Kathryn’s post today is part of the “All the King’s Editors” series, in which WU contributors will edit manuscript pages submitted by members of the larger WU community and discuss the proposed changes. This educational format is intended to generate useful comments on what changes work, which may not work as well, and in either case, why.
The posts will appear on WU ~twice monthly. Each participating editor will have a unique approach, and speak only for him or herself. If you’re interested in submitting a sample for consideration, click HERE  for instructions.
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Today’s submission is an excerpt from a second chapter. What happened in the first? I haven’t a clue. Has our point-of-view character, Luna, already set a story goal, and is she pursuing that goal in this chapter? I don’t know that either, although more explicitly goal-oriented behavior for Luna in this scene would (and should) clue me in. Clarifying the characters’ scene goals, and looking at how doing so can fuel higher octane writing, will be the focus of this developmental edit.
The main action in this opening is driving. The driving is not complicated by any story-relevant obstacle, so the action serves no purpose except as a container into which the writer can dump the character’s thoughts. This is a familiar part of the creative process: the writer casts around inside her character’s head for story motivation. The emotions she uproots are like an author’s note to self: these are the emotions that should drive the scene to come.
In order for the scene to grow in power, the author must go back and rewrite to make sure it is her character’s goals and motivations that are driving the scene. This is an important distinction. Story works because your reader bonds with your protagonist through her goals and motivations. Once it’s clear what Luna wants, we’ll orient to the story in a way that allows us to say, “Oh, Luna will love this” or, “Uh-oh, it’s not going so well for Luna right now.” Her desires allow our heartbeat to connect with hers, creating the all-important psychological tension that keeps us turning pages.
These explorations were clearly an important part of the process for this writer. While she stopped shy of determining what Luna wants by going to see Nico, she came up with some images that can be used to better advantage, such as the sunset and Luna’s concern for her appearance. She determined that Luna is having a tug-of-war between her head and her heart (or perhaps her mind and sheer sexual desire?—as yet unclear) in these pages. That’s good internal conflict, so let’s explore how we can externalize it so the story will leap out of Luna’s head and play out in scene, where it belongs.
Since we do not need to watch Luna drive in order to believe she got to her new location, I’d cut the entire first page here—all of the material between the red brackets, and above the asterisks I inserted to mark the suggested beginning.
[As Luna headed west on Ventura toward Amaru Yoga from Studio City, the drive felt both familiar and strange. (1) The flickering glare of the setting sun (2) made visibility challenging, even with sunglasses on. It had been well over a year since she’d set foot in his studio. (3) There were times she had wanted to drive past the building, see if his car was out front, and maybe catch a glimpse of him. But, like any addict, she knew she had to stay away, physically and mentally as well. But now, it was her destination, and she could feel the fire butterflies stirring. (4) Though they had been quieted over time, she knew they hadn’t been extinguished.
Nico had been released from the hospital only yesterday, and she thought how unsettling it must be to return to the place where he’d been shot. (5) She was relieved when he said Maya wouldn’t be there, that he needed to speak with her alone. She wondered if he had come to love Maya, who had remained devoted to him, even after confiding he didn’t love her the way he’d loved Elodie. Maybe, Luna thought anxiously, it was a mistake to see him. Looking back on all the years she’d been entangled with him, when his mood was darkest, he chose her over the other women. (6) He claimed they demanded too much from him.
Pulling into a parking space behind Amaru Yoga she cut the engine and flipped open the mirror on the sun visor to check her makeup. (7) With her finger she gently erased a smudge of mascara from beneath her eye. She left what remained of the natural tint on her lips, although she wasn’t sure he would extend his customary double-cheek kiss. She considered all the possible greetings they could enact, unsure which one might be the least contrived—almost laughing out loud at the thought of, how have you been? And, his answer, I nearly died.]
***I suggest starting here:
She was surprised to find the door locked and after knocking lightly to no response, she rang the bell just as Nico unlatched and opened the door. (8) He was expecting her, yet, he stood there staring as if she were a stranger selling encyclopedias. She remained awkwardly speechless waiting for him to invite her in. (9) He wore his customary slouchy black sweat pants hanging low on his hip. (10) Other than appearing pale and a bit thinner than when she’d last seen him, he didn’t look as though he had been at death’s door only two weeks prior. She spoke the first words that came to mind, “I’m glad you’re alive.”
Imagining this paragraph as the opening of the scene reveals its lack of focus. (8) How could you lead the reader into the scene with more confidence? Even indecisiveness needs to have an energetic push-and-pull if the reader is going to feel it.
As written, this inaction feels like the author is unclear about her characters’ scene goals, and therefore doesn’t know how each character might take steps to achieve them.
What does Luna want? What does Nico want? How are their desires coming into conflict in the moment they see each other? The author needs to be clear on this before this scene starts to sizzle. In that moment before the door is opened, the imagery of the setting sun (2) might be useful, especially its dual possibilities: that final extinguishing of light vs. the romance of its beauty.
