May 10th, 2006


Robert's Rules of Writing #42: Make an Entrance

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Masello's experience as a screenwriter led him to note rule #42, which, as we all know, is the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. (Well, in this case, it's more the answer to tight scene writing.) Here's the background, paraphrased from his book:

When he was working on his first TV show, a veteran screenwriter gave him the advice "Always arrive late and leave early." The way Masello tells it, at first he rejoiced, thinking that the guy was referring to office hours. But in reality, he was advising Masello to open his scenes as close to the main action as possible, and to end them as soon as that action was complete.

It's good advice, especially for beginning writers who take pages and pages to set up their story. I know, because I did that once upon a time.

And starting a story with action, especially fast-paced action, is one of the best ways to draw readers in. Allow me to give an example from my own work.

Many years ago, I was writing my first novelette, "Broken Symmetry" (Analog, February 1997). The story is about a leak between two parallel universes. In one universe, the Superconducting Supercollider has been built in Texas, and the director of the lab in that universe has already started running experiments. In our universe, the lab was never built, but the empty ring is still underground. Antimatter beams start to break through the barrier between universes, leading to deadly explosions in our universe.

Now, to my way of thinking, the best way to open the story was with the head scientist of the cancelled project investigating the series of explosions. So I wrote this long, leisurely scene, in which he's being escorted around the ring and the land above it. The five or so explosions were mentioned rather casually, as was the tidbit that the explosion killed one bicyclist and injured another as they were biking around the ring.

When I got the story back after my first submission to Analog, Stanley Schmidt told me to add more "zing." I had no idea what he meant, so I asked for advice from writers on the GEnie network. Robert J. Sawyer looked up the word "zing" in the dictionary and suggested to me that if the story was a talking piece, it required action, and if it was an action piece, it required more tightly plotted action.

I brought this suggestion to Nomi, who pointed out to me that there was a much better opening hiding inside what I had already written. Instead of telling the reader that there had been explosions, why didn't I show the reader the explosions? (Show, don't tell.) I could open the story with the two friends biking, and show one of them get killed by the explosion. Only then would I cut to the head scientist investigating.

I will admit that I railed at this suggestion, because the head scientist was the main character. But Nomi stood firm, and Stan had requested more zing. So I rewrote the story, and Stan bought it...and I wrote two sequels about the bicyclists who were such peripheral characters in the first draft.

The moral of the story? As Masello says, make an entrance. It can only help.