Last week I attended an online workshop presented by Middle Grade and YA author Jen Malone on the topic of Show Don’t Tell.
The class focused on opening scenes, and how to write them in a way that provides enough information for your readers to understand what’s going on without drowning them in backstory. Following are a couple of gems I gleaned from the class.
First, a handy little rule of thumb for gauging the balance between showing and telling in your first scene. If you’re not sure if it’s too heavy on the telling, try visualizing it as a movie opening. If you need a voice-over to get through the scene, you’re telling too much.
The other thing she said that really struck me was to envision your main character the way you want them to be at the end of the story and then create a first scene that portrays the character as the opposite of that.
That was fairly easy to do for Lilith, my protagonist, because she’s a familiar character from my previous two books. The character I’ve been struggling with is Samael, Lilith’s ex-husband and the head of Hell’s legal department (i.e. the devil’s advocate).
I knew some of his character traits: ambitious, competitive (every lawyer I’ve ever met is over-the-top competitive) and a mind like a steel trap. But I couldn’t figure out what this would look like in my opening scene.
So, I tried out her method. At the end of the story, I want him to be:
- Willing to give up being a power in Hell
- Willing to lose if it will give him the life he wants
- In touch with his emotions and able to recognize that not all choices can be made strictly via logic
Which means at the beginning I want to portray him as:
- Ruthlessly logical
This may not sound like much, but now that I know how to portray him in that opening scene, I feel like I have a much better handle on it.
What tricks do you use to help you get started?
I have a real problem with writing character arcs. Often, characters don’t change much in my stories — they just get what they wanted at the beginning. This sounds like a great second-draft technique for me — one of my WIPs does involve character arcs, so once I know where I want my character to be at the end of the arc, I can try shaping the character at the beginning.
Character arc was one thing we didn’t talk much in our McDaniel class. Some of it’s intuitive but figuring out how to tie it to the action plot arc can be challenging.
I learned about the opposite beginning/ending during the writer’s cruise I did last year. Alexandra Sokoloff talked a lot about it. A good example of this is the movie Gravity…Sandra Bullock starts off in the beginning as this tiny thing floating through the vastness of space, but at the end, when [spoiler alert] she’s miraculously made it back to earth, there’s an amazing shot of her rising like Goliath out of the sand. It’s extremely powerful.
Thinking about the beginning and ending in terms of opposites really helped me figure out the ending of my second book (which I haven’t written yet, but I know exactly what it’s going to be). It’s nice when you go into writing (the beginning or the ending) with a clear picture in mind.
Yes, it is! This is one of the handiest shortcuts I’ve come across in a while.
PS, I absolutely love “the devil’s advocate!”
If I ever get around to writing again, I’ll use this. I keep meaning to pull my WIP out and dive back in but work has been CRAZY during this pandemic and I haven’t been able to. I thought working from home would allow me to get a lot of things done around the house. Not so much – actually, not at all.
I understand. I’ve been challenged and I don’t even have a job.