Justine: Five Weeks Analyzing Common Mistakes. Week 4: Make Something Happen

justine covington, chuck wendig, terriblemindsThree weeks ago, I introduced the five common mistakes writers make in their first few pages, which Chuck Wendig originally posted on his blog, terribleminds. He identified these mistakes after critiquing several writers’ WIPs while at the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference. I then applied #1: The First Page is Vital, #2: You’re Totally Overwriting, and #3: Character Above All Else to my current WIP.

This week is #4: Make Something Happen.

In his original post, Chuck said, “Your first page has bored me.” So we must endeavor to make it exciting by having our characters do something, not just sit around and talk (or, heaven forbid, think). However, he admits that this little piece of advice flies in the face of #3 regarding character, because how are you going to introduce character if you have to make something happen? What about world-building? Genre? Everything ELSE that should be on that first page.

Still, I get where he’s coming from. Readers don’t want lots of eloquent description, or backstory, or setup, or anything that slows them down from getting into the story (why didn’t I remember this when I WROTE my first page the first time?). Chuck emphasizes action, dialogue, action, dialogue, short description, then rinse and repeat. In other words, keep things going. We don’t necessarily need to start off with an explosion or anything (although that would definitely be getting into the heart of the action), but we can’t have our characters standing around talking about the weather, either.

So, here’s where I left off last week:

Susannah stood, speechless, in what used to be her father’s study. Out of habit, she fingered the small, gold watch she wore to remember her mother, but it was thoughts of her father that caused her stomach to clench. Gone were the intricately carved bookcases and her father’s beloved book collection. In its place was an assortment of animals, fierce-looking creatures that had been shot and stuffed, with teeth bared and claws out.

The changes to the study, however jarring, were not what left Susannah without words. It was the long, white gown on the dressmaker’s dummy in the middle of the room. Susannah stared at the dress and tried to breathe despite the heavy weight that pressed against her chest. She offered up a silent prayer that it was for a ball, then turned to her uncle and guardian, Jackson Humphries.

     “What is this? A welcome-home gift?” A small, strangled laugh escaped her throat.

     “Of sorts.” He smiled, but his gray eyes glinted steel. “You’ll wear it three weeks hence.”

The blood drained from Susannah’s face and she had to grab onto the back of a nearby chair for support. White dress. Three weeks. Oh my Lord, he’s marrying me off.

A scant second later, another thought, much more firm and resolute, filled Susannah’s head. Cheeks burning, she released the chair, squared her shoulders, and returned her uncle’s gaze measure for measure. In a strong, unwavering voice, Susannah issued a two-word challenge.

     “Make me.”

I’ve tried to cover numbers 1-3 in this one. We get a bit of character, it’s more direct, we know right off the bat what the uncle wants for Susannah and what she doesn’t want. But there really isn’t anything happening.

Since I started this five-week feature on Common Mistakes, I’ve gotten some feedback from the Royal Ascot and Virginia Writer’s Fool for Love contests. The most frequent comment I received is that the reader doesn’t know what Susannah’s goal is (she doesn’t want to marry). Okay, so now we know the goal. But why doesn’t she want to marry? In truth, it’s a pretty atypical attitude to have for someone in her time and of her age and station. I have to give the reader a clue as to why she’s so against it. Perhaps not on the first page, but it doesn’t hurt to try, and perhaps I can do that and make something happen at the same time.

Here’s my revision:

Susannah stood, speechless, in what used to be her father’s study, her stomach roiling. She instinctively reached for her talisman, the small, gold watch that once was her mother’s, as she took in the changes. Gone were the intricately carved bookcases and her father’s beloved book collection. In its place was an assortment of animals, fierce-looking creatures that had been shot and stuffed, with teeth bared and claws out.

But it wasn’t the changes to the study that left Susannah without words. It was the long, white gown on the dressmaker’s dummy in the middle of the room. Susannah tried to breathe despite the heavy weight that pressed against her chest. It’s for a ball, she chided herself. She turned to her uncle and guardian, Jackson Humphries.

     “What is this? A welcome-home gift?” A small, strangled laugh escaped her throat.

     “Of sorts.” He smiled, but his gray eyes glinted steel. “You’ll wear it three weeks hence.”

Susannah’s nostrils flared. White dress. Three weeks. He means to marry me off!

Almost instantly, Susannah was transported in her mind to her sister’s house in Jamaica, where she’d been living since her parents died. Visions of her sister, bruised and beaten by her husband, flooded her brain. The first time Susannah had seen her sister with strap marks on her back, she had vowed never to marry. Ever.

Susannah walked over to the dressmaker’s dummy, grabbed two handfuls of the delicate, white overdress and with all her might, tore the material in two. She spun around and glared at her uncle, who stood there agog.

     “No,” she said, her voice fierce and determined. “I will not.”

I don’t follow Chuck’s advice here on dialogue/action/dialogue/action, but I’m hoping I make up for that with the dress ripping. In fact, the dress ripping might be extreme, but I really have to get the point across that Susannah doesn’t want to marry. Talking is one thing, but it’s just talk. So why not have Susannah tear up the dress? (Her uncle actually does it to some of her clothes later on in retribution.) Plus, it ramps up the tension between Susannah and her uncle.

