Creative Writing Essentials: Writing Stand-Out Opening Scenes | Daniel José Older | Skillshare

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Creative Writing Essentials: Writing Stand-Out Opening Scenes

teacher avatar Daniel José Older, New York Times Bestselling Author

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Getting Started


    • 3.

      The Relationship Between Story & Scene


    • 4.

      Anatomy of a Scene: Character Action


    • 5.

      Anatomy of a Scene: Narrative Movement


    • 6.

      Anatomy of a Scene: Driving Question


    • 7.

      FInal Thoughts


    • 8.

      Reading: First and Final Draft


    • 9.

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About This Class

Ever wonder what makes a great opening scene?

In this 45-minute class, New York Times bestselling author Daniel José Older shows you how to craft a compelling opening scene for your story. Using the first and last drafts of the opening scene for his urban fantasy novel Shadowshaper as a case study, Daniel breaks down the anatomy of a scene and provides clear and useful exercises to help you analyze character, movement, and structure. By the end you’ll have the tools needed to build gripping opening scenes and write cohesive stories! Throughout the class you’ll be learning about:

  • Microcosms and Macrocosms: how scene and stories are deeply connected
  • Character Action: what verb choice reveals about your characters
  • Narrative Movement: how the events in an opening scene set the stage and establish momentum 
  • Driving Question: how the opening scene plants the seeds of your story’s larger question

This class is for storytellers, writers, and anyone who wants to explore the inner workings of strong opening scenes. In the last video, Daniel reads through the rough and final draft of the opening scene of Shadowshaper, which you can download here and read beforehand.

Meet Your Teacher

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Daniel José Older

New York Times Bestselling Author


Daniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of the Middle Grade historical fantasy series Dactyl Hill Squad, the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, Star Wars: Last Shot, and the award winning Young Adult series the Shadowshaper Cypher, which won the International Latino Book Award and was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature, the Andre Norton Award, the Locus, the Mythopoeic Award, and named one of Esquire’s 80 Books Every Person Should Read.

You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at, on YouTube and @djolder on Twitter.

