Yesterday on Romance University, I blogged about the first meetings between heroes and heroines in romance novels. This post has sparked a lot of commentary both on their blog and behind the scenes. (Re: commenting on their blog -- one commenter will win a spot in Alicia's character workshop in October. Go over there and wave at me to enter. You want to take Alicia's class if you can, and you won't be entered in the drawing if you email me instead.)
There were several common concerns raised in the comments, and one of them is troublesome enough for most writers that I thought we might do a piggyback post here.
When Should They Meet?
There's been some pressure on romance writers to get the hero and heroine together on page one, or as close to page one as possible. Writers resist this, sometimes with good reason, but I thought it might help to examine the mechanics behind this advice. There are, I think, three reasons this has become an issue.
First, if you read any amount of slush, you quickly discover that most unpublished novels have absolute crap for a first page. Sorry to be so blunt, but -- well, no, actually I'm not sorry. This is the reality of the industry, and we all must face that reality. Most first pages are relentless crap. Sometimes this is because they are made of crap all the way through, and the first page is merely representative of the general quality of the text. But sometimes it's because the writer can't wrangle the opening. Openings are hard, yo.
Whenever I encounter a crappy first page, I flip to a random page later on and do a spot-check for writing quality. So yeah, okay, a crappy first page is a survivable slush offense if the inside pages check out. But do this for 98 out of every 100 manuscripts at a rate of, oh, around 300 manuscripts per week for a few years in a row, and what happens?
You get crazy sick of bad openings. And you start going to writers conferences and sitting at the podium and begging authors to get to the conflict already, put the hero and heroine together quickly, knock off the wheel-spinning on first pages and just tell the story already. And then next thing you know, writers are telling each other that the hero and heroine have to be together on the first page, which is a great idea, but it's not exactly what set you off to begin with. But you don't dispute it because, hey, if they get the hero and heroine together on page one, that would probably eliminate a lot of really dreadful exposition openings in the slush pile. Or not. But either way, the advice is out there and it won't do any more or less damage than most of the advice floating around the writersphere.
So that's the first reason: most manuscripts have really dreadful first pages, and the cumulative effect of this is a combination of editorial ennui and twitchiness.
The second reason has to do with what makes them dreadful. This is a little harder to explain because the specifics vary from manuscript to manuscript, but the end result is always the same. The end result is that the story doesn't engage -- and by "engage," I mean both that "this is interesting" and "shift into gear and go, man, go."
There can be many causes for a lack of engagement, but the more common ones tend to revolve around the same ideas: too much set-up, undercutting conflicts in advance, heavy use of exposition (or any use of exposition, really), and misunderstanding what constitutes "ordinary world" in the storytelling sense. The bottom line, though, is that all this reads like wheel-spinning, like an author unsure of where the story starts, even like an author distrustful of the reader's ability to follow the text.
"But-but-but," writers say, "I neeeeeeed my ordinary world. I neeeeeed my exposition. I neeeeeeed to explain that the heroine visited this very same hospital in 1993 with a sprained ankle, or else how will they understand why she knows that the ER is on the south side of the building? And the reader has to know that she's 5'8" and blonde and has eyes like emerald chips in a stormy ocean so that they can visualize what's happening when they X-ray her lungs. And that backpack full of schoolbooks she's carrying? OMG, have to explain that RIGHT NOW so the reader UNDERSTANDS who she IS as a PERSON."
Right. Or not. Actually, not. See, we form an understanding of a character by watching that character in action. Other material -- props, backstory, and the like -- are merely supplemental to this core understanding. So if you spend all the first few pages explaining this supplemental stuff without letting us see the character in action, we're getting the sauce but not the meat. Sauce is yummy, but it can't sustain us. Or our reader's interest.
So, reason one, piles of crappy first pages. Reason two, crappiness tends to result from too much ketchup, not enough cutlet. And here's reason three: it's all about the conflict, or it should be.
When does the romantic conflict start? Is it when her heart is broken by a past lover who left her at the altar in 1993, resulting in her running through the woods and spraining her ankle and needing a trip to the ER in her bridal gown? Uh, no. That might be fun backstory, but the romantic conflict doesn't exist until the hero appears before her. THEN she is torn between her emotional isolation and her raging lust for the new guy. Not one second before then.
Or, as I've said more than once in the past 24 hours, who cares if he's allergic to okra unless she's an okra farmer?
But let's take it one step more. Let's compare the sequential unfolding of two possible okra openings.
Okra Opening One:
Meet Lucas. Lucas is OMGhot and he rides a motorcycle but not in that icky dirty biker way. More like in a cool and powerful way. He's never been married but he did love one girl for a long time until she died of some tragic and thoroughly researched illness. He still misses her and thinks he sees her reflection in windows sometimes at night, but then he just puts away the whiskey bottle and returns to his hobby of welding sculptures of giant fish in his garage. Also, he's allergic to okra.
Now meet Jayde. Jayde had a seekrit crush on Lucas when she was a little girl and he was a teenager and he was dating her babysitter. Her babysitter who died later of a tragic and thoroughly researched illness, which is different from the tragic and thoroughly researched illness that claimed her parents and left her an orphan with a struggling okra farm, which is super important to her because it's her legacy.
Lucas, meet Jayde. Again. In the local pub in town on a rainy Tuesday night when he can't get on his bike and she just came from the cemetery. Too bad about the okra thing, eh.
Okra Opening Two:
Scene: a dark, mostly empty bar on a rainy Tuesday night. The soft sound of pool balls clicking over the croon of an old Patsy Cline song on the jukebox, someone's idea of irony. Lucas sits at the bar in a wet leather jacket, nursing a whiskey, avoiding the sight of the windows.
Enter Jayde, cool and withdrawn and hoping a drink will keep her that way. She grabs a stool down the bar from the hot guy hunched over his drink. Hot, yeah, but he only gives her the briefest glance. That's when she recognizes him. Slides down a couple stools.
"Lucas?" Her heart ka-bump, ka-bumps. "Lucas, is that you?"
He nods, sips, sets his glass down. Makes her wait for it. "Yup."
Hummanah hummanah. She shouldn't, she really shouldn't, but she slides down two more stools. "I'm Jayde, remember, little Jayde all grown up now ...
(insert more witty dialogue and action)
... and I run my parents okra farm now."
Nod. Sip. Set glass down. "I'm allergic to okra."
It just has more impact when it's revealed at a relevant moment. If you "set it up" by explaining the okra thing in advance, the bar scene loses impact.
We can all see that, right?