Teaching the Fun Institute’s drop-in improv class last Saturday, I found myself coaching improvisors to take their time during that very important part of the scene when a character first sees another character on stage. It generally happens shortly after she/he enters. So much goes on in that “point of recognition” moment. When actors play it fully, the audience can tell if their character is surprised or expecting the encounter, and the assumptions that are coloring their first glimpse of this other someone who is likely going to affect their lives. It may be a character they already know. But how do they feel about him/her today? In this moment?
It occurred to me that this moment carries equal weight when writing fiction. You can do so much with it. Romance writers are pros at drawing out the meeting of two characters, as they should be; two people meeting and falling in love is what the whole book is about, so that first “thin slice” as Malcolm Gladwell calls it in his book “Blink” is really important. But I think it’s a great moment for all writers to exploit. It can tell the reader as much about the person doing the witnessing as it does about the person being witnessed.
In “Rest Home Runaways” I describe Cora’s first sighting of Tawn with descriptors like this: “…had a mop of curly blond hair pulled into an unruly ponytail … a hitchhiker?… maybe a transient … had good teeth.”
Then she goes on to think: “But really, [it] was starting to sound a bit too much like Thelma and Louise. And that hitchhiker did something terrible to the women—robbed them or raped them, Cora couldn’t remember which—and he had good teeth.”
Cora’s first take on him is colored by prejudice and fear, which tells us a lot about her.
So, like I said to my improv students, don’t gloss over these Points of Recognition, use them as opportunities to show us how your protagonist thinks and feels. Not only will it be fun to read, it’s fun to write, to get into your character’s head and see through her/his eyes.