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Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: Hey everybody, I'm Daniel Jose Older. Author, organizer, former paramedic, and today we're going to talk about beginning scenes in stories. What makes them work, what doesn't work, and how to make them jump off the page? So, today we're breaking a scene down into three basic parts that we need to think about as we're looking at what works and what doesn't work. We're thinking about character action. What are the actual things that the character is doing? What are the verbs that are used during the course of the scene? We're also thinking about narrative movement, that means how does the story itself move around the characters, and through the characters over the course of the scene. Finally, the driving question of the story, and that's where we get into these bigger issues of what's your story really, really about on a deeper level, and how does that play out within the confines of each scene of the story. So, what we're going to look at today is the first draft of Shadopshaper, which was an entirely different book called Sierra Santiago in The Invisible City. We're also going to compare that to the final draft of the book that it became which is Shadowshaper. We're going to look at the first two chapters and see how they compare, and you will see me actually look at the different drafts and mark them up on the page so you can understand even on the micro level of word choice, and word by word, what works and what doesn't. What kind of decisions we have to make as writers in these different crossroads that we come across during the process? You can look at a story that you've already written and try to rewrite the opening scene, or you can take a story that's been written by somebody else and play around with that opening and see what works and what doesn't work. This class is for anybody that wants to be a writer or is a writer, or has even in the back of their mind thought about writing maybe one day, some day. Just try it. When you're trying to sell a novel, what you're selling is the beginning of that novel. That first chapter is what grabs people in, it's what the agent and the editor are going to be reading. That's what you really need to nail on a whole other level. So, get your typewriters out and let's get started. 2. Getting Started: So, today, we're going to use two examples of opening scenes and understanding what works with them. The first is a very early draft of the book that became Shadowshaper. It's called Sierra Santiago and the Invisible City. What you will find there is chapter one, the whole chapter one. The other resource we have is the actual final copy. After all of the different edits and the long journey of becoming a writer happened of Shadowshaper, the book that is published and out in the world. So, we can see what is different about there, what works and what doesn't, what are the positives and the negatives of each side, and really understand how they function within the idea of an opening scene. You can find the link to that in the class resources. So, Shadowshaper is a young adult, urban fantasy novel. It's about Sierra Santiago, who is a 16-year-old mural artist in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, finding out that she's part of this whole magical legacy of folks called Shadowshapers who use their magic to put spirits into art and bring that art to life so that it can go with bad guys asses and things like that. Shadowshaper is really the book that I learned how to write with. It's my first book, and in the process of it, it went through different agents and editors to finally get published, and I learned a whole lot while I was writing it. So, what you have in this final draft is a scene that's been worked over and over and over and change drastically as you will see into something completely different from where it was when it started, which makes it a great example for understanding things that work and don't work about beginnings. Here's what you'll need for this video. Either an idea for a story that you can go ahead and start writing based on the things that we talk about in this video, or a story that's already written that you can take and then take apart and put back together based on what we talk about, or someone else's story entirely that you can then look at their first chapter or opening scene and see what you would change if you were the one writing it. So, first up, we're going to start by talking about scenes and how they function in stories as a whole. 3. The Relationship Between Story & Scene: So, one of the most important concepts in storytelling is the idea of microcosms and macrocosms. What that means is that within each scene of a larger story, we have a story unto itself. So, if you think about that age old diagram that they probably did in your high school class about rising action and climax and then fall in action and [inaudible] and all that stuff which here is kind of trite and played out. But it also serves a very important function in terms of thinking about how things are structured, where is the turning point and keeping it from just being a static straight line which is what you don't want. You don't want it in a story and you don't want it in individual scenes that make up a story. So, if you think of the whole story as having that kind of arc, whatever will be comprised with that arc, you also want each scene along the way to also have the arc within it. So, every scene has a beginning, a middle and an end, and something happens within those brackets. In opening scene, this is particularly important because you're doing all the work of pulling the reader into the story and you're trying to let them know who the people are, you're introducing the characters and the world to us. The whole time that you do all that, you also have to be taking us along these steps of a story and getting us somewhere because you can't just sit there and give us what's called an info dump over and over especially in the beginning because we're trying to see what's happening, what's happening in this story. Tell us who the characters are real quick. Let us get to know them, but let us see them in action doing things and then move forward. The opening scene has the most work to do in the whole story. It's responsible for introducing things, it's responsible for word building, for character development, all in a quick snapshot. You don't have to do all the