Deleted Scene: CONTAGION's original opening
A look at how the first scene of my sci-fi horror novel evolved from first draft
“Deleted scene” isn’t quite the right term, because the scene we’re going to look at today still exists in the final book. But this scene evolved so much during drafting and revisions that it’s almost unrecognizable from its original form.
Why? Well, Contagion wasn’t always a YA novel. It originally began as adult. It had all adult characters and only one narrator—Gunner, an ecologist in his early twenties who is working a research job on the ice sheets of Soter when he gets pulled into a rescue mission he’s not qualified for.
You may seem some of Contagion’s premise here, as you should, because premise of the book never really changed.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Contagion, here’s a quick pitch:
After receiving an urgent SOS from a work detail on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is dispatched to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission. But when the crew arrives, they find an abandoned site, littered with rotten food, discarded weapons...and dead bodies.
As they try to piece together who—or what—could have decimated an entire operation, they discover that some things are best left buried—and some monsters are only too ready to awaken.
This sci-fi horror novel has always been about a rescue mission-gone-wrong, about an under-qualified team trying to survive on a brutally dangerous planet called Achlys. It just took me a long time to realize who the true narrators of this story needed to be—and why.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the original opening to the novel. (Please be warned there are slight Contagion spoilers ahead.)
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Near-original opening scene, drafted in 2012:
The air in the lab was cold and sterile, but after almost a year at Northwood, and knowing how much colder it was outside, Gunner had grown to find the interior downright cozy.
Resting before him on the cool aluminum table, was the most recent coyshark sample Carrow had caught. It looked normal in many ways: the six foot length, slightly squashed snout, impressive caudal fin. This one was early in the mutation process, just a tinge of black taking over its silvery skin.
The species had been going through some disturbing changes lately: changes in color, odd growths to their fins, gills closing up—almost like they were scabs trying to heal. They’d been pulled from the water in various states of mutation by ice fishers, and if the species’ odd developments weren’t enough cause for worry, fisheries up and down the ice caps had reported an inability to bring in their normal catch volume. Carrow had been sent to Northwood nearly two years earlier and if you asked anyone in the Union agriculture department, he should have solved it by now. But whatever was happening beneath the two feet of ice was far from the innocuous climate shift Carrow first expected.
In fact, the waters hadn’t changed a degree—that was the first test he’d run. And the salmon schools still existed, they just seemed harder to catch. It was the coyshark, scaring them off, it seemed. And something was happening to the coyshark themselves. Something that felt like a decade’s worth of evolution playing out in select sharks over the course of a few days.
Gunner picked up the scalpel and slit the shark open. The tests would be the same as always: check the shark’s diet, run DNA tests, record results. He lost himself in the work. It was an hour later, when Gunner’s name sounded over the lab intercom system, that he looked up for the first time. Standing on the opposite side of the glass panels closing off the lab, was Dylan. She raised her eyebrows, as though this should have been enough for him to know what she wanted. When he didn’t move, she pressed down the speech button on the com beside the door and spoke into it.
Her voice again broke through the lab: “I need to talk to you.”
Gunner sighed, peeled off his gloves, and left the dissected coyshark on the table. He passed through the glass doors and joined Dylan in the hall.
“Pack your things,” she said without so much as a greeting.
“I’ll say it again: Why?”
Dylan pressed her hands to her eyes, dropped her chin. Dark hair, cut to barely hit her shoulders, swung forward as she exhaled. “I don’t have time for this.”
“Then you’re going to have to give me more information,” Gunner said. She glanced up at him, chapped lips pinched together. “Listen. You’re not my boss. I don’t just blindly follow whatever you feel like snapping at me.”
Dylan folded her arms over her chest. “It’s classified. I can’t tell you.”
“Then I’m not packing anything or going anywhere.”
“It was my father’s shuttle, okay? The short range shuttle. Empty! It came all the way from Achlys and all that was in it was com-panel, but everything on it is scrambled. The only thing Toby could get off it was audio: Help. Send Help. That’s all he said.”
“Okay, so send help.”
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“Well, you’re not telling me much.” This was why Gunner hated talking. Secrets. Half-truths. Pieces of facts. And he was supposed to magically put it all together, understand things not even being said.
“Just pack your shit. We’re taking off tonight, and we need a medic seeing as ours went into town with Carrow.”
