Why writing the first scene is like surviving a first date…
You wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for your next novel. You mull it over for a few weeks and realize that yes, in fact, this is an idea to which you can dedicate the next 1-2 years of your life. Characters start invading your every thought. Snippets of dialog come to you at awkward times (like when you’re doing dishes and don’t want to ruin your laptop with wet hands.) You and the fates have decided – it is time to write a novel.
You spend the next few months researching. At the end of it all, you have an arsenal of scene ideas, some decent plot points, and a slew of character sketches. Your main character has taken over your every thought. It’s finally time to start writing. Now is the time to take a deep breath because things are about to get complicated and messy. You’ve arrived at the first date with your novel.
When you’ve been married fifteen years like I have, it’s hard to remember what a first date feels like. But let’s take a trip back in time and reminisce about the complicated world of first dates and how eerily similar they can be to penning that very first scene in your novel.
- Awkward introductions. Finally, you open your laptop, fill your coffee mug, and commit to staying put until you have the first scene on paper. Your fingers perch above the keyboard. This shouldn’t be a problem. You’ve been living with this character in your head for weeks. You know his hopes and fears, his favorite food and where he went on his summer vacation. BUT, you’ve never actually met him. When you finally start to type, nothing comes out but, “Hi.” and then an endless stream of babble, “My name is Sara and I’m going to attempt to be witty and deep when I describe everything about you to other people. So let’s get started.” You can actually see your character rolling his eyes at you from the page as you attempt to pick words that are fitting enough to describe this badass bounty hunter from Sheboygan, Wisconsin (or whoever your character might be.)
My freshman year in college, a friend set me up with a guy she had known for years. I didn’t know the guy, but I’d heard good things. I sat in my dorm room mulling over what to wear and what to say when he knocked on my door. You must understand that I went to college back when Abercrombie and Fitch was marketing size X-Large to everyone. Every morning I wrapped my 5’3″/115 lb. frame in yards of flannel that Abercrombie swore was “just the right size” for me. My roommate told me that since this was a blind date, I needed to forego the flannel for something more feminine. However, it was quite likely, given the small size of my university, that my blind date had seen me strolling across campus in my masculine shirt at least a few times. So I flippantly threw on my most formal lumberjack shirt and spent the next hour stewing about what I could possibly say to impress this guy on our first date. When I opened the door, we both looked expectantly at each other and mumbled, “Hi.” Then he launched into a 25-minute diatribe about all of his professors, people in his classes, what he had eaten for lunch. When he finally came up for air, I said the first thing that came into my mind… “Oh.” And then I curled up inside my flannel pillowcase of a shirt and wanted to die. Talk about awkward introductions!
- What did you say? You’ve made it past the opening line and your badass bounty hunter starts tossing matches in the toilet at an abandoned truck stop. He’s telling you all about his mark (the bounty) – a one-eyed pageant winner from Jamaica whose father is on the International Olympic Committee and wants to do away with ping pong as a sanctioned Olympic sport. Powerful ping pong sponsors from Australia want the pageant winner “eliminated” to send a message to her ping-pong hating father. Not a bad story, eh? The problem is that you’re not listening. You’re too busy trying to be poetic – droning on about the hypnotic ripples that each match makes as it hits the putrid toilet water. You’re so caught up in this description that you’re not paying attention to these plot twists your character (who has been waiting for weeks to jump out of your head and talk to you) is throwing your way.
Ever feel that way on your first date? Your date starts tearing up, telling you all about his cousin who was held hostage by crazed inmates during her stint as a prison lunch lady. You’re too busy thinking about what you can say to impress him that you aren’t listening to his story. You interrupt him, blurt out something about your favorite lunch lady in middle school and then the conversation goes silent. “What were you saying?” you say, desperately trying to get the conversation back on track. Your date wipes his eyes and glances desperately at the clock on the other side of the room. You’ve blown it. The conversation has screeched to a halt, and your date, who was pouring his heart out to you, is looking for a quick exit because you were too interested in your own agenda to listen to his. You were half-listening, right? You got the lunch lady part. But how much more interesting would your date have been if you were invested in the conversation enough to hear about the shiv made from a prison-issued spork? A missed opportunity simply because you were trying too hard to direct the moment instead of seeing where it would take you (in your first scene AND on your first date.)
