Monday, May 2, 2011

Beware the Scene Stealer

Here’s a plot summary of a  first chapter I read recently.
The heroine enters an expensive restaurant and sits down at her father’s table.
He complains she is late, which she is not, and proceeds to berate her for various failings, none of which she thinks she has.  They share a prickly conversation full of personal history subtext and anger.
He tells her that his corporation is having financial troubles, and he’s arranged to have a corporate investor meet him on his private estate for the weekend.  He wants his beautiful daughter there to entertain the corporate savior and show a positive side to his personality.
The heroine has her own financial success thanks to her own hard work and acumen, and she has less than charitable feelings for her father who threw her and her mother out so he could marry a trophy wife and have the son he wanted to inherit the business.  She agrees, however, because she’ll get a chance to see her much younger half-brother whom she adores.  
In the next, much shorter scene, the handsome corporate investor, aka the hero, arrives at the estate in his private plane.  Rather than the limo and the designer clothes her father wanted, she shows up in the caretaker’s Land Rover and she is wearing riding clothes.  Despite this, sexual sparks fly, and they share a bit of banter.  They head to a meeting with Daddy Dearest.
After I read this chapter, something was bothering me, and I stopped to analyze my feelings.  Sure, this first chapter was pretty standard and cliche-ridden with a I’ve-read-this-more-than-once feeling, but something else was wrong here.  
The first scene was much too long, and this is a romance where the hero and heroine should meet as soon as possible, but, beyond the length, I recognized a greater problem.  In the first scene Daddy Dearest and the heroine’s conversation is filled with emotional subtext, anger, and past history.  Daddy leapt off the page.
In the next scene, the hero was the standard and well-written sexy hero, but he was a flat character in comparison to Daddy Dearest, and the heroine was more about annoying Daddy than she was about the sexy hero.  
Daddy Dearest is a classic example of  the Scene Stealer Secondary Character--the character with the interesting past history or the personal swagger and background to make him far more interesting than the main character or characters.
Scene Stealer Secondaries aren’t necessarily a bad thing, they can liven up a story at times, but they should never be one of the first characters introduced, particularly if the hero hasn’t been introduced.
Here are a few other examples.
In the original STAR WARS movie, what if Han Solo with his sexy swagger, sneer, and interesting history had been introduced before callow farm boy Luke?  
What if in the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, Captain Jack Sparrow had been introduced before Orlando Bloom’s character Will?
In both cases, we’d have had less connection and emotional attachment to the main character, less of a sense of who is the hero of the story, and less desire for the main character to reach his goal, not the secondary character’s goal.   We’d be undermining our main characters and pulling the reader away from the story we wanted to tell.
So, beware the Secondary Scene Stealer because he can also steal your story’s successful telling.
In my original example, Daddy Dearest isn’t the only problem with this first chapter.  In next week’s blog, I’ll discuss the other failure in this first chapter.