Arrive late, leave early is a writing adage that you can hang your hat on. Crudely explained, it means enter your scenes (your openings especially) when the action is underway. Put the reader in front of the action as it takes place, without the reader needing to walk in half a mile to find it. Leave early is a little more elusive in meaning. But get out when the reveal/peak/climax is hot and new and not explained to the last crumb. Show your reader what there was to be gained from the story, what was gained or lost by the characters and then split. Leave the reader wanting more, not wishing you’d shut up.
I’m reading a novel right now that I want to love but I don’t. It’s a recent literary-fiction post-apocalyptic story. I’m about two-thirds through it and am starting to give up on being wowed. I couldn’t figure out why it was failing me, until I thought of “arrive late, leave early.” The novelist has chosen to arrive very, very late. How late? Well, the two main characters have gone through the end of the modern world when we meet them. I personally would have liked seeing the end of the world with them. But I understand, things ended very gradually and perhaps their story occurs afterwards. Then they finally, after two years, meet some neighbors in the woods. Then there’s this time jump to after the neighbors have poisoned their children and then themselves. I could have standed the novel being there for those events too. Then they make their way to a settlement of people- they haven’t seen more than 4 other people in years- this is exciting. The settlement has survived the raids of pirates, terrible things have happened- but it was years ago. We learn of it through dialogue. The settlers tell them. All the good plot delivered after the fact through dialogue? Years later? This is arriving way too late. It’s like watching home video of a great circus, but it’s actually footage of the empty tent after all the performers cleared out. I have often wondered how much weight dialogue can bear in fiction. I wrangle with this in my writing, not trusting dialogue to do much heavy-lifting. I like dialogue sort of as proof. You’ve established through prose who your characters are, what they’re like and then you prove it through their dialogue, or you show that they’re being disingenuous, deceitful or changing(!) by the dialogue disproving what we know. But plot-delivery through dialogue makes me wary. This novel is almost an experiment in that. The author thought the whole book could rest on dialogue, after the fact. Why not just move the novel 4 years earlier; see the world collapse, see the pirate raiders, see the suicides? Arrive earlier damn it. I’m going to finish the book for sure. I’m still hoping something crazy will occur that wasn’t years ago. Maybe it will be the last page and the whole book is a set up for a series….
On another note. When I went running today along the Hudson River, there were two girls about fifteen or sixteen years-old, skate-boarding on the bike path. They rode plastic skateboards, mostly just scooting and gliding, nothing fancy. It was 61 degrees and overcast. They were vaguely dancing while they skated to music coming from an iphone one of them held. She was wearing an off the shoulder tiny purse too. They looked alike. The world could use more of that.