Note to Argh Readers: This isn’t actually a blog post (that’s the next Sherlock Sunday post), it’s an example for a discussion question for the McDaniel students second module in the 522 course, but I needed to embed video and I have to fight with Blackboard to embed TEXT, so I’m doing it here. You are, of course, welcome to dive into the comments. No worries about interfering with teaching; the class will do its stuff on Blackboard.
First meets are crucial in making a romance plot work, and an excellent example of a successful first-meet scene comes from a non-romantic interaction on the TV show, Arrow, done in one minute and two beats.
The protagonist, Oliver Queen, is destined to love another woman. The antagonist, Felicity Smoak, is just a one-time character. There is no romantic tension in this scene, no appreciative notice of each other’s physicality, no moments of recognition, no touching. It’s just the billionaire owner of a company asking an IT girl to pull some information off a damaged computer. And yet, this is the scene that launched a thousand ‘shippers and changed Felicity Smoak from a spear carrier to a main character in the series. This is the power of the well-written first meet.
Things to look for in this scene:
Clear Goals: The protagonist, Oliver, enters with a clear goal: get information off a stolen hard drive without alerting anyone that he’s a vigilante. That means he’s come to this place—his own IT department where he has maximum control—and this person—a lowly IT tech who has no power at all to question him—in order to get a concrete, physical goal—information off a computer. No viewer gets confused as to why this scene is happening. I know the “every scene must have a clear goal” feels limiting to writers, but it’s actually freeing: you never have to explain or justify why the characters are doing something, so you can concentrate on how they’re doing it, character in action, which is where all the fun is anyway, especially in a first meet scene.
Character Vulnerability: Oliver’s antagonist is Felicity, an IT girl. The scene tension begins in the first beat when she looks up and sees the owner of her place of employment standing in front of her. Her goal is to keep her job, so all she has to do is shut up and get him the information he needs, but because she’s surprised, she babbles. That means the first beat win goes to Oliver, even though he didn’t intend to catch her off-guard. Still the billionaire just made the IT girl stammer, and that’s the real strength here: these are not two professionals exchanging information, this is a powerful, confident man and a vulnerable, nervous woman, and that vulnerability means that we worry. Even though we know Oliver is a good man, we also know he’s not the most sensitive guy around, and even though we don’t know Felicity at all, she’s so likable and so unprotected here that we lean forward to make sure she’s going to be okay.
Then Oliver smiles at the babble. Since Oliver pretty much never smiles unless he’s pretending to be something he’s not, that real smile says that’s he’s connected, there’s a crack in the tough facade, and now he’s vulnerable. Not a lot, but there’s definitely a crack where before there was just solid granite. And since the person who made that crack is babbling, likable Felicity, readers and viewers sit up a little straighter, aware that something is going on even if the characters don’t see it.
That all happens in thirty-two seconds. No long set up, just “Hi, I’m Oliver Queen,” followed by babbling, followed by viewer/reader anxiety, followed by a smile, followed by viewer/reader awareness.
Character Change: The conflict escalates because nervous Felicity can’t stop being Felicity. It isn’t just that she babbles, although that’s endearing, it’s also that she’s too smart and straightforward not to give him the fish-eye when he gives her a patently ridiculous story about the computer. His position is that it doesn’t matter what he tells her, she’s an IT monkey and she’ll have to do the work, so he doesn’t bother with a better cover story. Her position is that she may be an IT monkey but she has some pride, and while she’ll still say yes and get the information, she’s not going to pretend he’s not lying in his teeth. So she moves from babbling to the fish eye, from somebody we worry about to somebody we cheer for. That’s character arc, change on the page, and it makes the scene dynamic.
Somebody Wins: So the conflict escalates in the second beat because his lie is ridiculous, which causes her exasperation as demonstrated by the head tilt, which makes him smile again, and Felicity wins both the second beat and the scene because the guy with the upper hand has changed and now he sees her not as “IT Girl” but as Felicity. The connection, platonic and professional, is established, but so is . . .
Expectation: The best first meets work because they spark expectation in the reader or viewer. The need to know what happens next, the desire to see these two together again, is the single most important factor in a first meet scene, and this little one-minute scene creates powerful expectation. If you can do that on the first page of a romance novel and then keep building those expectations, you’ve solved half your romance writing problems.