- Boring! But gee, that bus boy is cute. Turns out the prison shiv story is this guy’s only good date material. He’s blown his wad before you’ve even finished the appetizers. (Not that kind of wad! Get your minds out of the gutter!) After the lunch lady story, he moves on to endless droning about body building and creatine shakes and episodes of Beavis and Butthead. You’re stifling yawns and planning your own quick escape. But then you notice a bus boy. He’s got that dreamy Johnny Depp in Chocolat homeless/pirate/Harlequin Romance look to him. And he’s whistling your favorite Yaz tune from 1982. And don’t even get me started on the Edgar Allen Poe quote tattooed on his left calf (which happens to be peeking out of his perfectly slouched bus boy shorts)! Now, this guy… he could be interesting. “Waiter, check please. And a side of that bus boy!”
This often happens in your first scene, too. Sometimes it only takes a page of writing. Other times it takes three or four chapters. You’ve spent some time with your main character. You’ve given him a chance. Although he seemed like such an interesting hit man in your head, he’s quickly turning into a caricature of Dog the Bounty Hunter. However, that one-eyed pageant winner that’s running from him? Now, she’s interesting. You learn that she lost her eye in a tragic monkey attack while filming a commercial in Borneo. She started a monkey refuge and is teaching anger management to the Proboscis monkey who attacked her. She’s got some interesting qualities. Although you feel guilty about abandoning your main character, you realize that this secondary character is really the star of the show. Don’t get discouraged. You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince – in dating AND in writing.
- You want to put your tongue where? That pageant winner sure sounds interesting, but don’t abandon your main character too soon. He might be a dud who needs to live in the trash heap and not on the pages of your manuscript. But, maybe your Bounty Hunter is more of an onion. Maybe you need to invest some writing time to peel away the layers. You might dance around each other for 8-10 chapters before you hit a groove. You need to figure out his voice, his demeanor, his swagger. You have to play around with several different attempts before you finally feel comfortable with each other and settle into a relationship.
Dating? You guessed it… the same thing. Let’s take the first kiss for example. You’ve made it through the first date. (With the bus boy. You ditched the weight-lifting, prison shiv cousin as soon as the check arrived. Some first dates [and main characters] really aren’t worth fighting for.) The Bus Boy date has gone swimmingly well, though. Until he leans in for the kiss. He turns left, you turn right. Noses bonk, glasses fog up and he gets a mouthful of your chin. Another try? He thinks your ear looks attractive and starts blowing in it. To you, it feels like earwigs are crawling on your ear drum in the jungle. (Do people really like that hot, moist breath in their ears?) You readjust heads and bodies, laugh it off and try again. Wow! There will definitely be a second date. That kiss was worth all the jostling and false starts. And so was the Bounty Hunter, it turns out!
- Did you just say what I think you said? You’ve now spent weeks with the Bounty Hunter. You feel like you know every twist and turn of his psyche and you could order the perfect meal for him at any restaurant. You and your main character are a match made in heaven. Until one night when he springs something on you out of the blue. The International Olympic Committee has him cornered in an alley behind the First Bank of Borneo. It’s a tense standoff and you’re expecting your Bounty Hunter to leap over three dumpsters, roll off the hood of a speeding car and put each IOC big-wig in a headlock. But… he doesn’t. Instead he crouches down into a dark doorway, begins humming “Swanee River,” and breaks out in hives. A Bounty Hunter who has a panic attack when it actually comes time to do his job? You’re humiliated. You’ve been “dating” this character for weeks, and this behavior came out of left field. How could he do this to you? This is deal breaker!
Dating? Equally as complicated. You’ve been dating the bus boy for weeks. You love his quirky knack for hair-band trivia, his loyalty to childhood friends and how he laughs uncontrollably whenever he smells a skunk. Then one night in a dark restaurant (not an alley) in Indiana (not Borneo), the subject of children comes up. He crouches down, begins humming “Swanee River,” and breaks out in hives. You’ve fallen for this bus boy and now he tells you that he doesn’t want to have children. How could he do this to you? This is a deal breaker!
Or is it?
You stick with the Bounty Hunter. You’ve invested this much time already. Maybe it’s just getting interesting. He finds a nice therapist, overcomes his fear of confrontation, uncovers an Australian ping-pong-ball price-fixing scheme, and uses his new found media fame to shed worldwide attention on the plight of the Proboscis monkey.
You stick with the Bus Boy, too. You’ve invested this much time already. Maybe it’s just getting interesting. He asks you to marry him, overcomes his fear of tiny people who slobber, and fifteen years later, he still loves you in that flannel pillowcase of a shirt!
What’s the moral of this very drawn-out story? Stick around for the long haul (with your character or your bus boy). That awkward first date might be worth it!
* FYI – My husband was actually a sandwich delivery boy in college (not a bus boy). But he does have an uncanny knowledge of 80s hair bands and breaks into fits of uncontrollable laughter within 20 miles of a skunk carcass.
How about you? Any first scene disasters? Or better yet, first date disasters?