“Today, you write,” I said to Sally as she plunked down her bag. She appeared frazzled today, her blonde hair pulled back into a frizzy ponytail, and she wasn’t wearing makeup.
“Good, because I need some writing therapy,” she said as she sat down on the chair. “After week with the kids home from school, it’s time to escape. In fact, I might have already started.” She handed me four pages of her manuscript. “It’s the first scene.”
I scanned it. “No, it’s not,” I said. “It’s a smattering if the first scene and a lot of backstory,” I handed it back to her. “But it’s a great start. And you’ve done what I would have suggested you do – sit down and start writing that first scene. I expected you to do just this – start telling the story, loaded in with backstory and narrative about your hero.”
“But isn’t that information important? Like knowing where he went to college, and his job, and why he went into the military, and how he wants to be a doctor, but he can’t afford the training, so he is a medic?”
“Yes, it’s important…later in the story. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today – delivering your hero or heroine to the page in a way that makes them seem alive and three-dimensional. Your goal here is to let your character walk onto the page fully formed, thinking and acting as if you suddenly dropped in on him in the middle of his day.
“Consider this. I saw you walk into today, and even though I didn’t know what your life was like this week, your demeanor and appearance told me you’d had a rough week. If I were writing this, in your POV, I might have said. “She just wanted one hour without the kids hanging on her. Sally slid into the chair at the coffee table and managed to untangle her bag from her shoulder, realizing she still had enough kid supplies to last her and her brood stranded by the side of the road for a week. Real business-like. She’d have to figure out how to balance her four kids, a tired husband and her decade long hope of being published. She slid into the chair and took out her notebook, pushing away the thought of the mounds of laundry at home. For this hour, her time belonged to her.”
“That sounds about right.”
“Now, if you were a reader, you’d know a few things about Sally. She is married, her kids demand a lot from her, and she has some conflicting values between writing and mothering. We also know that she is pursuing a life-long dream. We don’t really need to know any more than that – and it’s told through her eyes as she walks in. I can teach you some storyworld techniques later to layer in her emotion, but for now, think of it like this.
As you walk into the scene, you’re in your character’s head. Everything your characters sees, thinks, and feels filters through her POV. Your job as the author is simply to BE that character. Don’t tell us what the character is thinking, just think it. Don’t tell us what they feel, just react to it. Open your mouth and speak and let the character come alive.
“Think about it; do you know someone from their bio, or from experience the journey with them? This is what you’re offering your reader as you open your story – a taste of the journey and an invitation to come along.
“You’ll give them a hint at what is at stake, and the kind of person they’ll spend time with, and even the goal and main problem you want to solve, but that’s all. Don’t bog us down with a bio about your character and who he is – which is what you wrote in this first scene – get us into the story.
“Here’s a tip – if you feel you have to write the bio for the sake of understanding the character, that’s fine. Just start the story in chapter two, then file chapter one in the “for the author only” file. Your story starts when your character stops explaining who he is and what he’s done to this point and gets up and begins to engage in the journey.”
She nodded. “I think I get it.”
“Now here’s a few things you need to get across in the first chapter. First, we need to know who your character is – and what I mean by that is, what is personality is, what he believes about himself, and life, and what he wants. You do this through his mannerisms, what he says, what he thinks and how he treats the situation he is in. This is showing and is the best way to get the story across. Oh, and don’t make him perfect – he has to have a flaw and a fear is he is going to be real. Something that comes from his dark moment, and fueled by his greatest fear. By the way – you need to do the same thing with the heroine.”
She was looking at her manuscript, circling things, crossing out others. “I think I understand. It’s like I’m just starting the story on the day of his life, cutting into the action, not introducing him like he was speaking at a seminar and then opening the story.”
“Yes. Remember, you’ve already done the hard work of character creation – figuring out their identity, their dark wound, their happiest moment, and all the added character elements about him. Now, you just need to let him walk onto the page. Next week, we’ll talk about the two different kind of romance structure. Now….go write.”
Truth: Your character needs to walk onto the page without any backstory baggage to get the story going quickly, and you do this best by getting in the skin of your character.
Dare: Try writing the scene without any backstory at all. When you’re finished, hand it to a friend and only answer the backstory questions they have at the end with some line of inner thought or dialogue information.
Tomorrow I’ll give you a little trick (or challenge) to helping your character be unique from all his friends on the page!
P.S. Would you like 24-hour all access to the Team Member Locker room and all the perks of the MBT Team Membership? Sign up for Thursday night’s MBT Open House and get the next 24 hours free! Sign up HERE and you’ll get your access registration link on Thursday morning.