character development or all the word building but you have to do enough so that we have a sense of who this person is, what this place is about so, that we can engage ourselves with the actual story which is the most important thing that the opening scene is doing. So, the idea of this story arc that we see over and over again, is this idea in part of closing big, hitting this big climactic event that you've seen in movie after movie, the final battle, all the forces come into play, all the big bad guys etc. etc. and we have to get there. We can't just drop into the middle of some huge battle. Right? Because we don't know what the stakes are, we don't know if we care about the characters, and if we don't care about the characters, we don't really care about who wins the final battle. None of that matters. So, the work of story is kind of building us up to get to this moment that's going to be definitive in what this story is about and who wins at the end of the day. That's why you tend to see the high part come towards the end. And keep in mind that these explosions that I'm talking about, they're not actual explosions necessarily, sometimes emotional climaxes. Sometimes it's turning points in the lives of characters or just in the day of a character who has to make a decision. And sometimes it's a very minute decision, or sometimes it feels gigantic but it's not that big in the scope of the world, like asking someone out on a date or deciding what you're going to have for breakfast. It's how you the writer make it matter to us through the lens of the character that makes the whole thing come together and sing. So, the whole large story is going to follow give or take this particular arc of some kind of turning point where something changes and people or forces are up against each other and facing challenges and coming out to the other side of them for better or for worse. Just like the larger story does this, so do the small scenes within the story. Again, they might just be about a very everyday moment that when put in the context of this larger story has meaning and takes us to the next step of that larger story, but there's still a journey that the character is going to go on over the course of a scene so that something in their life or in the world around them or just in their internal monologue is different from the way it was when they started out the scene. Next we're going to talk about the anatomy of a scene, how the story and the characters move through a scene and what the actual action of it entails. 4. Anatomy of a Scene: Character Action: So, character action really means very literally what actions does the character take during the course of the scene. What are they doing? What are the verbs that we use to talk about what they're doing and how does that play out in our mind's eye as we're trying to conceptualize and see the scene? One very basic thing that you know right off the bat that's kind of a problem is that when a character is bored, the reader is probably going to be bored, too. I'm not saying you can never have a boring character but opening a book with a character who is just sitting in class waiting for it to end is a kind of a dicey thing to do. You might not want to do that because the reader then automatically is empathizing with the character and it's kind of like, yeah let's get this over with. It's not a really great way to start out the book. Whatever actions that character is doing do need to be things that tell us something about who that person is, deep down or even on the surface. Sitting in class is pretty much something that most people do at one time or another. So, on the one hand, it's great because it's universal, quasi universal and lots of people do it so they can relate. On the other hand, it's very static. You're literally talking about a room full of people doing absolutely nothing. That's what it mean when we talk about character action. One of the best ways to understand what the actual action that's happening within your scene is is by looking at the actual verbs that you use to talk about that action. We pulled a couple of the sentences that really tell the story of what's going on from each of these scenes to better understand how verbs play a role in defining the action. Let's look at the rough draft first. Here, we have Sierra gazed around the room. Sierra looked up at the clock four minutes and thirty seconds and then finally with a minute and a half to go, Sierra looked down at her black jeans and the crazy screaming faces on her T-shirt. The only actions that she's really doing in this scene are sitting down and looking at different things. She really doesn't move the whole time from her seat and that's true, everyone around her, too, and it really doesn't move the story forward at all. Contrast that to the final draft and the first scene that we have where even she does do some looking around, but the main thing that she's doing in this scene is painting a mural. Painting is exactly what Sierra does. That's who she is. In her core, she's a painter. She's a muralists, and that's what matters most about her for this story. But let's look at some of the other verbs. Even when Sierra is looking, she looked one last time at Papa Acevedo, shook her head and then climbed down the scaffolding. Now, here we have the relatively low key action of looking at something transformed into a larger action of actually shaking your head and then fully moving your body from one place to another which is a full action. Notice that these aren't gigantic super action-packed type of motions. When we say action, we don't mean like shootouts necessarily. We're just talking about movement from one place to another. The things that you do throughout the day. The other piece about this is that it's very real to life. People generally don't sit perfectly still like I'm doing right now and just talk to each other. Generally, we're doing other things, we're multitasking, and that makes the scene come to life even if you're just making coffee with a cafeteria or your characters are walking down the street and what's happening around them. There is movement, there is motion, there is action and that matters. That matters in how we take in the scene and how the scene itself moves forward. Here in this closing section, we can really understand how serious thoughts and actions that she's taken come together to create a final momentum to bring us to the end of the scene and then push us into the