The first moment I saw your face… I didn’t really notice you

When Robin Hood met Little John, they had a fight. There’s a good reason for us to want to know more. But how do you write the first meeting in a relationship that is much slower off the blocks?

 If your book is about a relationship (and most are in some way), you often like to explain how it started. But if the characters’ first encounter was average and unremarkable, how do you write it? The kind where there are no bells and whistles, fights or thunderbolts – where the two people don’t take any special notice of each other?

 In real life, many of our friendships may have started with encounters that are unmemorable. I was reading a friend’s novel the other day and she had just this problem. A meeting that isn’t notable in any way, except for being the first time two characters meet. There was some dull chit-chat and it was dead on the page.

 So how do you make it interesting? Here are two possibilities.

 Maybe you don’t have to make a scene of it. You could do a montage of snapshots to build up a sense of these people being in each other’s lives. ‘They met often at the same parties; coinciding at the fridge for another beer, squashing down the crowded corridor at the same time to get their coats. One rainy evening in November he found her browsing the film books at Foyles.’ A few little encounters, compressed artfully, can add up to a growing connection – while leaving out the dull bits.

 Many of us learn our storytelling, consciously or unconsciously, from films – which generally show everything blow by blow. But in prose, the narrator is a versatile lens that can telescope out or zoom in with far more agility. You can describe time in the way it feels internally, capturing how the experience is more accurately than if it was shown literally: ‘There she was in the corner, as she usually was at this time of year. I wondered whether to talk to her, then I thought, no I’ll do it next year.’

 Of course, summarizing a scene can be distancing – unless there’s a good reason to. Here, though, it makes the material far more engaging.   

 Or don’t show the first meeting at all. Yes, if it’s that unremarkable, perhaps you should start with the third meeting: ‘It’s you. I can never remember your name.’ And there you have the beginnings of a fun conversation.

 If nothing particularly memorable happens when your characters first meet, then don’t show it. Break out of the step-by-step unfolding and get creative with what you show and the way you show it.

 Have you had to solve the ‘unremarkable first meeting’ scenario?

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  1. #1 by matt on May 23, 2010 - 9:57 pm

    Nice post. Usually I’d go ahead and drop it as you suggest.

    One trick I’ve tried, though, is misdirection. I’ve made the thrust of the scene about something else entirely. The nice thing about this is that you can have the important relationship simmer away semi-noticed. And then you can reap the rewards of your foreshadowing with an aha! moment down the line.

  2. #2 by Roz Morris on May 23, 2010 - 11:31 pm

    Hi Matt! Misdirection is a good one – I love a good sleight of hand.

  3. #3 by Paul Greci on May 24, 2010 - 12:48 am

    Great post, Roz. I guess I’d try to start with a more interesting scene between the two people and then eye-dropper bits of those backstory meeting in to fill out the picture.

  4. #4 by Roz Morris on May 24, 2010 - 8:48 am

    Paul – the eye-dropper approach is another good way (nice terminology!)

  5. #5 by Cassandra Jade on May 24, 2010 - 9:16 am

    I had a few moments like this when writing Death’s Daughter because my protagonist was busy meeting so many new people and not every meeting is interesting. Then again, I’ve written a draft of a story where every character has known every character forever and the difficulty is in showing the already established relationship without dragging the reader through endless, mindless back story that doesn’t really accomplish anything.

    Great post – thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. #6 by Mia on May 24, 2010 - 9:28 am

    If my characters first meetings are ordinary and unremarkable, I usually leave it out of the story completely, or try to do what Paul Greci said in his comment; write an interesting scene and then sprinkle in little clues about their first meeting.

    • #7 by Roz Morris on May 24, 2010 - 11:55 am

      Mia – what to leave out is as important as what to put in, isn’t it?

  7. #8 by Jonathan Moore on May 24, 2010 - 12:54 pm

    I thought your first proposal said ‘It does have to make sense’. even though that’s not what you said or intended, how would that work? Two people meet in a moment of confusion – they misrepresent each other and this colours their relationship as it develops.

  8. #9 by Roz Morris on May 24, 2010 - 1:25 pm

    Jonathan… lies upon lies – I like it!

  9. #10 by Dave Morris on May 24, 2010 - 2:28 pm

    A related question: what about when a character at first seems incidental to the narrative, and later moves to center stage? So *our* first meetings with the character hardly make an impression at the time, but then suddenly she’s married to Dr Watson and we have to go back and see if the clues were there.

    It’s tricky to pull this off because it can seem like not playing fair with the reader – that is, readers normally expect the narrator to tell us upfront if somebody is going to become significant later. Otherwise you can end up with “The butler did it” syndrome.