It took Gunner a moment to realize she was serious. “I am in no way qualified to be your medic.”
“You’re researching the coyshark, right? With Carrow?”
“Then you know how to use a scalpel and you’re not squeamish around blood. You’ll do fine.”
“Not the same as people.” Dylan looked at him blankly. “Shark,” he clarified. “Cutting them up is not the same as operating on a human. Why can’t you wait for Henry to get back?”
“I don’t have time to wait. Especially not with the storm kicking up out there. We could be socked in for weeks if we don’t lift off tonight, and I can’t waste a single minute that could be spent getting us closer to Achlys.” When Gunner remained quiet she added, “Look, Carrie’s got a medical background as well. Between the two of you we should be fine.”
Gunner glanced toward the lab. He was in the middle of taking a sample. And who would continue the research while he was gone?
“We’ll fly to Achlys, get the team out of whatever bind their in—I’m sure it’s something stupid like Mickey crying mutiny; the power-hungry idiot—and then we’ll fly right back,” Dylan said. “Leave Carrow a note if it will make you feel better, but I need you. Right now.”
Something felt wrong about the whole thing—her wanting a young ecologist who couldn’t do much more than stitch wounds to act as the team’s medic. And he was supposed to go home soon at the end of the month. Back to Govine, to university, to finish his degree so that his life could finally get started.
“Gunner, I really can’t waste another minute. Don’t make me order you.”
He scoffed and she took a step closer. Gunner was a full head taller and yet Dylan didn’t seem to realize it. Her eyes were on fire, her sharp nose turned up to him like a knife wanting to slit his throat.
“My Union clearance overrides Carrow’s by such a longshot it’s not even funny.” Her right hand went to her hip, unsnapping the restraint that held her gun firmly in its holster. Fingers closed around the grip. “Now,” she said, glaring up at him, “I will order you if it comes to it.”
“Then I guess I don’t have an option.”
“Precisely.” She stepped back.
“I’ll pack my stuff.”
“Hangar. Twenty minutes.” Dylan eyed Gunner up and down, nose wrinkled. “And shower first if you can. You reek of fish.”
I actually had another opening version before this one, but I can’t seem to track it down. It was very similar except that Gunner simply worked for a fishery and Dylan’s crew was stationed nearby. Since it made no sense for her to recruit Gunner’s help in this scenario, I changed him to an ecologist, working at the same facility as Dylan—that’s what you just read above.
Let’s overlook how roughly written this scene is for a moment. (It’s a first draft, so of course it’s rough!)
If you’ve read Contagion, you’ll recognize Dylan from this scene… but not much else.
Dylan is one of the few characters/elements that existed in all iterations of this book. She came to me pretty fully realized; the personality you see in the above scene is very close to the personality you meet in the finished copy.
However, the more I worked on this draft, the more problems I ran into. I knew that the mutations Gunner was studying would help him solve the mysteries around the titular contagion he’d eventually encounter on Achlys, but I couldn’t figure out how to get him to that moment. I also didn’t really understand what Gunner wanted, as a person. He was gruff and grumpy, and he thought Dylan was an idiot, but his backstory was a mystery to me. I kept trying to get him off on his adventure, beyond the point of no return, but nothing felt like it was working. I didn’t know what he wanted out of life…
I was writing in circles.
I started to reimagine Gunner as younger—a teen, maybe a high school girl—working an internship. An "opportunity of a lifetime” scenario. This started to feel better.
It would provide me with a character even more likely to follow Dylan’s lead, despite it being risky. It also gave me better stakes. Someone with a plan (go to University), with big dreams and wishes, with a lot to lose if her internship failed.
The trouble became… why would Dylan bring a teen along on her rescue mission?
The intern’s mentor would need to come too. But in the version you just read above, Carrow (the boss/mentor figure) is absent. He’s in town running errands. I’d need to reconfigure things…
Around this time, I visited my good friend. It was the fall of 2015. We went on a stroll through a really peaceful cemetery—the weather was gorgeous, sunny but crisp—and we talked about how I was stuck.
Susan wisely pointed out that it wasn’t enough for the mentor to come on the mission because my intern was a minor. There needed to be a bigger reason for Dylan to want/need the mentor on the team.
