In Masterclass, Fiona stressed the importance of conflict.
As a consumer, I know how important it is to be immersed in the conflict immediately. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s picked up a book from the shelf of my local book store, opened it to the first page and read the first paragraph or so. I’m also probably not the only person to have placed the book back on the shelf in search for something else more grabbing.
However, it wasn’t until this was pointed out to me that I realised just how important those first lines are. But not just the first line of the book, the first line of each chapter, even the first line of each paragraph.
Going back over my manuscript after Masterclass, it was evident just how boring my writing came across. I was trying to tell the story, rather than show it and it was taking me far too long to get to the conflict. I felt like I was reading a letter to a new pen pal that was trying to fit in all the information of a past, and did nothing to move us into the present.
Looking at my writing with fresh eyes, it has been easy to change tactics. I simply deleted the first paragraph or so and this brought the story straight into the thick of things.
Here’s an example of the same opening paragraphs of chapter two of my current WIP.
Emily had been working as a cashier at a supermarket in Rundle Mall for a couple of years, and her best friend had secured a retail job nearby. They had decided to head overseas for a gap year between school and university.
Two weeks before they were due to fly out, and three hours into her six hour shift, Emily felt her pocket vibrate with a new text message.
“That’ll be eighty six dollars and ninety five cents.” Emily said to her customer.
The woman, middle aged and determined not to smile at Emily or give her any eye contact, pulled a card from her purse and waved it in the air.
“That’ll be eighty six dollars and ninety five cents.” Emily said in a voice so sweet she could have been dribbling honey.
Her customer, a middle aged woman, seemed determined not to smile at Emily or give her any eye contact at all. She tapped at her phone during the entire transaction, barely grunting as Emily attempted to make small-talk. The woman pulled a card from her purse and waved it in the air.
The background information I was conveying upfront; that the character worked at a supermarket, that she was saving for an overseas trip and she was in her late teens, can all be determined through the actions of the scene, rather than by point blank information dumping.
Though a supermarket transaction can hardly be considered a wild adventure or conflicting situation, it’s an experience that shows a lot about the character. It also puts the reader straight into the scene, instead of mulling around the outskirts.
By considering action over information, conflict over description, it’s much easier to set a scene and allow the character to be felt.
At Masterclass, we did a short exercise to really hone in on the opening scenes of a story. We had ten minutes to write an opening that dove straight into conflict. This exercise really helped me to put the theory of story telling, and of showing not telling, into practice.