THE BEST TIME TO ENTER A SCENE IS WHEN THE ICE IS ABOUT TO BE BROKEN
Richard Price was the first writer I remember saying, “you want to enter a scene as late as possible.” In movies, you don’t see someone entering a convenience store, shopping for their Fritos, Gatorade, Twinkies, going to the register, pulling out their ATM card, then finding out their card is declined. The character is already at the register, waiting for their card to process with Fritos, Gatorade and Twinkies at hand. Because, like Blake Snyder says, movies are an aggressive medium.
But “entering a scene as late as possible” is still too vague to me. You can enter the convenience store with the ATM card already declined. But then you’d miss out on this character’s reaction or the suspense of the card going through. The scene would lose the human thing. Sometimes, as Hitchcock preaches, you want to stretch out a scene, but where do you begin without boring people to death?
Your character could be on the phone, shopping for his crap, talking to his wife, and she could tell him, “boy, I hope your card goes through.” In denial, our character could boldly proclaim, “it’ll go through.” But you can see in his eyes, he’s nervous. His walk all the way to the cash register could be the scariest moment in movie history. And we would not be entering the scene as late as possible, because… this is when the ICE IS ABOUT TO BE BROKEN. That’s precisely when you enter a scene.
Think about any scene in any great movie. Regardless of genre. Jerry Maguire’s “Show Me The Money.” Chinatown’s “she’s my mother… she’s my sister.” The Godfather Part II’s “It’s an abortion, Michael!” These great moments were so powerful precisely because the ICE WAS ABOUT TO BE BROKEN when the scene began. And then it broke, smashed into splinters right in front you. And you experienced something you never forgot. Like it happened to you. This is an emotion I almost never feel in today’s movie experience. But it can be fixed easily. By respecting Maxim #3. The best time to enter a scene is when the ice is about to be broken. About to be. Not while it breaks. Not after it breaks. While its ABOUT TO BE.
Kramer Vs. Kramer is one of the greatest films that almost exclusively enters a scene when the ice is about to broken. Literally every scene, you can feel the ice crackling, melting, and smashing. From the very opening, the ice cubes are in trouble.
Take any scene from Robert Benton’s Maxim #3 Masterpiece. Dustin Hoffman is hanging out at the office late while his wife is leaving him. The ice cubes are terrified. Dustin Hoffman cooks french toast for his kid. The ice cubes are shitting their pants. Dustin Hoffman demands that his kid does not eat the ice cream. The ice cubes are begging for mercy. Please, no more, Mr. Hoffman, Mr. Benton! But Kramer Vs.Kramer keeps going. And going. And going. It’s like the Spanish Inquisition of ice cubes.
Even seemingly banal scenes where Hoffman is hanging out with his friend and life descends into hell… when his boy falls off the jungle gym. This movie is abusive… like you know, the experience of divorce. So, forget the entering a scene as late possible. Definitely stay focused on when to enter a scene. You do want to err on entering later, but focus on when THE ICE is ABOUT to be broken and you will create something beautiful because it will have that human thing. And don’t forget to convert all that crushed ice into a delicious margarita after… of course with salt on the wounds, I mean, rim.
Written by: Norith Soth