This led us to backstory. We developed a whole history for Carrow (who I eventually renamed Tarlow and recast as an elderly female microbiologist). Susan and I figured out that Tarlow had developed an annoying and benign tremor in her hands that made her work difficult. She brought on an intern—my teen protagonist—to help.
We also discovered that Tarlow had been to this distant planet, Achlys, before. As a kid, she’d lived in a bunker while her parents worked a gig there… A gig that ultimately ended in tragedy. Tarlow has her own secrets—things she witnessed and experienced during her time on the planet—and those secrets would be crucial to the big twist in the novel’s third act.
But in the first act, Sooz and I agreed that Tarlow’s previous experience on Achlys would be of great value to Dylan. A manager/boss above Dylan could even order the forewoman to bring Tarlow along.
Now I had a great twist to look forward to and a reason for Tarlow—and her teen intern—to be swept up in the adventure.
It was a huge lightbulb moment for me. Suddenly the story clicked into place. I felt gears turning. When I started writing again, I was no longer writing in circles.
After a few more rewrites and revisions, I had the following…
Opening scene, circa 2016:
They were five hundred kilometers from the nearest town, but on Soter’s ice caps, with the cold bearing down like an ice pick on Thea Sadik’s lungs, it felt more like five thousand.
She wouldn’t trade any of it—not the hard labor or the long hours or the chance to work beneath Doctor Lisbeth Tarlow. But there were days like this, with the wind biting at her frame and the clouds hanging oppressively low, that she wished her internship had been stationed somewhere warmer. An offshore drilling operation in the tropics, perhaps. Even a gig in a gloomy, rain-stricken city like the one she called home would have been preferable to the arctic. It might have even felt balmy by comparison.
But wishing would get Thea nowhere. It was years of hard work that had won her this internship, and she was grateful for it. Besides, fantasizing about warm weather wouldn’t make the current temperatures any less brutal. Even while wearing an industrial hooded parka, face mask, goggles, and several more layers, forty below was not something she could go without feeling.
Thea turned her attention to the line in her hand; a cable that extended through a hole in the ice sheet and into the saltwater below. She’d cut the hole herself, four weeks earlier, when her internship began. It was one of eight survey points she was tasked with monitoring, and the last she needed to check today.
With a final yank, she brought the gear through the hole and transferred a sample of saltwater into a rugged carrying case. Then she checked the ice thickness (stable) and the water temperature (normal). All good news for her employer, Hevetz Industries. As the Union’s largest provider of Corranium, Hevetz’s pockets were well lined, and they wanted to keep it that way. When Thea really thought about it, it was flattering—perhaps even risky—that the energy company trusted an intern with such important survey work. After all, one poorly selected drilling site could set them back millions.
Thea lowered the gear back into place and returned to the ice rover. It was a glorified golf cart on all-terrain treads; unheated, uncomfortable, but enclosed. Thea yanked the driver’s door shut, grateful for a break from the wind, and sped north. Ice and snow and more ice flew by. Soter’s northern pole was desolate and today, like most days, the sky was hidden behind densely pocketed clouds, making the entire world seem white. The first few times Thea had gone out on the ice alone, she’d felt blinded as a result. Small, too. Inconsequential, like the sheer vastness of the place could crush her into oblivion.
Northwood Point broke the low horizon a short ride later, its profile angry and harsh against the pale landscape. The Hevetz flag whipped on its post; the company’s logo currently illegible in the harsh wind. It was starting to snow again—not that it ever stopped for long—but there was something to the flag’s motions, the way the blue fabric folded and snapped straight again that told Thea a real storm was coming. Still, she exhaled in relief. Even after a month of surveying, she was always glad to see the base again, to know a warm shower was in her future.
As Thea drew nearer, she spotted a lone figure near the base’s main entrance. Dylan Lowe, captain and forewoman to the pre-drilling evaluation, was hunched over in the doorway, trying to shield a cigarette from the strengthening winds. Thea reported directly to Dr. Tarlow and didn’t know much about Dylan, other than that the woman looked too young to be a captain and that she religiously took an afternoon cigarette break. One that always ended the same way.
Thea brought the rover to a halt and let it idle outside the hangar. Sure enough, Dylan flicked her cigarette into the snow before disappearing inside.
Unlike their competitors, Hevetz Industries truly cared about their impact on the environment. Those very values were the reason they always received generous government grants, and why environmental surveys were always conducted prior to setting up a drilling operation. No one wanted to repeat the mistakes of the past, and yet here was Dylan Lowe, using the ice caps as her ash tray. It made Thea furious.