    Examples where it works… On Ben’s first appearance in Lost, we guess he’s significant but we don’t have any inkling that he’s going to be absolutely central to the story. Ralphie in The Sopranos – I’m not sure we even notice him the first couple of times. And you often see it in Dickens because he’ll bring in a character (like Sam Weller in Pickwick Papers) and only then decide to give them a bigger part because they’re stealing the show.

  10. #11 by K.M. Weiland on May 24, 2010 - 4:23 pm

    Good post (love the title!). Something that’s been helpful to me in my own writing is remembering that even if two characters already know each other before they appear in the book, the reader doesn’t know them. At that point, it’s the introduction to the reader that matters most, so I do my best to present characters in a characteristic and hopefully memorable moment – and that almost inevitably means conflict.

  11. #12 by Cat Woods on May 24, 2010 - 4:52 pm

    Roz, interesting topic. I’ve never given it a thought to my characters meeting. Now I have to summarize in my own brain how those scenes play out and how they can be strengthened.

    Thanks for bringing this up~ cat

    • #13 by Roz Morris on May 24, 2010 - 9:21 pm

      @Dave – ah, the character who sneaks in from the wings. I always like doing that, there’s something so satisfying. I don’t think it isn’t playing fair with the reader, though – provided they seem to be in the story for a good reason before they hog more attention.
      @Katie – that’s such a good point, that the reader has to catch up. Yes, conflict and tension are good ways to make us remember somebody.
      @Cat – it might even be off stage – part of the background that only you know!

  12. #14 by Terry Odell on May 24, 2010 - 10:21 pm

    I’m of the ‘if it’s unremarkable, why mention it?” school. You’ve got your plot points, and until the story required the characters be together, it’s not critical for me. I was delighted the first time I read a romantic suspense where h/h didn’t meet until about 1/4 of the way into the book, and their meet was of a professional nature. There were subtle hints that these might be “the two” in the way one POV character noticed the other, but it was as much about the story as it was about showing a “bells and stars” first meet.

    • #15 by Roz Morris on May 24, 2010 - 11:00 pm

      Terry – good point. Sometimes I find I write the meeting scene, then decide it’s not necessary in the story at all.

  13. #16 by Jane Kennedy Sutton on May 25, 2010 - 12:23 am

    Two of my characters met in a bar which can be rather boring and cliché , but I hope it’s the unusual topic of conversation that makes it unique, fun and memorable.

    • #17 by Roz Morris on May 25, 2010 - 8:52 am

      @Jane – a strange conversation is always a good solution!

  14. #18 by Erika Marks on May 26, 2010 - 5:58 pm

    Hi Roz,

    This is my first time visiting and I’m loving these posts…

    This is a great point. As writers we often feel we HAVE to show the scene of meeting between pivotal characters but it can be very liberating to fast forward a bit…it’s true, sometimes even the most dynamic of relationships sometimes began in off-handed ways, so the temptation is whether or not to “force” a compelling meeting or just let the reader meet the pair later on in their relationship…

    I will admit in my recent novel, I presented lots of “first impressions” for the main characters. I love the challenge of deciding how characters will meet, and the circumstances that can often be so defining of their future chemistry. And often times, a first “meeting” can just be a sighting of the intended partner. But of course, that can often be on the windy side of cliche, too…

  15. #19 by DazyDayWriter on May 26, 2010 - 6:22 pm

    I think friendships that begin with conflict can be fun. Often we clash with people who are somewhat like us, so eventually, a friendship may be forged once the conflict is resolved. Interesting post!

  16. #20 by Maribeth on May 26, 2010 - 8:52 pm

    When I foresee a problem like this happening, I go back within the novel and begin weaving their meetings together so that their “moment of connection” can become something worth remembering. Sometimes it works and other times it needs to be reworked. I love connecting the characters and building their relationships.

    • #21 by Roz Morris on May 26, 2010 - 9:06 pm

      @Maribeth – I love that connection-building phase too. It’s one of the ways I really start to feel a novel come alive.
      @Daisy – starting with conflict is fun, isn’t it? Then it seems like the story has got further to go.
      @Erika – these obligatory pivotal scenes… sometimes we have to ask ourselves if they’re actually needed, and then examine what we really need to show. And how it could be made more entertaining.

  17. #22 by Dave Morris on May 26, 2010 - 10:43 pm

    It’s interesting that we were kept waiting 45 years to see the first meeting of Kirk, Spock, Bones & co. But when they finally told that story – wow, it was powerful!

    • #23 by Roz Morris on May 27, 2010 - 8:04 am

      That was, ahem, because no one had decided to do the origin story until then… Although they did make an excellent job of it.

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