When the door is opened, Nico doesn’t react and Luna can’t speak. (9) This is a missed opportunity. A pause, however, can be used to suggest that this interaction is both familiar and strange (1), since after their long tangled history, it has been over a year (3) since she saw him. She is sizing him up—but he’d be doing the same. How he looks at her either will or will not inspire her concern for her appearance. (5)
Luna was summoned, yes—but why did she come? How is she feeling—wary yet intrigued, perhaps? Show her seeking what she needs. Nico’s sheer physical presence can disarm her, but show her pulling herself back together to achieve her scene goal. Maybe she’s here because of her addiction to Nico (4)—she has always come when he called. Don’t just tell us this, show us what this addiction feels like in her body and how it threatens to pull her off her scene goal. He’s had other women since, but now, in his darkest moment, he wants her (6). Why, and how could you hint at this?
My challenge: how could you introduce some of this inner tug-of-war in the way that she knocks on the door?
Her scene goal will add emotional significance to the actions on the page. If she raises her hand to knock but some sense of self-preservation pulls it back, the reader will understand her inner conflict. If Nico opens the door and she feels those inner butterflies stir, we’ll understand the power he has over her—he need only open the door and she’ll fall in. Does the inevitability of this bother her?
If he was shot and almost died, she wouldn’t just be noting his outfit (10)—she’d be looking for the bulk of a bandage beneath it, wouldn’t she? For most of us, talking to someone who was shot and left for dead yet survived would be a kind of surreal thing. I’d think she’d be looking to ground herself in the reality of it, especially if they have a history of intimacy.
He laughed, and smiled into her eyes, “So am I.”
What is Nico’s scene goal? Even if we don’t have access to his inner thoughts, his intention needs to be represented. He has summoned her. Why? I doubt it’s to play guitar for her (as he does later in the scene). Even if you don’t spill the beans right here, you could hint at it with an obtuse comeback that would intrigue by raising a question, such as, “Turns out it wasn’t the idea of death that bothered me.” As written, though, his non-reaction—looking at her as though she were selling encyclopedias, when we don’t know enough about him yet to intuit what his reaction to encyclopedias would be (I would be excited, lol)—is a missed opportunity to build characterization and deepen conflict.
She followed him through the studio, and into the kitchen. Casting her eyes over the room, she was flooded with fond memories of where he played guitar for her, and sang love songs in Spanish after they ate plates of empanadas he’d made from scratch. As was the custom, she sat on the counter stool facing the kitchen, the one she took when watching him cook. He put the tea kettle up to boil, the grey T-shirt he wore hung loosely shrouding his damaged body.
Nico has returned to the place where he was shot. (5) Wouldn’t Luna wonder where, as she walks through the place?
The setting will gain emotional importance if you tie her questions about what happened here to her memories, and add to that all-important push-and-pull I think you’re going for. Was the shooter looking at him in the mirror, the way she had when she took class from him? Or was he shot at the kitchen counter, where they ate empanadas? Had it been on the couch, where he sang to her in Spanish? In this way, we’d see that the shooting changed everything.
And why is he making her tea? If he tries, I can almost hear her say, “My god Nico, I didn’t drive all the way out here for a cup of tea. You almost died!” One of them can be cagey. But if they are both cagey, how can the reader enter the story and gain orientation to its important themes?
Later, he voluntarily raises his shirt so she can see his bandages. If her scene goal is to discover what happened to him, why not have her ask—“Can I see?” His reaction will add to the tension between them. Is he shy about raising his shirt? Plus, if she is jonesing for this guy like an addict, she’ll be looking at more than the bandage. This—more than fond memories of where he played the guitar—will spark some serious sense memories.
Also, I’m a bit confused as to the lay of the land here. Why is this scene set in a yoga studio? (If your answer is “you learned that in the last chapter,” that isn’t a good enough reason to place us there now.) Why do they have a kitchen, and why did he play guitar for her in…a kitchen? There is a sofa in the kitchen? Is this where he is sleeping? Might there be sheets tossed there that could make her feel uncomfortable? As written, you aren’t using the setting you’ve chosen to its best advantage. Is he a yoga teacher? If so, having his body “corseted” in this limiting way would be torture for someone who is used to twisting every which-way to feel alive. Is this his business? Seeing it “dark” could speak to the full impact of the shooting. Was she his student? As for the other women—does he prey on students? These inner thoughts could play against the things she says aloud, creating interest in this “getting reacquainted” dialogue.
The physicality of Nico playing the guitar and singing for on the next page is questionable at best—the breath control would cause pain, let alone holding the guitar. But given the deeper emotional context we have mined for here, it makes no emotional sense. If he is so self-involved that he calls her all the way out to his yoga studio to be his audience, when he asks her to pass him the guitar, she might say, “Cut the crap, Nico. Why the hell did you ask me here?”
Determining your characters’ scene goals—ahead of time if you’re an outliner, or after an emotional fishing expedition, if you’re a pantser—is like filling up your story’s fuel tank. It is the key to writing high-octane scenes.
Action steps for rewriting the opening of this scene:
- Journal in each character’s first-person voice until you learn his/her scene goal and why it matters.
- Let those goals inform the actions the characters take, even (or especially!) at the expense of social niceties.
- Without referring to the less focused sentences you’ve already written, rewrite, using setting, dialogue, action, and inner thought to illustrate the way the characters’ intentions bring them into conflict.
Can you see how fixing sentences would not do this story justice? Can you see how the next draft will grow in power? Have you experienced this in your own work?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!