As soon as Northwood’s heavy door banged shut, Thea darted from the rover. The wind had somehow doubled in intensity during her short drive back to base, and she was forced to lean into it or risk falling. Icy snow pelted down, stabbing at her parka. But Thea found the cigarette and disposed of it properly. Then she parked in the hangar, gathered up her things, and barged into Northwood’s main foyer. A blast of heat enveloped Thea, and her goggles fogged up immediately. She tore them off, followed by her mask. Her skin tingled and flushed. Nothing beat this feeling after a few hours outside. Nothing.
But before she could truly relish it, or shed her parka, or take even a step toward the lab, an alarm kicked on, reverberating a steady whomp, whomp, whomp through the base.
The door to the kitchen burst open and a man Thea didn’t know stumbled into the hall. Mustard stained the front of his shirt.
“What’s going on?”
“Red alert!” he shouted.
“What’s red alert?”
But he’d already disappeared into the administrative side of Northwood, an area Thea didn’t have access to and Dylan had been sure to remind her of when she tried to enter it during her first week on site. Thea had merely been searching for the gym along with a few other interns, but Dylan hadn’t cared. In fact, Thea was starting to suspect that embarrassing people in front of their peers was one of Dylan’s favorite past-times.
Thea hoisted the water sample case a little higher and ran for the lab. Any alert labeled ‘red’ couldn’t be good. A breech in the ice sheet? A fire? How had her orientation training not covered something so important?
She darted down the hall, across a section of floor that proudly displayed the Hevetz logo: a blue, hexagonal shield boasting a capital H, which was bisected by a wave-like line. Her boots left slush in her wake, making the water line glisten. Then she rounded a corner and shouldered her way into the research lab.
Here, the alarm seemed even louder. Workers raced between metallic counters and work stations, gathering up research and gear. A couple interns were busy securing ice samples in the freezer. Thea scanned the room and found Dr. Tarlow in the far corner of the room, bent over a work station and examining—as she so often did—water samples.
Pushing her way past the throng of panicked research workers, Thea fought her way to Dr. Tarlow’s station. “What the heck is going on?” she asked, setting her things on the counter.
“I heard. What’s that mean?”
Dr. Tarlow finally looked up from the microscope. “Bad weather. We’re being evacuated.”
Pretty drastically different, huh?
I’d finally cut the coysharks. I loved developing the species for this book. I had sketches in my notebooks. I’d figured out how they were mutating. I adored the visual of dissected samples floating in formaldehyde. It broke my heart a little to cut these details, but the coysharks just weren't crucial to the story I was trying to tell.
Now, Tarlow and Thea were studying the ice sheets and water so that their company could drill for a precious energy source. Same physical location as the earlier draft (Soter’s ice caps), but no sharks. Dylan now works for the same company as them; she’s a forewoman overseeing the research.
In my original draft, Dylan told everyone upfront that they are headed off on a rescue mission, but now I’d changed things so that Dylan has orders to fly to Achlys and check in on the crew there, only she doesn’t tell her crew until after they evacuate and are already in transit.
The version above is similar to what my editor Erica Sussman saw when she acquired the book in 2015. We sent her a proposal: a partial of roughly 20k words, along with a synopsis.) At this point, I’d also added a few other points of view to the story, bringing the narrator total to four: Thea, Tarlow, Nova (the pilot), and the lone survivor on Achlys (who I’m not naming to avoid spoilers).
After the novel was acquired and after I finished writing the full draft, Erica smartly pointed out that the reader didn’t need to see Thea’s day-to-day internship responsibilities. Cutting through the ice sheet and pulling up water samples was cool, as was the rover ride back to the facility… But it was bogging down the start and giving the reader so many details that didn’t matter upfront and could instead be folded in later.
As I continued to edit the manuscript, this opening scene was streamlined farther, making the focus on Thea and her relationship with Dr. Tarlow. The bulk of the logistics of the research base, the other people who worked there, etc, was shared with the reader through other points of view, as the story progressed.
