Last week, I wrote about reworking an important scene that provided a mini-turning point in the middle of Act I to propel the action forward to the bigger turning point at the end of the Act. This past week, my biggest writing accomplishments was reworking the very first scene of the book. Again. For the hundredth time, or at least it feels that way. It probably won’t be the last rewrite of my story opening, either. And that’s okay, because it’s difficult to overstate the importance of that first scene.
As we discussed many times in our McDaniel classes and on this blog, the first scene has a lot of heavy lifting to do. It introduces the reader to your characters, their world, their issues. It conveys information that will be crucial to future scenes and acts. It plants seeds – seeds of doubt, suspicion, hope, questioning, caring. It should also establish genre, setting, voice, tone, and at least some hint of the conflict that will dog your protagonist for the rest of the book. Oh, yeah, and there’s that thing about a scene being a unit of conflict, so you’ll need a protagonist, an antagonist, a goal, blocks to the goal, and throw in some escalation for good measure.
Why on earth would someone try to get all of that into one scene? Because that first scene is, as our mentor Jenny Crusie described it, the ‘invitation to the party’ that is your book. You want people to like your party, to stick around and enjoy themselves, and to come to the next party you throw.
Given all that’s expected of a first scene, it’s a wonder we ever get past it. But here’s the good (and the bad) news: once that first scene is on paper, you can back to it as often as you need to tweak, update, revise, or even scrap and restart the whole thing. I typically do that last one, often multiple times.
This WIP was no exception. In fact, it was my worst one yet (I hope this will not be a trend). I made every mistake my subconscious could conjure. I had come a long way over the many revisions of that scene. I’d eliminated head-hopping (it was not intended to be head-hopping, it just turned out that way), had moved away from the wrong protagonist (who was not only NOT the main protag but is also drunk in the first scene, so an unreliable narrator), had established a goal, and set up an antagonist and conflicts to block it. And still that damn scene demanded more attention.
I started at the same place with this scene as I did with my linchpin scene – by identifying desire, action, conflict and change. Once again, establishing actions was the hardest part. And I still have all three protagonists in the scene even though there is only one POV, so each of them needed her own actions and movement within the scene. To help me keep track, I gave each character her own color of sticky note and wrote each of her actions on a sticky note. I added a fourth color for the sole purpose of identifying must-have information I needed to convey in this scene because later parts of the story wouldn’t make sense without it. The first picture in this post shows that first pass.
The next step was to arrange those actions in ways that made sense, showed action and reaction, and allowed for escalation. This was incredibly helpful. I threw out some actions that didn’t make sense and added some others. I arranged them in order of occurrence so I could see how the beats laid out and whether each beat escalated the conflict in the scene. (I used a portable side table for this so I had the option of working in different rooms or on the back deck).
Then I added in the information in places where it would make sense to reveal it, leading to the final picture. I wish I could say that was it, I’d solved all the problems! But I hadn’t. I had actions, beats, and information – all of which were important – but no escalation. So I went back to a tried and true favorite tool, the conflict box. This one got so complex, I couldn’t do it in a Word table and had to build it in an Excel file.
Finally, after two days of digging through the toolbox, trying multiple tools, and pulling all the results together, I was ready to rewrite the scene. This time, I didn’t close the existing document and write from scratch; there really was good stuff in that much rewritten scene that I didn’t want to lose. But I did print it out and mark it up in hard copy, scribbling new passages on the backs of pages and using arrows and carrots and cross-outs.
I doubt it will be the last time I revise this scene. I’ll be submitting Act I to beta readers and critique partners this week, and they’re bound to have lots of great suggestions for improving it. And I’ll post it here on 8LW next week so you can tell me what you think of it. Please consider sending positive vibes into the universe for me – I’ll need them for the next revision of that &$*@^!# scene (and wine and chocolate and probably some bourbon, but no need to send those – I’ve already stocked up!).