next scene. Sierra texted a quick "yeah" and pocketed her phone. She started walking. The mural had cried. Was she losing her mind? She still had to get ready for the party and check on Grandpa Lazaro but all she could think about was Papa Acevedo's teardrop. An early summer breeze wafted through Sierra's hair as she fast walked past brownstones and corner stores rounded a corner onto Lafayette and headed home. Do you see how the momentum of that paragraph picks up as we move through the paragraph? She starts out thinking something, she's texting someone, she's thinking about other stuff, she starts walking and her pace actually increases, and that leads us right into whatever is going to happen next. So, in the rough draft, we have a character who's sitting still, essentially for the whole scene, and really barely doing anything at all except for looking at things and remembering things. We don't know anything about who she is as a person except through her memories and thoughts which really isn't enough. Books are about people moving through things and doing things just as much as they are about our internal thoughts. So, whereas in the first draft, we have a character pretty much sitting still and not doing anything at all except thinking about stuff and remembering stuff and looking at stuff. We really don't find out that much about who she is as a person. In the final draft, we have a character in motion, doing the thing that she loves the most. Finally, over here, she is taking action with her body in the service of finding out the answer to a mystery. That's exactly what we need to know. Sierra is now going to be our guide through this story. She's going to find out what happened. She's determined. She's fast walking towards the answer to this question and that's exactly what you want the reader to be doing, too. That's our guide. So, the reader is following our guide making moves to get the answer to this riddle. We will follow her wherever she goes. So, here's what I want you to do. Take the story that you're writing, the story that you've already written or someone else's story, take out your pen and just circle every single verb in the first scene and then take a look at them and see what they tell you about what's really happening in the scene. Are they passive or active verbs? Meaning, is the character actually doing something or is something being done to the character? Is it a verb that paints a picture of action in our minds, whether it's a simple action like walking down the street or reaching over to pick something up or is it a verb that conveys total stillness like gazing or listening? They don't really do anything for us visually in our minds. 5. Anatomy of a Scene: Narrative Movement: If you watch my other class, Fundamentals of Storytelling, you know that all narrative really revolves around the idea of crisis, of a turning point. That's what we mean when we talk about Narrative Movement. It's not so much the movement of the characters themselves; it's the movement of the story through those actions. So what is happening between the first line, and the last line? What is the action of the story itself? Not just the characters within the story. One of the best ways to get a clear sense of what is actually happening in the Narrative Movement of a scene, is to take the first line, and the last line, and see what happens in between those lines. By in between, I mean what are the actual events that take place in between in real time, not the thoughts, and not the flashbacks, and not the backstory, but the actual things that happen. Here by line actually I mean a couple of lines. We give a little bit of breath around that. But for the rough draft, the first line is Seven minutes to go. Just seven minutes by the slow ticking clock on the wall, and summer stretched out like the endless fields of Prospect Park. So why was Mr. Albridge still bumbling along some other droll of a lecture like it mattered? Why couldn't the clock move a little faster? That's our introduction. That's where we're starting now. What's our End Point? The last line. After an eerie silence, Sierra heard the most horrible howling she'd ever heard in her life. It sounded human and not at the same time. It kept getting louder and louder. It came from the vault. So what happened between those things? Sierra sat in the classroom. She thought about things that had happened earlier, because keep in mind remember, the stuff that she's remembering doesn't count in terms of what we're talking about between the first line and the last line. All that actually technically happened before the first line, so it doesn't go towards Narrative Movement. What does happen? She thinks again, and then when finally there is an actual event, it's literally the last line of the whole thing. So now we're moving forward, and it's something cool, but what's her interaction with it? We don't know. What does she do based on it? We have no idea. Does she take an action? She doesn't it. She's barely a protagonist. She's just a witness in this story. Now that might be all well and good early on in this story although I wouldn't recommend it, but especially when you're getting towards the end, your protagonist has to take action. Your best place to really start establishing that is as early as possible. Again that action doesn't have to be gigantic, she doesn't have to be killing bad guys, or shooting dudes, or anything, she has to be moving and reacting like a normal person would, so we get a sense of her actions. So, for the final draft, there's an interesting contrast here. The first line we have. "Sierra, what are you staring at? Nothing Manny. " Blatant lie. Sierra glanced down from the scaffolding to where Manny the Domino King stood with his arms crossed over his chest. "Are you sure?" The last line. In early summer breeze wafted through Sierra's hair as she fast walked past brownstones and corner stores around the corner onto Lafayette, and headed home. What happened in between those two lines? First of all, we get to witness firsthand that the tear in the mural slid down the face of the mural. That is the magic of shadows shaping happening right in front of our eyes. It's on camera so to speak. So we actually get to see it through Sierra's eyes. It's not a memory, it's not a thought, it's not a dream, it's happening in real time in front of us. That's the most important thing. Beyond that, Sierra gets to react to it. She decides to keep it a secret. She thinks about