Welcome back readers, to the final entry in Being a Better Writer‘s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice!
Yeah, quick catchup for this, our final entry so that I can jump right to the meat of today’s topic. Being a Better Writer is a weekly series on how to improve one’s writing, from exploring various nuts and bolts and how to use them to addressing common questions. Running for almost six years now, there are hundreds of articles on it at this point, updating each and every Monday (save some holidays here and there).
So then, if that’s Being a Better Writer (or BaBW), what’s the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice? Well, it’s a feature we’ve been running all summer for BaBW focused on the cliche phrases of “writing advice” that follow authors around like ants follow a picnic. All authors, young and old. I wouldn’t at all be surprised at all if Tolkien came back from the grave and went on a speaking tour about his books, and somewhere at his first stop, was cautioned by a non-writer, non-reader to remember that “there’s nothing new under the sun.”
Yeah, that kind of advice. Quick and easy to remember, but as we’ve learning this summer … maybe not that great at expounding or teaching its original intent. Some, as we’ve discovered upon breaking them down and taking a deeper look, really aren’t very useful, the easily remembered cut down versions missing key information to the degree that they can harm young writers. And annoy experienced ones.
That’s what the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice has been all about, and today, we end with a real titan of advice. Because today’s cliche? Well, it’s really only a cliche saying from one particular set of folks and their followers. Because this week’s saying, by request, is from Writing Excuses. That’s right, the podcast that I link on my very own links page. Starring a collection of quite talented writers talking about (what else?) writing.
As I said, it’s by request. Because the hosts of Writing Excuses often repeat a phrase that one of my readers wanted to hear my own analysis on. That saying?
In late, out early.
Okay, so let’s offer some backing here. I myself asked this reader for more detail about what they wanted to know, and then on top of that, spent a few minutes tracking down the origin episode of this phrase for the series and listening to it myself so that I could be sure to get the thoughts and opinions of those who were using the phrase, as well as their own explanation. Which, for the curious, can be listened to here, and I’d honestly recommend it, as these folks do know their craft.
So, first let’s talk about what the Writing Excuses episode means, at least to my ear, when talking about “In late, out early,” then let’s get into where it can go wrong a little.
However, because this is a saying from some quite recognizable celebrities, I’m going to start a little differently than normal and offer up front, as a means to jumping in, my opinion on this saying:
If you understand the context, then the advice is good.
To be clear, in the episode of Writing Excuses linked above, they do a fair job of explaining the context behind the saying and what they mean by it. What they’re getting at, as they explain, is that the beginnings to a story should get in “late,” IE as close to what the reader cares about as possible, and then get out early, or as soon as that event has transpired.
They then offered an example of a story opening on a couple having an argument. As they explained, the best place to start that scene, as the crux is the argument, and that’s what’ll catch the reader’s focus, is with said argument. Open with the fight just starting, or maybe even halfway over. Then, as soon as the argument is over, close. Because, as one of the hosts put it, ‘no one wants to sit there reading a few pages about the characters crying and sobbing in the aftermath.’
And … here’s where I kind of take issue with what they’ve said. Not because the advice is bad … but more because I think they picked a really poor example.
Let’s tackle this one at a time. First, the actual bit of advice. This is pretty decent advice. Me? I’d call it a good “rule of thumb” for starting authors because honestly … yeah, young authors can be really bad at knowing where to start something. Telling them to push themselves as close to the actual inciting incident as possible is a good way to get them thinking about what is the starting point. As well telling them to get out early, because yeah, a lot of young writers have issues with this as well. And sure, it may result in a rough bit, but as one of the hosts points out, that’s what editing is for, and often early chapters may get reworked as characters and location take shape.
But I think their first example was … not the best choice. I actually think their later example in the episode, of how all the old Bond films open, is a much better explanation of how to apply the idea of “in late, out early.”
