Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Piggyback Post: When Should They Meet?

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First, if you read any amount of slush, you quickly discover that most unpublished novels have absolute crap for a first page.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?



Jessica Silva said...

Saw it, and filed the contents.

I may be wrong or slightly off, but I feel like this kind of plays into the show-don't-tell phenomenon. If you tell the readers all about your characters before they even speak, then you're totally selling them short. If you show readers all about your characters, it's an exploratory journey from start to finish.

Still, sometimes I find myself focused too much on what I want to show about them instead of just writing it how I see it. I'm not sure how much awareness of what I'm writing when I'm still writing a first draft...

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

This post just went into my Favorites list. Today I revised my first chapter, cutting words and moving backstory much later, in order to make my inciting incident begin in the first 400 words (it's not romance, so no meet to be found). Now I understand *why* I did all that work, and will go back and tweak it again. Thanks!

Julie Harrington said...

Thank God this topic is being discussed! Thank you, thank you! And all this from one itty question on first meets. LOL.

I totally agree with column. I do. In fact following this advice has, I believe, fixed a problem with a story opening that I've been fighting with for months now (I've walked away from the story for months and revised it 4 times). I'm no editor but I've read a ton of stories with bad openings. Boring openings. Openings that do nothing, say nothing, tell you everything before the story actually (really) starts. I've done some of those bad openings myself. I think one of the most important things mentioned in the column is "...undercutting conflicts in advance." Part the clouds, release the doves, let the sun shine in YES!

I don't want to know if a character was in the hospital back in 1993. I don't need to know her entire back history before the two characters meet. Start the frelling story.


My problem/question always pops up when the author ISN'T using their opening like this. It's not full of backstory and they're not telling you about the dog the hero had when he was 8 and how he (the hero, not the dog) went off to college to study woodworking and then sawed off his thumb, cutting that career short before returning to his home town 15 years later to finally meet the heroine at the car wash.

No. Their characters are in motion. They're in the here and now. They might even be in the same room, but perhaps unaware of each other. A whisper of a plot gets introduced, a hint of conflict (maybe a business man finding out that will that left him everything was amended before the company owners death was changed. Uh oh), the author is showing, not telling, introducing a question in the readers mind, etc, etc, etc, and what does a crit group come back with? "No, this isn't right because the heroine and hero don't meet until page X." It's like you can have no "today, in the here and now" character action/introduction other than when the hero slams into the heroine and spills champagne all over her dress. No. Literally. That's it. Bam! Oops! First line of the story. We don't know anything about them other than he apparently doesn't watch where he's going.

I mean how compelling can an opening be when you don't know anything about the characters? Okay, sure, we might find out there's sexual chemistry, but if you don't have any framework whatsoever for the hero OR heroine before they literally collide.... no framework for the story, no idea of the conflict, and the author throws them together on page 1, line 1... how is that interesting?

I get the advice in this blog entry and I *totally* agree with it, but I think newbie writers - especially ones getting feedback from people who can't tell the difference between back story and narration or scene details (that patsy cline on the jukebox and those pool balls clinking) to set the scene -- are going to be mighty mighty confused for a while.

And I probably slaughtered trying to explain what I'm trying to say. *sigh* :( Hopefully this reads as English to somebody. LOL.


Edittorrent said...

JT, the trick is to do it really well. :) I had a book where the hero and heroine didn't meet until page 65 (life was slower in the 90s) and I like the way it opens (lots of action). But I do suspect that it doesn't fulfill what it promises in the open, that it'll be an adventure novel.

I think if you don't get the story conflict going quick, you have to keep the reader's interest without the story conflict, and that took more skill than I had. It really would have made a good heist book,though. :)

Julie Harrington said...

Introducing the story conflict as soon as possible is totally important, ITA, after all, that's what propels everything forward and keeps people turning the page. It just seems like (and this stems more from my comments at the RU than anything here) feedback on chapters and contest feedback from readers/other unpublished writers is taking that "have to meet right away" advice and almost making it become a.... you can't include ANYTHING about the characters *before* the instant they meet or that's backstory or unnecessary "setup."

I've seen books where hero and heroine do meet almost right away (a page or two into a story or even page 1) but I've seen tons, too, where your introduces to the heroine, introduced to the hero, then they meet (usually still in chapter 1) but it seems now like the popular comment for that is "your characters meet too late."

So I think I'm trying to find a mental balance between what the advice actually IS vs. what it's being interpreted as meaning, if that makes sense. :)


Jordan said...

