So many first novels I see begin with pages upon pages of a character trying to tell me who they are. Lots of times this is done through back story. While the great novelists often do begin with a bit of narrative, most will ease you into a scene fairly quickly. For it is through scenes that the readers share the experience of the characters.
Writing Tip for Today: How can you decide which story events to dramatize and which to summarize?
Count the Characters.
In any scene you write, you’ll usually want at least two characters present. If your Main Character is alone on stage for a scene, make sure it is brief and full of enough tension to keep readers reading. Get someone else on stage as soon as possible and your scene has a better chance of hooking your reader. This is because conflict is easier to sustain when your character is not shadow boxing. I’m not saying never write a scene with a solo character, but if you do, know that the requirements for engagement are more difficult–especially if you employ a flash back or back story.
Move the Game Pieces.
You can think of your plot as a board game, where your MC must move through time and space, overcome obstacles and ultimately win or lose. If you write a scene that doesn’t reveal any new information about the story goal, it’s like drawing the “Go to Jail” card. Your story stalls while your character is off on some tangent or not doing much of anything. Most novels can safely eliminate these types of scenes: travel from one place to another, introductions, mundane activities which don’t have any bearing on the story (meeting for tea, getting up & dressed every morning, driving to work). We can safely assume most characters get up and dressed, drink coffee, etc, without dramatizing these events–UNLESS some big revelation occurs during them. A scene where your MC brushes his teeth is not going to help unless his wife walks up behind him and announces that her mother is moving in.
Stack Events in Order.
As you identify the steps (or game spaces) you need to fulfill the story’s goal, start with the least important or tense. In order to write scenes that increase in tension, you want the most important to be the do or die moment, when all looks hopeless. This is where the MC MUST ACT. No more talking about it. It’s win or lose. The reader, if following the rising action of the story, will be looking for a moment where your character displays the courage to face whatever has been holding her back. The climax scene is where the main goal of your character is either attained or not attained. Remember, there are only a few possible outcomes of any story. Happy, not happy or Don’t Care (not recommended!). Readers expect a payoff for their attention, and the climax is where you give it to them.