telling Manny, but she doesn't. Meanwhile, Manny is going through something. It's sounds like someone that he cares about has died or disappeared, but we don't totally know what. We find out in real time. Sierra finds out in real time too, and she's worried. So now she takes an actual action. She moves from one place to another from the scaffolding climbs all the way down to the street level to have a deeper conversation with Manny. Then they both head off in their separate ways into the night. So we're left with this last line with a sense of momentum moving into the next scene. Sierra has some problems that she has to solve, and she's going to a party, and she's about to see her grandfather who we know is somehow involved in whatever's going on in the neighborhood. All these things are really happening right in front of us, and we don't have to think about when they happened, or whether we're moving back and forth through time, it's all very straightforward and streamlined. Since this is an opening scene this as we've talked about has a lot of work to do. So again, we want to use every part of it to do as much work as it can to multitask. So while we're finding out about Sierra, as we talked about what the actual action sequence of what the characters are doing, we have to understand too that the movement of story through this scene matters. So what this scene is saying to us as an opener is that things are going to be happening in real time right in front of us, and Sierra is going to be involved with them, and invested, and making moves to find out what the problem is and solve it. That's the Narrative Flow and Momentum, and that's what gets the story moving which is the job of the beginning. So here's what I want you to do. Go to the first line and the last line, and separate them. Then look at them both, and ask yourself what actually happens in between those two lines. What are the actual things that transpired, the events that go down in real time between those lines? Flashbacks don't count, back backstory doesn't count, dream sequences definitely don't count, and all the assorted other things that aren't actually happening to the character or the character isn't actually doing right in front of our faces in the actual scene, and the events that transpired between the first line and the last line, none of that counts unless it's happening in real time. That's your job. Once you've mapped it out, look at it. Ask yourself, is there really movement forward in this story? Is it leading me to the next scene, or is it just a bunch of people sitting around in a classroom being bored? 6. Anatomy of a Scene: Driving Question: What is the driving question of your story? It's one of those ethereal out there things that are really hard to pin down, and that's okay. That's what it should be. Not everything in literature is clearly defined and you can demarcate and enumerate, and that's why we love story. So, don't let it shake you up or freak you out. Understand that you're not going to be able to summarize it simply with a couple of sentences, it's not an elevator pitch that you throw at someone and go, "This is what is really about." It's going to be complicated, you're not going to have an easy answer. Having said that, you do have to know and you probably do know, that's what the good news is. If you really think about it, usually, if you go back to that initial spark that got you to write the story in the first place, somewhere in there is the answer. What is it that you are passionate about in this story? What is it that you love? What is the thing that you would never ever take out of the story? If you know that, then you actually have a lot more freedom to then cut and paste and put things back together. This story itself is actually a really good example with Sierra Santiago and the Invisible City, which was the first draft that I wrote, I knew I wanted to tell this story about magical Brooklyn and kids of color having adventures, and fighting bad guys, and also dealing with the very real things that are going on today including racism, and gentrification, and sexism. That's what I wanted to do, knowing that, knowing that that was the heart of the story, allowed me to then do massive rewrites and change huge parts of it to then go ahead and create the book that it became which was Shadow Shaper. If I hadn't been clear on that, I would have had a really hard time taking it apart and putting it back together because I wouldn't have know which pieces really needed to stay in place. I got to change the mythology around, I got to bring in new characters, I got to move the different scenes to different places, all because I understood on some deeper level. I maybe couldn't have articulated it at the time but I understood what I really wanted to do with this story. Somewhere in you, you know what this story is about, the story that you're trying to tell. That's what you have to understand when you're working through this piece. Whatever it is that this story is really about, something in this first scene has to motion us towards that, has to give us some sense of it. You're planting seeds, you're asking questions, you're not answering them which is good because you probably don't know the answer. Probably, you'll figure it out by the time you get to the end and that's around when the reader should be figuring it out too. So, it works out nicely. This is also a good way to think about edits. So, when someone reads your story and gives you notes on it whether it's an agent, an editor, beta reader, whoever, listen to what they're telling you and then listen to your instinct and ask yourself, and ask the story; are these edits bringing me closer to the heart of the story or they're taking it somewhere completely different than I never wanted it to be? These are all important things that you want to start to know and figure out as you're moving through this process. Again, coming back to this idea of the opening scene, we need some sense of what the story is about in that opening scene. It's like a little seed, or a hint that's going to guide us always towards that beating heart that we get to somewhere in the middle or usually at the end. For Sierra Santiago and the Invisible City, which is the rough draft, it's a story about a lot of things. It's a story about Sierra coming of age, just like both of these drafts are, and essentially, finding out about this whole invisible world of monsters that lives right under the surface of