if we've achieved our goal. We don't need to see Susie figuring out how to deal with her anger. We don't need to see Joel down on his knees apologizing. By cutting it off here, we're leaving our reader with a question that propels them into the next scene. What happens now?

Last week when we talked about arriving fashionably late, one technique we talked about is establishing a scene, then saying, "Two weeks ago..." and doing a quick catch-up scene. The above example is something that lends itself well to this.

Let's say we end our scene there, and then move on to something completely different. Susie is now at her niece's first birthday party:

He handed her the receipt from the ATM that declared their account balance to be $2.30. "It's all gone."


"Who wants cake?"

Susie marveled at her sister as she passed out cake to the group of eager children.

And so forth. I might talk for a page or two about the birthday party. Then I could do something like this:

Susie spotted Paul looping his arm around Molly's waist and felt envy stab at her. Her sister's husband would never gamble away $1500. Paul was too smart for that. Not like somebody else she knew.

It had been three days since Joel dropped the bomb on her. He'd apologized, of course, but...

And then you can explain what happened after they fought before returning to the new scene, the birthday party.

Where you end and begin scenes isn't a science, but a feel. Sometimes you might get it right in the first draft. Other times it'll take a draft or two, plus maybe an outside opinion, to get it right. But that effort is completely worth it. Getting those scenes right, those "trees", are the way we perfect our forest.


  1. Great post! Timing is everything! So true.

  2. Hmm. I'll have to give this technique a try. At first, it sounded jarring, but in a second read, I saw how it would add tension. And since this is a scene the reader is already familiar with, it doesn't count as 'backstory'. It's picking up a thread.

  3. And it feel smoother in a book, when the reader is absorbed in story world.

  4. This is such great advice Stephanie =) I love doing that stuff in my writings... its a lot of fun and it adds real pizazz to the book! =D

  5. I just read all three Skylar books. Absolutely LOVED them -- only took a few days this time, since I literally couldn't put them down. Which was annoying. But a good annoyance. LOL.:D Now I wish there were more;)

    Any more books coming anytime soon, Steph? Pleeease?;)

  6. Oh, Emii, you're such a sweetie!

    No new releases to announce :( This is a slooooooow business. And your encouragement is very much appreciated!