Perhaps I need to completely re-think this first page, too. What do you think?  And what are some good examples you have of the action taking off right from the get-go?

10 thoughts on “Justine: Five Weeks Analyzing Common Mistakes. Week 4: Make Something Happen

  1. One thing I struggle with is that “action” doesn’t have to be huge, broad, sweeping-the-room-with-machine-guns-or-dragon-fire somethings. You’ve got a big thing going on here just with this young miss defying her uncle.

    I’m not sure about the dress ripping part. You are making a promise to the reader, and if Susannah rips up a wedding dress in the first act, is she going to keep that mojo going — not only maintaining it, but escalating it? I think you may have gone too far . . . but then again, maybe you’ve got an arc in mind. It certainly is active.

    But even if it’s not going to stay in the book, just trying the experiment was valuable, I think. It’s very cool to watch you work through this checklist.

    It’s been a long time since I watched The Crying Game, but IIRC, that had an awful lot of action without a ton of backstory in the first five minutes. Raiders of the Lost Ark also started out with superior action — and the action was totally characterizing, too. Every thing Indy did illustrated his character — or at least one facet of it.

    • Michaeline, you make a good point about nowhere to go but up. If Susannah is going to be this determined here in the first scene, then I better be prepared to make her as determined (or more, really) throughout the rest of the book.

      I also like your point about experimenting. If nothing else, this exercise is giving me new ways to look at my first scene. If I combine that with some of the feedback I’ve gotten from contests (another comment was “don’t give everything away at the get-go,” which is valuable IMHO), then perhaps I hold back a bit here and save the dress-ripping for sometime later, like the end of the book when it seems she IS going to be married to the viscount.

    • Thank you, Kay. It’s kind of odd for me to think of how Susannah was at the beginning of this book (when I first started writing it). She was such a “woe is me, I need a man’s help” type character. Not anymore!

  2. I like the dress ripping, too! It is extreme, but it’s a strong response to an extreme action by scary uncle. Michaeline’s right, though, if these are the opening shots it does signal to the reader that it’s going to be one hell of a no-holds-barred battle. Excellent 🙂

  3. Hello – I’m loving this series Justine and it occurs to me that the issue here might be that Susannah only has a negative goal (I’m thinking of Jenny’s post a few weeks ago, that I’ve returned to time and again: http://www.arghink.com/2014/04/10/questionable-positive-and-negative-goals/). She doesn’t want to get married and that is her goal at the moment = negative. What you’ve added in strengthens her motivation (ie her sister’s marriage) but still doesn’t give us a clear idea about what Susannah’s strong positive goal is. Sorry, this is probably not helpful feedback, as I don’t have a solution!

    By the way, sorry for being absent for so long. I’d tried to pull back from contributing to blogs as didn’t feel I was adding much (as I don’t know much yet) and wanted to focus more on writing (I’ve just finished second draft and am now onto 3rd – out to first reader next week!)… but I’ve missed you all too much, so I hope you don’t mind me joining in again.

    • Welcome back, Rachel! We’ve missed you! Congrats on getting the second draft done and starting on the third. Jeez, I wish I was there!

      Glad you like the series. Susannah actually has a positive goal, I just don’t state it anywhere. 😦 Mentioning the negative thing is reminding me of that. Yes, she doesn’t want to get married. But what she really wants is to inherit her money (i.e., remain single for a few more weeks so she can do that on her 21st birthday), then move to the Continent to live as a happy spinster rather than a miserable wife.

      I had this issue of a negative goal from the get-go and the whole “get my $$ and get outta here” was the best I could come up with at the time (and still, I guess). I have had fleeting thoughts of Susannah wanting to inherit her money so she could return to Jamaica to save her sister, THEN go to the Continent (and it would actually feed into my next book really well, which is about her sister), but I haven’t spent too much time on that. It wouldn’t fundamentally alter my book if I were to change Susannah’s goal to help her sister…perhaps I should think on that some more.

      And your feedback is very helpful. Don’t ever feel that you have nothing to contribute. We’ve all enjoyed your comments and input. You’re a reader, too, and that helps us see our books as a reader would.

      • Thanks Justine 🙂 For me (and of course I’m saying this without knowing the whole story, so it could be rubbish in the context of the whole thing), the goal of saving her sister feels strong. It feels like something clear and tangible that the reader could grab hold of, and I love the hook into the next book. Looking forward to hearing the next lesson next week – the only sad thing is that will be 5/5 and I think this series has been great.

        • So this has been puttering around in my head since we talked about it yesterday and I think it’s a good goal for Susannah to have. It makes her very motivated to not get married to ANYONE. I will have to reconcile when she does finally marry, perhaps extracting a promise from Nate that they can get her sister as soon as they tie the knot.

          I’ve also had thoughts that perhaps Susannah doesn’t return because her uncle bids her to, she returns (as close as she can to her birthday) so she can finalize everything, move her funds where she needs to, and get the money/resources/whatever she needs to extract her sister from a less-than-pleasant situation. Of course, then I’ll need to work out why she’s staying with her uncle instead of staying with her friend, how he knew about her return, etc. More things to contemplate. Perhaps it would be better if she returned because her uncle made her, but Susannah intends all along to just sit out the time she needs to in England before she can leave again.

          Hmmm…lots of thinking to do. Ideas welcome!

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