As they point out, early Bond films follow this opening to a science. Each Bond film starts with the end of another Bond film the audience has never seen, giving the audience a climax and a resolution. In late? Hah! You’ve missed a whole movie of set-up, but there’s enough going on for you to know what’s up. Out early? As soon as the climactic moment is over, the opening credits roll, and then the film starts in on the actual story.
I mean, sands, here. Watch the opening to Goldfinger. It’s quite literally the climax to a Bond story. There’s the sneaking into the lair, the explosion, a final showdown with a hired hitman, and the requisite one-liner.
You can’t get in much later than than. Or out much earlier. There’s no post-mission shakedown or debrief (as there is at the end of the film proper). It’s just in and out.
Now, that said, here’s where I think “in late, out early” may be confusing some people, including the reader who asked for this post (noting that they themselves felt that a lot of what they liked to write was contained in the cut bits of “in late, out early”). If you listen to the whole episode of the podcast, they’re talking specifically about one thing:
Openings. Hooks. Beginnings. Ways to get the readers invested and promise them for what’s to come. When they say “in late, out early,” the context there is with an opening to a story. When you’re trying to set up the audience by hooking their interest and setting their expectations.
“In late, out early” isn’t a rule for every chapter (though it can be a good suggestion for looking at whether something is worth keeping or cutting). What they’re talking about when they use this phrase is the beginning of the story, the idea that you want to start as close to the interesting events as possible, and then leave quickly after them to move on to what those events have promised.
Look at the intro to Goldfinger above, for example. It opens on the infiltration of a stronghold, its subsequent destruction while Bond watches a woman dance (it’s Bond, so we shall roll our eyes but admit that yes, it’s part of the package the movie promises), and then a fight to the death with a hired killer.
And yeah, if you don’t enjoy that, you’re probably not going to enjoy the rest of the movie, because that’s what the rest of the movie is. The audience is promised that the protagonist is capable enough to infiltrate this lair, equipped enough to set up the explosives, and confident enough to go back to his hotel room even when warned someone will likely be there to kill him for his actions. We also get some examples of quick-thinking and observation along the way with his actions during the fight.
And then? It moves on to the movie proper. Either you’re hooked or you’re not.
Let’s look at another example from one of my own works, the opening chapter of Shadow of an Empire. Shadow opens with the protagonist, Salitore Amazd, in the final moments of hunting an outlaw, pulling up his horse and drawing his rifle as he nears the bandit’s camp. What follows is an example, a sales pitch, if you will, of Sali’s skill as he sneaks up to the camp, engages in a shootout with the bandit, captures him, and rides back to town to deliver him and claim the bounty on the bandit’s head.
That is, from a certain perspective, the “climax” of a little adventure. Sali has been tracking this criminal, hunts them down … and in the process of providing the reader a nice, action-filled opening (one that then ends on the hook of the main plot with the Inquisitors arriving in town and asking for him by name) that also promises to its reader what sort of activity they’ll be seeing Sali perform over the course of the book: hunting and catching criminals.
Now, it doesn’t tell them that. Writing Excuses brings this up for a moment as well. It’s not an ad-copy saying “This character will do these things in the coming pages! Read now!” But it shows them what skills the character has. Sali has tracked the bandit this far, so he’s good at reading signs and figuring out where people are, etc.
That’s “in late, out early.” The story opens with Sali having already been given his mission and tracked the bandit to his hiding place. That’s pretty late. And it’s out early—by 3/4 of the way through the chapter he’s already back in town, ready for the real hook to arrive.
But that’s okay, because we’ve promised the reader that the story will include and revolve around certain elements. And the bandit isn’t the real crux of the story, just a vehicle to let the protag show off and preview their skills and …
Well, at this point, you should probably just look up a bunch of the posts on here about beginnings where I’ve discussed this before. There’s a lot on it.
So then, is “in late, out early” good advice? Well … yes, but with context. Context that the episode creators themselves spend the rest of the episode talking about. And, from their archives, cover once or twice in further detail with later episodes.
In part, I think some of the confusion around the saying (such as with the reader who asked me to cover this one) comes from three areas.
- The “romantic argument” example being a really poor example.
- Lack of understanding about the context.
- Lack of surety around where “late” and “early” are and how to apply them.
Okay, if these are the likely areas of confusion, well … let’s talk about them. Starting with #1, that romantic argument.
Now, this isn’t exactly Writing Excuses’ fault, as it can be a pretty off-the-cuff show, as most podcasts are. But it was a really poor example of “in late, out early.” Why? Context.
Think about it. What makes romantic drama interesting to a reader? Is it the shouting? The declarations of love? Or is it that we know the characters and are invested in them?
That’s why this was a really poor example, and the Bond example a good one. Romantic drama, and romantic tension, revolve around the characters. Which means that if you’re dumped into an argument between a couple that you don’t know, you have no weight with either of them. You don’t know either of them. You don’t really know why the fight is important or who said what or why it matters.
See? “In late, out early” can be good advice, but the example was just not a good one because of what most people need for a good romantic drama isn’t allowed in that brief cut of just the argument.
Does this mean you can’t apply the advice to a romance? Of course not! You just need to go back and look at the context. Which brings us to point #2: Lack of understanding about the context.
‘In late, out early” is about an opening that draws the reader in, but also one that promises what will soon be coming. Going back to the romantic drama, a new writer when setting out to write a chapter that’s a “hook” in this manner should note that there are kinds of hooks to choose from, and that they should consider what their opening chapter will “promise” the reader about what’s coming ahead. For example, considering a romantic comedy? Maybe the chapter should open with the protag setting out to make their move at last on their crush, only for everything to go wrong in an embarrassing, funny fashion, and for the protag to end with “Yeah, this is my life, and I ain’t stopping until it works!”
See? Romantic opening that fits “in late, out early” while giving its readers a good hint of what’s to come. “In late, out early” is good advice if you understand the context behind the saying and what it applies to. Which leads us to point #3: the lack understanding around where “late” and “early” are and how to apply them.
Look, I won’t mince words, this one is tricky, and hardest of all because it only comes with experience. You can sit and think on it all day … but only in the experience of doing will the experience of where to start and end your opening start to come together.
I can’t give you a more solid answer than that to where “early” and “late” exist in your chapters without actually reading it, because it’s not my story. It’s yours. Which isn’t to say that you can’t do it wrong … but only by doing it the wrong way can you begin to figure out how to do it right, to gauge where the best starting and stopping points for each individual opening chapter.
Now, that leads me to the second half of point #3, which I am going to call the secret point #4: “In late, out early” is more for opening chapters than the rest of the book. Sure, we don’t want “filler” but that’s not the subject of “in late, out early.” Filler, pacing, all that jazz … These are their own topics. “In late, out early” applies to the opening, not to the later chapters of a story where you need to give readers proper context and deliver on the promises of the opening. If you don’t, and simply write more events that lack context, you’re delivering a series of opening chapters, not a story. And we don’t want that.
Right, finale time. So … is this good advice? Well … like a lot of quick sayings … alone it isn’t. “In late, out early” needs context to be understood. Writing Excuses does deliver this context in the initial episode discussing it, but judging from my reader’s requests … may not in later episodes, simply referring to it and counting on listeners to have heard the episode before.
I’m not saying it’s bad advice. It’s good advice. Just with context. And a good example. Does that mean you should repeat it? Well … I think “in late, out early” falls under the umbrella of “bad advice if you’re not going to explain it” but “good advice if you are.”
So should you use it? Sure. Just be sure to give it the context it needs so that it can be a helpful tool, and not a stumbling block for new writers who don’t have the full understanding of where they’re supposed to apply it.
Give them that understanding, and it’ll all be good. Good luck, now get writing!
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