Brooklyn, and they're centered around this monstrous tower that's in downtown Brooklyn where a lot of the final action takes place. Here we have a little bit of it. We have a hint in the first scene. The sound of a boy yelling came from outside the window. The voice was terrified; the way people holler in horror movies when they're getting eaten. Benny's head shot up, Sierra's pen clattered to the floor. After an eerie silence, Sierra heard the most horrible howling she'd ever heard in her life. It's scary, and it gives us the sense that there's something big out there. Essentially though, and this might be a flaw that is more about the larger narrative than the opening scene, the tower is somewhat disconnected from Sierra's life. It's really just something that is nearby her school, and that she wonders about but she's not that deeply connected to it. Even though as the story progresses, she gets connected to it by way of this secret world of monsters. That connection is a little bit frail. So, we get a sense of it in the early scene. Yes, and we know that this is an element, and that's important because it starts to ask the question that we then go ahead and answer over the course of the book. But the connection again, it's a little bit light, and we want to get a little bit deeper than that. So, how can we push it further? Let's go to the final draft. In Shadow Shaper, the story is really about the magic of shadows shaping, and Sierra's deeply connected to that first and foremost, because she's a painter, she's an artist. Shadow shaping is all about creating art, and then bringing spirit into that art, and helping it come to life and save lives. That's the whole thing, that's the magic of the story. So, when we open up this story, the first thing that we see Sierra doing is staring at this mural while she's painting another mural, and recognizing that something has changed. It's faded, and the face seems worried, and there's a tear in the eye. That's only the set up really, because then what happens deeper in the scene is this line. The glistening tear trembled, slid out of the old man's eye and down to his painted face. Sierra gasped. What the? Right there we have the central thesis of the whole story, the central question of shadow shaping presented in real time, and we get the character's reaction to it. She gasped, she is astounded. So, the reader should be astounded too, because we're seeing things through Sierra's eyes. That sets up everything that happens next, and the whole final climax, and showdown, and all of her journey to get there, is really set off by this one key moment. Because we get this moment in the first chapter, in that opening scene, that is drawing the reader's focus to that magic. That's a way of signaling that this is going to matter, that this is important. We could have gotten that painting, crying and painting happening a couple of scenes in, and it might of still work because we would have spent that time establishing Sierra as a character, establishing her in her neighborhood, et cetera. But in order to really let the reader know that this is what the story is really about, and this is what it's going to set off the action, we really need it as upfront as possible. What I want you to do for this exercise, and it's not going to be easy or simple, is really figure out what the central question, what the beating heart of your story is. What is the part of it that you would never ever change no matter what? What is the initial spark that sets you off to write this story? What is the thing you're most excited about within this story? Then ask yourself, how does it play out throughout the story, but especially, what in the opening scene really speaks to that aspect of this story? 7. FInal Thoughts: So, let's go over everything. What have we learned? Microcosms and macrocosm. Every story has them, they are key to making sure that a scene is a story unto itself. Then, we can think about how all those scenes and stories come together to tell the larger narrative of what's your bigger story is. But remember, each scene has a beginning, and has a middle, and an ending, and something changes in every single scene. That's why it matters. The characters in the scene have to do something. That something can be a normal everyday thing. They don't have to be shooting laser beams at aliens, but they have to be taking some kind of action. Whatever that may be. Ideally, because that opening scene has to do a lot of work by telling us what's going on in the world around us, and who these characters are, those actions can do the double work of making the scene interesting by having things happening and telling us about the characters. So, what actions are your characters taking? Are they doing things that matter to their lives? Or are they just kind of sitting there? These are questions you want to ask yourself. Finally, we want to think about what the driving question of your story is. What is its beating heart? What is that thing that you can't quite define, but you know really matters the most within your story? How does that opening scene speak to that larger question? Remember, it's not going to answer the question because that was the point of the rest of the book, it's really going to start asking those questions, both micro and macro questions, that will guide us to the next paragraph, the next page, the next chapter, and finally, the ending which will provide some kind of answer or resolution to those opening questions. So, upload your projects, analyze your scenes for the things that we've talked about, think about what actions transpire? How does the story move forward? What are the larger questions asked by your story? Then, be in conversation with other writers. Thanks for taking this class. Have a great time writing and write some great opening scenes. 