When Goldman wrote “get in late and leave early”, he was not talking about how you watch a bad movie.
He meant screenwriters should keep scenes to what is essential to the story. No arrivals and departures, no meet & greet or chit-chat.
This is one of the fundamental rules in writing a scene, one which David Mamet has also been credited for. ‘Late’ usually means later than you imagine, so its wise to try and cut out as much as possible at the beginning and ask yourself if it still works. The later the better.
In the following example from Fight Club, the scene starts off with a gun shoved into the mouth of Edward Norton’s character. We are immediately connect with the scene and wonder how it happened and what will happen next.
INT. SOCIAL ROOM – TOP FLOOR OF HIGH-RISE – NIGHT
TYLER has the barrel of a HANDGUN lodged in JACK’S MOUTH. They struggle intensely.
They are both around 30; Tyler is blond, handsome, eyes burning with frightening intensity; and JACK, brunette, is appealing in a dry sort of way. They are both sweating and disheveled; Jack seems to be losing his will to fight.
We won’t really die. We’ll be immortal.
oor -- ee-ee --uh -- aa-i --
With a gun barrel between your teeth, you speak only in vowels.
Jack tongues the barrel to the side of his mouth.
You’re thinking of vampires.
Jack tries to get the gun. Tyler keeps control.
With my tongue, I can feel the silencer holes drilled into the barrel of the gun. Most of the noise a gunshot makes is expanding gases. I totally forgot about Tyler’s whole murder-suicide thing for a second and I wondered how clean the gun barrel was.
Tyler checks his watch.
As Hitchcock once said, drama is life with the boring bits cut out. So give the reader the essential, exciting bits of information in the least amount of words. As soon as the goal is achieved in the scene, get out.
I have this really beautiful shot that really must stay
Exceptions that deliberately break or bookend the flow of the action sometimes work at the beginning of an act or sequence. You’ll hold a shot or scene longer when you want to give the audience a breather and you want to intentionally start re-building tension again.
In case you need this transition moment at the beginning or end of a scene, consider making it interesting by dramatising it or introducing something unusual, unique.
Here’s another prime example of leaving early and thus creating wonderful suspense.
The bodyguards FLOP a BODY wrapped in garbage bags onto the table. The BOUNTY HUNTERS wait in the corner. Gambol pulls back one of the garbage bags, revealing the Joker’s bloodied face. Gambol spits. Turns to face the bounty hunters.
So. Dead you get five hundred-
Behind Gambol, the Joker SITS UP- THRUSTS knives into the bodyguards’ chests. Gambol spins to see a crazy grin on the Joker’s spit-dribbled face-
How about alive?
The Joker gets a switchblade in Gambol’s mouth- SHARP
METAL PULLING THE CHEEK TAUT. The Bounty Hunters subdue the remaining bodyguards.
Wanna know how I got these scars? My father was a drinker and a fiend. He’d beat mommy right in front of me. One night he goes off crazier than usual, mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not. One. Bit.
The Joker TUGS Gambols cheek with the blade.
So, me watching, he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it. Turns to me and says ‘why so serious?’ Comes at me with the knife- ‘why so serious?’ Sticks the blade in my mouth- ‘Let’s put a smile on that face’ and...
The Joker looks up at the ASHEN FACES of the remaining Body Guards. Smiles.
Why so serious?
The Joker FLICKS his wrist – the Body Guards flinch as Gambol goes down. The Joker turns to them.
Now, our organization is small, but we’ve got a lot of potential for aggressive expansion... so which of you fine gentlemen would like to join our team?
The three bodyguards all nod. The Joker SNAPS a pool cue.
Only one slot open right now- so we’re going to have try-outs.
The Joker drops the broken cue in the middle of the men.
Make it fast.
The men stare at each other. Then at the jagged pool cue.
In this scene from “The Dark Knight”, Jonathan and Christopher Nolan carefully finish the scene with unfinished business. A question unanswered. A massive conflict. Three men. Two halves of a broken cue. One survivor. Who will win? It also adds character to the Joker, showing how ruthless he is without ever mentioning a drop of blood.
However, unless it’s the final scene in the film, be sure to leave a question unanswered. This will engage the audience and urge them to ask what happens next. This creates movement, and it is important to have everything in your screenplay serve the movement in order to propel the story forward.
If you found this tip useful, check out the Screenplay Checklist, an A-Z of commonly made mistakes by aspiring screenwriters.
Check this 12p. list of errors and annoyances to perfect your spec screenplay.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.