Monday, August 15, 2005

Tips for Writers Monday: Taking that First Scene up a Notch

Today's tips revolve around that ever important first scene (but can be applied to all scenes).

Okay, you've finished your first scene. You feel like it grabs the reader's attention, sets up the story nicely and has the perfect tone for the story. Before you move on, go back to the scene and fill in these questions:

1) What is predictable in this scene? (You have to answer this. I promise you that SOMETHING in this scene is predictable). Some hints: is your character responding predictably? Is the result of their actions predictable? Is the obstacle that appears predictable? Is the setting predictable? Is the conclusion of the scene predictable? What about the cliff hanger? Read the scene five times and I promise you'll see things each time that you hadn't seen on the last pass.

2) What is cliche about this scene? By "cliche," I'm not talking about "dead as a doornail." I'm referring to larger picture cliches about your characters, your story, your setting, etc. Some hints: is your hero a cop who gets in a fight with his mean boss? Does the heroine worry that she's fat? Does your hero comfort your heroine with a squeeze of her arm? What have you written that you've seen in other stories? Again, you will have to dig deep and go through the scene more than once before the cliches show up. Since this is the first scene, really pay attention to the characters as you are setting them up. What is cliche about your characters? Don't give up until you find yourself able to list some answers to this question.

3) What is unsafe about this scene? In order to create tension, something about the scene needs to be "unsafe," creating an element of unpredictability, of danger, or risk (this applies even in a romantic comedy). If the heroine is sitting in her living room with her best friend complaining about work while they sip lattees, there's not a lot of tension. But what if you have her whispering in the break room at work, knowing that her boss might walk around the corner? Still not super exciting, but the tension has ratcheted up a notch. What if her boss is looking for a reason to fire her, so if he finds the heroine whispering about him, she'll lose her job? More tension. What if the heroine just took out a second mortgage on her home and will lose her house if she can't make the payments? Even more at stake. What if her boss is also her ex-boyfriend and her friend is a very hot guy that her boss is insanely jealous of, and if she knows the boss catches them together, he'll make life hellish for her best friend as well? Hmm... Suddenly alot more things are at stake, but you kept the basic concept of two friends complaining about work. Keep building and building until your simple scene is suddenly loaded with page turning tension. Like the first two tips, you'll have to keep revising what you've done a number of times, because each time through you'll see something you haven't noticed before. Sometimes it takes me three or four passes before I even see ANYTHING that needs fixing.

Look at your scene and decide what's important. Is the important part that the heroine and the roommate are bonding? Or that something is tough at work? Or that they are in their living room? Keep the important part, and then shift the setting to a less safe place. And "safety" is dependent on the heroine's point of view. A rock climber might find hanging upside off a cliff to be a non-threatening situation. But that same rock climber might have a phobia about crowds, so stick her in the middle of a commuter train at rush hour being jostled by a bunch of strangers. She's tense and we're worried about her well-being, and that adds tension to the scene.

Obviously, you can't do this level of review for every scene, but the more you can do it, the more you will start to see your patterns and the more you will instinctively look at scenes and know what needs to be done to amp it up.


At 7:41 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Great points, Steph.

At 7:11 AM, Anonymous Esri/Kiki said...

Fabulous craft article, and so true. I hate looking closely at my stuff to find the cliches, but there's always something.


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