8. Reading: First and Final Draft: Sierra Santiago and The Invisible City, a rough draft of Shadow Shaper. Chapter one. T minus, seven minutes to go. Just seven minutes by the slow ticking clock on the wall and Summer stretched out like the endless field of Prospect Park. So, why was Mr. Aldridge still bumbling along some other droll of a lecture like it mattered? Why couldn't the clock move a little faster? Sierra, gazed around the room. In the next seat over, her best friend, Benny, bobbed up and down in endless slo-mo head bang of the unconscious. Isenya scribbled a note to Imani, who silently mouthed out phrases from her newest rhyme. And Robbie, Sierra allowed her gaze to hang on Robbie for three reverent ticks of the clock, before looking quickly away. Robbie was drawing as usual, sketching winding swirls and hidden letters into another page of his math notebook. Big Malik and little Malik were both staring at Mr. Aldridge, but Sierra could tell, they were really plotting out some mischief for the party at Sally's later that night. She shot a timid glance back over to Robbie and noticed he was not drawing now, but gazing intently out the classroom window at that monstrosity of a building looming in windowless, that they called The Vault. Kids at PS 291 in Downtown Brooklyn probably spent more time telling dumb stories about The Vault than doing anything else. All kinds of people were said to have disappeared into its depth and never returned. Both Malik swore up and down that it had a rocket ship or missile inside it. "That's why there's no windows. It's really a launch pad." Several people claimed it was guarded by a squadron of blind ex-marines, who let out bloodcurdling howl to alert each other of intruders. Even Mr. Aldridge had added to the local mythology of the place, claiming to have once seen an extra tall figure silhouetted against the dark sky late one night after leaving a long-running PTA meeting. But now, Aldridge was going on at length on some much more mundane topic, something about the Founding Fathers, and go into bed at a reasonable hour. Sierra let her restless thoughts drift back over the past week. It'd been a strange one that only seemed to get stranger as the weekend draw near. Maybe it was just the excitement of her last days of ninth grade. The smell of pizza, fried chicken, sun on the hot pavement, and the sound of smiling people out in the street, but something, something a little off kilter was going on. First, there was the problem with the murals. They just wouldn't stay still. Sierra passed six on her morning skateboard ride to school. Some of them memorials to friends and family who died, some scenic landscapes, some just tags and abstract shapes, but all of them had been changing, just ever so slightly from day to day. The faces, one of them Bennie's big brother, Vincent, who was killed three years earlier, all seemed to be gazing with curiosity toward Downtown Brooklyn where Sierra's school was. By Wednesday, even the jagged shapes and fluid word loops had began to gather and point toward the downtown edges of their walls. It reminded Sierra of the faces people make when they're staring down the tunnel on the train platform, waiting for that light to come around the bend. And then, there was the smoke. Late Wednesday night, Sierra rounded a corner onto Lafayette on her way home from Bennie's, and there it was, a single plume rising up from about five feet off the sidewalk. Really, if it hadn't been for the whole business of the murals changing around, Sierra would have just ignored it. But the unmistakable smell of malaguena, spilled the air and absolutely no one, not a soul was around to account for it. The street was empty. Finally, there was her grand Tio Lazaro. The thick aroma of cigar smoke immediately reminded her of him, because his little apartment upstairs always had that smell, as if he had those little air freshener and hanging things made to send the scent of his favorite tobaccos from the island. Sierra's grand Tio Lázaro, had always been a kind of mystery to her. A nasty stroke four years ago had left him bedbound and mostly nonsensical. With Sierra's much older brother, Jimmy, off in Afghanistan, and slightly older brother Juan, away getting famous with his salsa Thrasher band, their mom had put her in charge of keeping things orderly into Tio Lazaro's apartment. Only thing was, that the place managed to stay quite neat and tidy all by itself. So, Sierra got used to going up there and half-tidy it up for 45 minutes every other day, while her uncle chuckled and sang old Puerto Rican songs to her. But this week, this crazy week, old man Lázaro, sat up suddenly and looks Sierra right in the eye. Something that hadn't happened once in the four years since his stroke. He seemed to want to say something, almost spoke, but then just chuckled and lay back down. Sierra got completely creeped out, finished her fake clean-up early and quickly retreated back downstairs to pretend everything was normal. She looked up at the clock; four minutes and thirty seconds. She wanted to scream, could almost see herself sailing out the classroom on her faithful skateboard, careening down the hallway out the school door and into the warm embrace of summer. Summer in Brooklyn was t-shirts and shorts, and no more sticky school clothes, and boys out on the streets, and no waking up a stupid 6:00 in the morning, and overnight at Bennie's, and popsicles from Carlos's corner store, and water fights around open hydrants, and hours and hours of just skating, and skating, and skating, and nothing else. Starting it all off was a party at Sally's, where Robbie would almost definitely be. Even if he'd be shy and withdrawn as usual, speaking of Robbie, why was he still staring out at The Vault? The boy looked downright fascinated. His skinny braids pulled back into a ponytail, a few stragglers framing his dark brown face. With a minute and a half to go, Sierra looked down at her black jeans and the crazy screaming face on her t-shirt. She wondered if she was too fat, or skinny, or goth, or boring for Robbie. She tried as hard as she could not to care if she was too dark skinned, or light skinned, if her hair was too curly, or too fine, if he saw all those bracelets clanking around the leather band on her wrist, she'd never let what other kids thought get in the way of her style. Always prided herself on being just herself. Sierra Santiago, and if anyone didn't like it, they could walk on by. But then, came Robbie, a mid-year transfer from Stuyvesant. He had a skinny butt and loping stride, a Brooklynish mixed with Creole way of speaking, and what seemed like one endless labyrinth of liquidy hip-hop letters sketched across all his notebooks, textbooks, pants, and backpacks. Not to mention any desk he happened to be sitting at or near. To break the tension, Sierra reached her pen toward her best friend still bobbing head, and tried ever so slowly place it in her ear. The sound of a boy yelling came from outside the window. The voice was terrified, the way people holler in horror movies when they're getting eaten. Benny's head shot up, Sierra's pen clattered