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Close Encounters of the Initial Kind – Tips for When Characters Meet


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Here is the thing you need to understand about this post – It is not a recipe for perfecting the meet-cute scene of a new romantic comedy, at least not exactly. Simply ask Google to find dozens of suggestions for tackling that particular knot, which makes for a good writing exercise even if not your usual cup of tea. But, no, today my inspiration derives from something much simpler – an admiration I have long held for writers of stage, screen and print, across a wide range of genres, who manage to craft indelible moments when characters engage each other for the first time. Such interactions, handled deftly, add intrigue, tension and occasionally, as with the aforementioned rom-com hook, even humor to a tale. They also offer opportunities to develop character and to underscore core themes of your story.

Wow! That is some heavy lifting for what typically starts out as a checklist item while laying out a plot – Protagonist meets new boss, future father-in-law, child’s teacher, man who later tries to kill her, etc. But if such encounters are necessary on the page, shouldn’t we make the most of them to advance the story in ways beyond the perfunctory? Why, of course we should! But how exactly? What techniques can we employ to craft first encounter scenes that stick the landing, so to speak, drawing the reader into the tale on a deeper level. I may not have all the answers, for this is a skill I have yet to master. But I do have some thoughts, and a few tips to get the wheels turning. So let’s dive right in.

Keep in Mind Character Needs

In crafting the first encounter, it may help to start by asking yourself a few questions, such as these:

  • What do your characters want from the interaction?
  • What do they fear? What do they desire?
  • How do the characters present themselves? And what motivates them to do so?
  • Is one character more self-assured or aggressive? Is so, why?
  • How does the situation (or how can the situation) reflect a larger conflict within the story?

Remember, each new encounter is an opportunity to explore character, both for you as the writer and ultimately for your audience. Perhaps a young man raised in the shadow of a domineering father fears meeting a new boss, and his every mannerism subconsciously reflects a lifetime of festering self-doubt. Or maybe, desperate to break free and quickly recognizing a kinder, if not kindred, soul, he summons a surprising confidence from within. Maybe an older woman’s desire for friendship after the loss of her longtime companion drives her to pursue a relationship with a new couple in her apartment building, leading her to ignore clues that their motives may be less than noble.

You know your characters and their motivations, backwards and forwards. Employ that knowledge to add nuance to their encounters with others, allowing the readers to gain insight, becoming more invested in their ultimate outcome.

The Seeds of Relationship

While even chance encounters with minor characters can provide opportunities to layer or reinforce a character’s nature, the initial moments of more complex relationships are even more ripe for exploration. This is where the “meet-cute” exercise comes into play. I may never write a romantic comedy, yet I can appreciate the skill involved. Every rom-com hinges on the moment early on when the love interests first meet. What elevates successful ones, actor chemistry aside, is when the witty interplay reveals personality traits that will drive the action – and the emotional arc – for the remainder of the journey.

In When Harry Met Sally, protagonist Sally Albright’s nearly OCD approach to life encounters, clashes with, and ultimately complements Harry Burn’s more pessimistic take, with both maturing to the point they can appreciate the love that has grown between them and commit to the relationship. In their initial meeting, Sally arrives for their 18-hour road trek from Chicago to New York City, maps and schedule in hand, only to find Harry deep in embrace with his latest girlfriend, content to linger and disrupt her carefully constructed plans. Cuteness ensues as she nudges him to pay heed to her schedule. The scene works because the personalities and stakes are seeded with an economy of words, setting the stage for a delightful exploration of how people worlds apart in philosophy and outlook can still bond, building a durable foundation for a lasting love.

Of course, relationships do not always lead to sunshine and puppies, as the woman mentioned above who lost her longtime companion only to fall prey to sadistic newcomers in her building will attest, once she discovers the brutal truth. Imagine the slow-burning tension that can be seeded in a scene of her initial chance encounter with the young couple at the mail room, when her bleeding desire for connection runs headfirst into their need to exploit weaknesses they encounter.

The lesson here is to scrutinize the initial encounters of key relationships in your story, considering how they might reveal more about your characters, and what glimpses they might provide on the relationship to come.

Underscoring Story Themes

Writer Nora Ephron and Director Rob Reiner knew they had something to say about relationships between men and women when they set out to create When Harry Met Sally. And like all good storytellers they knew the best way to craft a universal story was to focus on a specific relationship between two unique, fully fleshed out individuals. They looked inside their respective relationships and explored their own friendship, drawing on both to create the true-to-life protagonists of their highly regarded production.

I imagine having such a clear vision provided great assistance to Ephron as she crafted the script. She knew the characters, the notes to hit, and how to put them together. And the first encounter of the protagonists, so key that it literally became the title, was a perfect opening sequence for the on-screen music that followed it.

And so what is the lesson for us and our works in progress? For me, it is the importance of knowing your story, deeply and completely. I recall a critique on a work in progress, when a writer pointed out that the introduction of two characters to my protagonist in the opening chapter was clumsy, not in keeping with the overall tone or with the characters as observed later in the tale. She was absolutely right. The initial encounter had been written early in the process, when the tale and its themes had not fully gelled. Fortunately, the edits came easily because by then my understanding of both my characters and the story as a whole had matured.

Know thyself, know thy story, and above all know thy characters. For when you do, the encounters among them will flow more naturally, including the first encounter that sets the stage for all that follows.

Those are my observations, and ideas that have worked for me. How do you approach crafting initial meeting scenes of characters in your writings? Do you find yourself returning to those scenes for rewrites after gaining a better insight into your tale? Do you have other suggestions for approaching the initial encounters between characters? If so, please share. I look forward to hearing from you.

 

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About John J Kelley

John J Kelley crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow, about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.

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