I think you would have laughed to see me out last night with my godparents, my friends: we went to an opera, where not only did singers belt their characters’ deepest and darkest toward the back wall of the rather small and cramped auditorium; at certain points, marionettes acted out what the characters were hiding from one another. In the middle of an aria, my partner Rick leaned over to me and whispered, “They can’t have been reading your blog lately.”
Obviously, the composer hadn’t — not entirely surprising, as the opera was first performed in 1625; I doubt its author, Francesca Caccini, blog-surfed much. A pity, as the opera included a classic bad interview scene. Take a listen:
The brave knight Ruggiero, ensnared by the love spells of the evil sorceress Alcina (who had a nasty habit of turning her exes into trees; opera gives one a lot of room for imaginative touches), has deserted both his fighting obligations and his warrior girlfriend, Bradamante. So another sorceress, Melissa, turns herself into an image of Ruggiero’s father, Atlante, to try to free him. Dressed as Atlante (and turning from an alto into a baritone for the occasion, a nifty trick), Melissa berates Ruggiero for lying around in sensual bliss when there’s work to be done.
A single three-minute solo later, Ruggiero’s mind is changed, with no argument from the big guy himself: he is free from the spell, and goes on to bellow some extraordinarily nasty insults at Alcina while Punchinello dances around with a squid. (You had to be there.)
This type of persuasion in an interview scene — where the protagonist’s mind is changed on an issue about which he is supposedly passionate simply because someone tells him he’s wrong — occurs in novel submissions more often than you might think. Many a protagonist who is downright tigerish in defense of his ideals elsewhere in the book is positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.
As protagonist, he has an entire book (or opera, as the case may be) to play with here — couldn’t he argue back just a LITTLE? Usually, the result is a more interesting scene.
Why? Everybody chant it together now: because conflict is more interesting in a scene than agreement.
I had an ulterior motive in using the opera example, though, to make another point about how a screener might read an opening scene differently than another reader. To illustrate, take this little test: quick, without re-scanning the paragraphs where I glossed over the opera’s plot, try to name as many of its characters as you can.
How did you do?
I originally mentioned six, but don’t be hard on yourself if you only came up with one or two. Most readers would have experienced some difficulty keeping all of those sketchily-defined characters straight. Heck, seeing them introduced en masse like that, I would have trouble remembering who was who, and I’ve seen the opera!
Introducing too many characters too fast for any of them to make a strong impression upon the reader is EXTREMELY common in the opening few pages of novel submissions. Indeed, sometimes there are so many people lurching around that the reader does not know for several paragraphs, or even several pages, which one is the protagonist.
Why might confusion on this point be problematic? In a word: Millicent. Agency screeners read fast; if they aren’t sure what’s going on and who the book is about by the middle of page 1 (which is, unfortunately, how they would tend to diagnose the paragraphs above), they generally stop reading.
To use Millie’s favorite word: next!
So strategically, you might want to limit the number of characters introduced within the first couple of pages of your submission. If you’re in doubt about how many is too many — there is no hard-and-fast rule — there are a couple of tests I like to use.
The first, and the simplest, is a modification of the one I used above: hand the first page to a non-writer, ask her to read through it as quickly as possible — and then, as soon as she’s finished, ask her to tell you who the main character is and what the book is about.
Why did I specify a non-writer, you ask? Because writers tend to be unusually good at absorbing character names; the average reader is not. And your garden-variety agency screener scans far too rapidly, and reads far too many submissions in a given day, to retain the name of any character who has not either been the subject of extensive description — which, as we’ve been seeing over the past few days, can be problematic in itself — or a mover or shaker in the plot.
Perhaps not even then. Our old pal Millicent has a lot on her mind — like that too-hot latte that just burned her full pink lip. (You’d think, after how long I have been writing about her, that she would have learned by now to let it cool, wouldn’t you? But that’s an agency screener for you: time is of the essence.)
The other test, which is also useful to see how well your storytelling skills are coming across, is to hand the entire first scene to that non-writer (NOT a relative, lover, or someone with whom you interact on a daily basis, please; these folks’ desire to see you happy may well skew the results of the test) and ask her to read it as quickly as possible, to reproduce Millicent’s likely rate of scanning. Then take away the pages and talk with her about something else entirely for ten minutes.
In minute eleven, ask her to tell you the story of that first scene with as much specificity as possible. Note which names she can and cannot remember — if she’s like 99% of skimmers, she will probably remember only the two primary ones.
After thanking her profusely, sit down with your list of passed-over names and the manuscript: do all of these folks really HAVE to make an appearance in the opening scene? Could some of them be consolidated into a single character, to reduce the barrage of names the reader will have to remember?
Or could any of them be there, but not mentioned until later in the book, where the protagonist encounters that character again? (A simple statement along the lines of, “Hey, Clarence, weren’t you one of the thugs who beat me to a pulp last month?” is usually sufficient for later identification, I find.)
Or are these characters mentioned here for purely photographic reasons? In other words, is their being there integral to the ACTION of the scene, or are the extraneous many named or described simply because they are in the area, and an outside observer glancing at the center of action would have seen them lurking?
In a screenplay, you would have to mention their presence, of course — but in a crowd scene in a novel, describing the mob as monolithic can have a greater impact. For instance, which sounds scarier to you, Mr. Big threatening Our Hero while surrounded by his henchmen, Mannie, Moe, and Ambrose — or surrounded by an undifferentiated wall of well-armed baddies?
Personally, I would rather take my chances with Ambrose and Co. than with the faceless line of thugs, wouldn’t you? My imagination can conjure a much scarier array of henchmen than the named three.
I know, I know: when you create a novel, you create the world in which your characters live. And that world is peopled. But in the interest of grabbing an agency screener’s often mercurial attention, would a smaller cast of characters, at least at the outset, render your book more compelling?
Worth considering, at least, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!
PS: I keep finding myself referring back to that lengthy series I wrote last November on reasons that agents might reject a submission based upon its first page. Since that series was so revealing and so very practical, I’m going to create a new category for it at right: First Pages Agents Dislike (or so they say). Before you next submit your work to an agent or editor, I would HIGHLY recommend perusing it.