to the floor. After an eerie silence, Sierra heard the most horrible howling she'd ever heard in her life. It sounded human, and not at the same time. It kept getting louder and louder. It came from The Vault. Shadowshaper, the final draft. Chapter one. "Sierra, what are you staring at?" "Nothing, Manny." A blatant lie. Sierra glanced down from the scaffolding, to where Manny, the Domino King stood with his arms crossed over his chest. "Are you sure?" Sierra looked back at the mural. She hadn't been making it up. A single tear glistened at the corner of Papa Acevedo's squinted eyes. Of course there was a movie. It was paint. But still, it hadn't been there yesterday or the day before, and the portrait was fading. It seemed to disappear more and more every hour. This afternoon, when she arrived at the junk-lot to work on her own painting, it took Sierra a few seconds to find the old man's face peering out from the concrete, but fading murals and crying murals were totally different flavors of weird. "Manny? " "Get go Sir Sierra! " She looked harder at the tear but it wouldn't go away. Wasn't a trick of the fading afternoon light. But how? "Sierra, what is it?" "Nothing." She turned back to her own painting, on a much newer concrete facade adjacent to the old brick building Papa Acevedo's face stared out of. "Your sure the people who own this building won't be mad about my mural?" "We are sure they will be," Manny chuckled. "That's why we asked you to do it. We hate the tower. We spit on the tower. Your paintings are nasty Lugie Hochtief to stupidity that is the tower." "Great." The tower had shown up just over a year ago, totally unannounced. A four story concrete monstrosity on a block, otherwise full of brownstones. They built it quick, and this northern wall sat right on the edge of the junk lot, where mountains of trashed cars waited like crumpled up scraps of paper, for someone to repair them. Manny and the other old guys that played Dominos there, had immediately declared war on it. Sierra dubbed dark green paint along the neck of the dragon she was working on. It reared all the way up to the fifth floor of that tower, and even though most of its body was just outlines, Sierra could tell it was going to be fierce. She shaded rows of scales, and spines and smiled at how the creature seemed to come to life a fraction more with each new detail. When Manny came asking her to paint something, she'd refuse at first. She'd never painted a mural before, just filled notebook after notebook with wild creatures and winged battle-ready versions of her friends and neighbors. And a whole wall, it seemed impossible and exciting all at the same time. If she messed up all of Bedstar would see it. But Manny was persistent. Said she could paint anything she wanted. Said he'd set up a scaffolded. That if her old grandpa Lazaro was still talking in full sentences, instead of laid up from that stroke he'd had, he would have wanted her to do it too. That last one sealed it. Sierra couldn't say no to even the idea of grandpa Lazaro. She added a few more scales along the wings. It was the second day of summer. The icky cramped feeling of being stuck in a classroom all day was still fading from Sierra's body, and the next three months stretched ahead, like the sun soaked fields of Prospect Park. Her phone buzz, with a text from her best friend, Benny. "Party at Sally's tonight. First of the summer. I'm going to meet you at your house, be ready in an hour." The first party of the summer was always amazing. Everyone would be so excited that collective sigh of having made it through another school year, bristling with the anticipation of all that lay ahead. Sierra smiled, pocketed her phone and started packing her supplies up. The dragon could wait. She looked back at the mural of Papa Acevedo, barely visible at all against the crumbling brick wall. It wasn't just that there was a tear, the man, the painting rather, looked downright afraid. Papa Acevedo had been one of grandpa Lázaro and Manny's Domino buddies. He'd always had a kind smile, or joke for Sierra, and whoever had painted his memorial portrait had captured that warmth perfectly. But now, Papa Acevedo's face seemed wide open somehow. Eyebrows raised, the dark edges of his mouth turned down beneath that unruly mustache, the glistening tear trembled, slid out of the old man's eye and down his painted face. Sierra gasped, what the- the scaffolding shivered. Sierra looked down. Manny had one hand on a support beam, the other cupped around the phone ear piece he always had in. His head was bowed, shaking from side to side. "When?" Manny said. "How long ago?" She looked one last time at Papa Acevedo, shook her head, and climbed down the scaffolding. "You are sure?" He looked up at her, shook his head, looked back down. "You're sure it was him?" "You're okay?" Sierra whispered. "I'll be right there." Yeah. [inaudible] Okay. Manny poked the button on his earpiece and stared at the ground for a few seconds. "What happened?" Sierra asked. "Reporter stuff." Manny said. He closed his eyes. Besides being the self-appointed Domino King of Brooklyn, many published, wrote, and delivered the Bedstar searchlight. He churned out the three pages of local gossip and event updates from a little basement printing press, over on Ralph Avenue. The searchlight had been coming every day for as long as Sierra could remember. "Somebody you know?" Manny nodded. "New. Old Vernon, we called him. He's gone.". "Dead?" Manny nodded, shook his head, nodded again. "Manny, what does that mean?". "I have to go Sierra. You finish this painting. You hear me?" "What? Tonight. Manny I-. "No. No.' He looked at her, finally smiled. Of course not. Just soon. "Okay, Manny." In a flurry of jangling keys and heavy breathing, Manny shut down the industrial lights and let them out of the iron fence around the junk-lot. Have a good time tonight Sierra. Don't worry about me, but be careful. Sierra's phone buzzed again as she watched Manny rush off into the Brooklyn night. It was Benny. "You coming, right?" Sierra texted a quick yes and pocketed her phone. She started walking. The mural had cried. Was she losing her mind? She still had to get ready for the party and check on grandpa Lazaro, but all she could think about was Papa Acevedo's tear drop. An early summer breeze wafted through Sierra's hair as she fast walked, past brownstones and corner stores, rounded a corner onto Lafayette and headed home. 9. Explore More Skillshare Classes: