Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Enter the Scene Late, Leave Early

It shouldn't come as a surprise, but you can't be mentally ill and work for the CIA, any more than a Marine Corps sergeant can work for Islamic terrorists. Yet those are, in fact, the unlikely backstories of the two main characters on Showtime's ├╝ber-popular TV drama, Homeland, loosely based on the Israeli drama Hatufim ("Abductees," packaged for English audiences as Prisoners of War).

A full review of Homeland will have to wait for some other time. Right now, I just want to point to Homeland's handling of scene cuts, as a reminder to fiction writers (and storytellers generally) of the effectiveness of the time-honored trick of entering a scene late and leaving early.

Generally, in TV-land, the trick is more like enter early, leave early, but the point is: We don't need to see the whole scene to get the gist. Telling the whole story is overkill. Viewers of TV shows don't like overkill, and neither do readers of novels.

It's a strange homecoming for Marine Sergeant Nick Brody, in more ways than one.

There's a critical scene where newly liberated POW Nicholas Brody (played by Damian Lewis), coming back from Iraq after eight years in captivity, gets to inform his wife that he's on his way home. No one has yet told her about the rescue operation that freed him. Brody insisted that he be the first to tell his wife. I quote now from the pilot episode's script:


Wearing a yellow ribbon, JESSICA BRODY, perpetually but charmingly harried, arrives at her boss's office. She knocks and enters without waiting for permission. Colonel MICHAEL FABER looks up from his desk.

Sorry I'm late on that report, 
but Stan promised he'd send 
over his budget yesterday -

Jessica -

Oblivious to Faber's real purpose, she plows ahead:

He's always got some excuse -


She stops, hearing the gravity in his voice . . .

That's not why I asked you in 
here. You have a phone call.

Tell me what's wrong, Mike, because you're 
scaring me. Something's happened to my kids?

Nothing's wrong.

Faber's reassuring smile shows some strain as he stands.

I should give you some privacy. Line two.

He closes the door behind him, leaving 
Jessica alone with the blinking phone. 
As she slowly lifts the receiver:

(into phone)



Brody is wearing a white T-shirt and khakis.

(into phone)
Jessica . . . ?

She blinks, disbelieving what she's hearing.

It's me . . . Brody.

-- Brody?


Faber watches her through the glass, 
with an oddly pained expression.

(end of scene)

So note two things. First, most writers would have begun the scene with an underling leaning into Jessica's office to say "The boss man wants you. I don't know what it's about, but it seems urgent." Or perhaps the phone rings and it's Faber saying "Can you come to my office for a minute?"

None of that here.

Secondly, most writers would have considered this scene so important (after all, it's a woman hearing the voice of her officially-presumed-dead POW husband on the phone for the first time in eight years) that they would surely have included more dialog than just the characters saying each other's names. Not so, here. As soon as the moment of astonishment is recorded, we briefly cut to the face of Faber, outside the office; then the scene is over. (Faber, it turns out, had been involved romantically with Jessica, in Brody's absence. He knows it's over now.) Word, word, expression, done.

The next scene is one in which the stunned wife (played by Morena Baccarin) comes home to tell her children (a son, 12, and a daughter, 17 going on 20) that their dad is not only alive after eight years of captivity but on his way home. This is a pretty important scene, right? It deserves a bit of drama. It's interesting to see how the show's writers (in this case, Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon, and Gideon Raff) handle it. They handle it by showing us 12-year-old Chris Brody playing Call of Duty on Xbox as Mom arrives home early from work. Finding Chris in front of the TV, she asks him "Where's your sister?" The boy acts confused/nervous and asks Mom why she's home early. Jessica says "I need to tell you both something very important."

The daughter, Dana, is upstairs. Jessica charges upstairs with Chris is tow. It turns out Dana is in her bedroom engaged in heavy petting with her boyfriend, Kyle. When Mom bursts in, the teens are buttoning their clothes.

How come you're not at work?

Jessica tries to keep her voice even.

How come I'm not at work? 
I hardly think that's the 
question here. Who's he?


Well, Kyle, it's nice to 
meet you. Now get out.

Dana nods to Kyle, dismissing him.

I'll call you later.

Kyle grabs his shoes, Jessica calling 
after him as he slinks out the door:

And you can tell your parents 
I'll be calling them too.

Why are you making such a 
big deal out of this?

Gee, Dana, I don't know. 
It's either the underage sex --

We didn't do anything, we 
were just fooling around --

Or the lying.

Mom . . .

(ignoring him)
All I'm asking for is a little 
respect, dammit. Not a lot. A little.



You said you had something 
important to tell us.

Jessica puts a hand to her mouth, shakes her head . . .

(suddenly concerned)
What is it, Mom? What's the matter?

ON Jessica, about to tell them . . .

Then we dissolve to the next scene (where Faber picks up the family to take them to Andrews Air Force Base to get Dad).

This is (of course) a classic example of leaving a scene early—way, wayyyy early. We don't even get to see Mom tell the kids Dad's coming home!

Nine out of ten writers would have had the mom sit on the bed with the kids and begin an ultra-dramatic dialog around Dad Coming Home. Tears would start to flow. Faces frozen in disbelief. "Mom, are you sure?" All that sort of thing.

None of that here. 

What was the scene about, then? It's about Sergeant Brody. It's about what the poor bastard missed while he was in a cave for eight years in Afghanistan. The little boy that was hardly out of diapers the last time he saw him is now playing photorealistic combat games on Xbox. The little girl who was 9 when he left is now a young woman with raging hormones. Brody has been robbed of the one thing no man ever wants to be robbed of: watching his kids grow up. The fact that his wife had a fling with another man suddenly pales in comparison. (Doesn't it?) You can rebuild a marriage. You can't roll back time.

It was a brilliant move by the writers.

Naturally, I have to ask you: What brilliant and daring choices are you making in your own writing? Are you giving in to the urge to show oh-so-moving scenes in luxurious detail, thinking you're doing the reader a favor? Are you laying a lot of predictable dialog on us when it's not really needed? Or are you letting the characters' actions and situations tell us things that 1,000 words of dialog couldn't possibly tell any better?

It's not just a matter of show versus tell. It's a matter showing just enough, just in time. It's the old less-is-more routine. Except, less may be much more than you think.

Food for thought. Munch on it.

The script for the pilot of Homeland is here. Season Three begins September 29 on Showtime. Old episodes are shown Friday nights all this month in the U.S. To view the premier episode of Season 2 online (free), try going here.