The only You Tube video I could find of this scene (note to self: learn to edit video) has both scenes with Felicity from the third episode of Arrow, so you can stop watching at the one minute mark, the point at which the scene shifts to the two of them looking at a computer screen:
Four other reasons why this one-minute scene is important for romance writers:
1. It demonstrates that a first meet doesn’t have to be about love or sex or romance in any way. Neither Oliver or Felicity at any time in this scene thinks, “Well, hello there.”
2. It shows that it doesn’t matter at all what somebody looks like or is wearing unless the detail is significant in some way. The facts that Felicity is blonde and Oliver has incredible abs are completely irrelevant, but if I were writing this scene in a novel, I’d put that company ID around her neck; it marks her as somebody within his control, his subordinate since he doesn’t need an ID to travel freely through the building.
3. It shows that the elusive element of character chemistry is not delivered with clever banter or great boobs or abs, it’s people reacting as themselves under pressure from each other, changing each other. Felicity is endearing in this scene because her reactions characterize her, but those reactions happen because Oliver underestimates her and then pushes her too far. In the same way, her babbling and head tilt push him out of safe, distant superiority into a recognition of her as an individual, forming a connection that isolated Oliver neither needs or wants, even at this minimal level. (Reluctant chemistry is the best kind because it shows how powerful even a small connection is.) This is why the cute-meet scene can work really well sometimes and fail utterly other times. It’s not about the cute, not about how they look or how snappy their dialogue is, it’s about how the characters surprise each other into vulnerability, about how they react to those surprises, about how they transform each other even if it’s only slightly. Chemistry isn’t about sex, it’s about impact.
4. It shows that scene length is no indicator of importance. This scene could have been four times as long and would probably have had one-quarter of the impact because part of its power is that it takes one minute to change from Billionaire Company Owner vs. IT Girl to Oliver vs. Felicity. The fact that at the end, he’s not thinking, “This woman will become my partner in fighting evil,” doesn’t matter. What matters is the impact they have on each other in such a short time and the desire that creates in the reader to see them interact again.
So how do you blow a first meet scene? Make the characters invulnerable.
Vulnerability is always the key to creating relationships; without vulnerability you have two hard shiny surfaces that can’t attach. The following Oliver/Laurel scene is their first meet in the series, although they have a prior history with each other. That prior history is irrelevant in this discussion because “first meet” also means the first time the reader/viewer meets the relationship, so this is the viewer’s introduction to the great love story of Oliver’s life. But Oliver is detached because that’s Oliver’s go-to coping mechanism (granite, remember); the fact that he’s genuinely contrite is obscured by his distance. Laurel is distant because she’s been hurt so badly and because she’s so angry, but all that shows in this scene is the anger. Which means this is a cold, hostile woman berating a cold, guarded man in a scene in which neither of them changes because neither of them shows enough vulnerability to allow a change. That means that the viewer is given nothing to build future expectations on and in fact, actively hopes they never meet again because these people are unpleasant to watch: two hard, shiny surfaces who make each other colder by their proximity.
Small wonder that when Felicity started to stammer two episodes after this and Oliver smiled, viewers looking for a relationship for him said, “Oh, THERE it is,” and settled in for the long haul in spite of the show’s clear intentions for Laurel as Oliver’s romantic lead. And I do mean, long haul. Thirty episodes later, the Oliver-Felicity non-romance has evolved to this:
So in thirty episodes, the relationship has escalated to standing really close and a shoulder clasp. But look again because the changes are huge, changes that can be easily seen because this scene is an echo of that first meet, this time reversing the dynamic. This time Oliver’s the vulnerable party; he doesn’t babble, but he does address his apology to his quiver, a gawky move the complete opposite of his assumption of power in the first meet. He’s standing and Felicity’s sitting at a computer, the same physical dynamic as that first scene, and he’s asking for something again, but it’s forgiveness this time, emotional connection, and he’s shifting uncertainly on his feet, not standing rock solid and confident. He even bites his lip at one point, and his voice goes up from tension in his attempt at platonic cheer (“Barry’s gonna wake up”). Meanwhile, Felicity is still and distant, holding all the power because, as he’s forced to tell her, he needs her. So on the surface, it’s just a hand on a shoulder and an admission of partnership, but it’s also a huge relationship arc, powerful not just because it’s a good scene but because of the expectations set up in that first meet.
All of which is to say, first meet scenes are crucial to making a romance plot work. (It should be noted that Laurel is still supposed to be Oliver’s One True Love. I have no idea what show the people who keep saying that are watching, but I don’t think it’s this one.)