Different question: why does the okra set up not work? Because an okra allergy (or other internal barrier to love) is extraneous and difficult to illustrate without a.) dropping it in there completely unnecessarily (This is Jim. Distrusts all women named Marie.), b.) making it really obvious that this is either set up or the author is an idiot, or c.) both?

I mean, it's obvious that this example doesn't work.... Okay, I can't think of a hypothetical, so I'll use a real example.

Scene 1 (actually, page one, line one): Priest is murdered. We're in the parish secretary's head.

Scene 2: FBI agent gets final approval from archbishop to pose as late priest's replacement.

Scene 3 (back to secretary): They meet. He's handsome. I mean, totally off-limits. But still hot.

This way, we do set up the conflict before it actually starts. Before, I didn't have scene 2, and readers didn't find out the priest wasn't really a priest until they'd already met him as a priest. It was too confusing. I think this way works (I've won a contest with it, anyway, and the previous version without scene 2 only confused people). Does that fall under the same category as our okrazample? If not, how is it different?

Oh, this reminds me of another issue. I had some feedback once on a first chapter that the characters should have dreams and aspirations. That's great advice, but if we're trying to "engage," as you put it, how much can we really stuff in the first 3000 words?

Julie Harrington said...

There ya go, what Jordan said! LOL. Good example of what I'm trying to say, Jordan. TY!


Jen said...

Great follow-up post, thank you. Your example at the end really illustrated the importance of getting to the action - and how to get there.

Edittorrent said...

@Jessica Lei, Yes, "show don't tell" comes into play here. But sometimes we get beautifully rendered opening scenes - actual scenes - that are still the wrong scenes.


Edittorrent said...

@JT I really, really wish people would stop listening to contest judges. But that's a whole 'nother rant.

IMO, the new will scenario works if the new will forms the external conflict and leads to the romantic conflict. (If she is the new beneficiary, for example, this would work.)


Edittorrent said...

@Jordan, Your first two scenes as described accomplish two plot purposes: they set the external conflict and initiate the romantic conflict. Structurally, this is fine -- that is, they work as described, but I can't tell if they work as written without seeing the actual writing. It's entirely possible that "meet early" feedback is an attempt to overcome some other problem in the text.

The okra set-up doesn't work because, first, the opening bits aren't scenes, and second, they do a whole lot of wrong things that damage the impact of the real scene when at last we reach it.


Julie Harrington said...

"IMO, the new will scenario works if the new will forms the external conflict and leads to the romantic conflict. (If she is the new beneficiary, for example, this would work.)"
~ Theresa

Which is exactly what the heroine's function would be the beneficiary, that is). Okay I totally get what you're saying now. Makes crystal clear sense to me. It's the interpretation by the writers that seems off. Okay. Cool.

Oh, and this?

Ah ha! Okay this answers the question/confusion I was getting. :) Thank you, Theresa!

"@JT I really, really wish people would stop listening to contest judges. But that's a whole 'nother rant."
~ Theresa

Lordy, too true. I'm not a contest girl. Not really and I always thought I was strange because I seem to be in the majority on that one. I've done the Golden Heart and recently entered a few contests (like, 2) because I'm dabbling in a new sub genre and have been curious to see what people think. But on a whole, the experience has been mixed and wind up thinking wtf? and doing what I want anyway. LOL. Nobody can ever agree on anything. One judge says one thing, one just says another. One likes one thing, one hates it. One scores it high, the other tanks it. Seems all it does is confuse you.

Anyway, going back to Jordan's example and Theresa's answer... so there's a difference being drawn here between needless backstory and setup vs. plot purposes of setting external conflict and initiating the romantic conflict. THAT makes this much, much clearer. So TY to both of you for those examples and explanations. Very much appreciated.


Jennifer Joseph said...

ZOMG that was hilarious! You had me at okra farm. Okay, not really. I ran across your blog by chance and will be browsing the archives whenever I have free time.

Thanks for the laugh and the great examples!


Jordan said...

Thanks so much, Theresa! Good to know that it can work, and the difference!

(Totally agree on the contest judges thing! I'm with you, JT—even though I've now won a contest, I still don't like them.)

Anonymous said...

Oh, now I know what I've been missing the last month or so -following the inspiring advice you and Alicia provide.

The okra farm really works! Gotta make it black and white for the lesson to sink in with me, lol.

BTW - have you seen the latest BBC production of Emma? Talk about when the hero should meet the heroine ;)

Eva Gale said...

this one is brillinat-okra farming? hummanah? I love it. Yes, the explanation, too.