Example: The reader later learns more about Dylan and the rescue mission via Nova’s POV. We begin to see that Tarlow has secrets of her own and is eager to return to Achlys via her scenes. Editor Erica also brilliantly suggested that I add tech specialist Toby’s POV to the story. It’s hard for me to imagine the book without his narration these days; he’s crucial to the mystery and suspense once they land on Achlys. (If you’ve read the novel, I’m sure you agree.)
After completing editorial revisions, I made a few tweaks during copy edits and pass pages, and the opening was finalized.
Final version of Contagion’s opening scene (2018):
Althea Sadik had barely finished positioning a new slide on the microscope stage when the evacuation alarm blared, reverberating through Northwood Point.
“Red alert!” someone shouted behind her, as if the distinctly red-colored lights flashing across the research lab’s metallic counters didn’t communicate just that. A more helpful response would have been what “red alert” meant.
Thea raked her memory. What had the Company officials said in orientation? Red signified . . . a breach in the ice sheet? A fire? No. Inclement weather. That was it. The radio had been crackling about a brewing arctic storm all morning, and Northwood Point was finally being evacuated. Two storms had blown through the base in the four weeks since Thea arrived, but neither had required evac. This weather system must be unusually dangerous.
Thea’s mentor, Doctor Lisbeth Tarlow, leapt to her feet and scrambled to gather their samples. Her trembling fingers fumbled the small vials of salt water, sending them scattering over the countertop.
“I’ll get them,” Thea said, catching one before it could fall. “You submit the logs.”
The doctor nodded and turned to the computer. She suffered from a benign tremor—an annoying side effect of age, but one that made tasks requiring fine motor skills incredibly trying. It was the reason Hevetz Industries had hired an intern to assist her, and not a day went by that Thea didn’t thank her lucky stars that she—an orphan from Hearth City—had won that position.
It wasn’t unearned, of course. Thea had slaved for her exceptional grades. Labored over essays, sacrificed social gatherings like her junior gala. She’d even broken up with Mel. Me or the internship, he’d said at the end of the school year, and Thea had chosen her dreams. Now a single storm was threatening to cut the internship of a lifetime short.
She focused her attention on the remaining vials, threading them into the metal carrying case as Dr. Tarlow pecked frantically at the keyboard. Behind them, the rest of the lab workers hurried to stow away samples and back up research.
The small crew had spent the past month monitoring water temperatures and ice sheet thickness, ensuring that Soter’s caps would be an ideal site for Hevetz Industries’s next drilling venture. As the Union’s largest supplier of corrarium, the energy company was ruthless about staying on top. Every potential location was studied and scrutinized, risks and benefits weighed, and that research had to be protected.
Thea slid the water samples into the fridge. “Now what?” she called as she entered her four-digit PIN to lock the door.
“Now you board Odyssey,” came an authoritative voice.
Thea spun to see Dylan Lowe standing beside the doctor. The forewoman rarely made appearances in the lab, but she looked no different than she had the few times Thea had crossed paths with her over meals or in the halls: pissed off and irritated. Her pale nose was scrunched up as though she’d just smelled something foul, and her short, dark hair fell to her jawline, the cut as severe as the glare she was currently shooting them.
“She’s determined,” a brown-skinned Hevetz temp named Nova had told Thea during her first week on-site. “Takes her job seriously.”
Thea could appreciate determination. Illogical orders were another issue.
“Odyssey won’t hold everyone,” Dr. Tarlow argued, which was precisely Thea’s concern, but she wasn’t about to openly question a superior.
“I’ve got most of the crew boarding the Muriela,” Dylan said, “but Hevetz is requesting you and, by extension, your intern, at the Black Quarry base.”
“Black Quarry?” the doctor echoed. “Never heard of it.”
Neither had Thea.
“It’s a newer project. I’ll update you in transit. Right now, we’ve got twenty minutes to evacuate. Hevetz is saying this blizzard’s gonna pummel Northwood for nearly a month straight. If you don’t want to freeze when the generators fail, I advise you get your things in a hurry.”
Thea didn’t care where she completed her internship, just that she did. The Black Quarry base would be fine. Maybe it would even be located somewhere warm. She missed the humidity of home, the thick heat Hearth City always provided.
Perhaps the storm hadn’t ruined everything after all.
I hope this peek at the evolution of Contagion’s opening scene was interesting for you as a reader and/or writer.
If you’d like to read more, you can preview the first two parts of the novel here.
In hindsight, I may have started drafting this book too soon. I hadn’t found the right angle into the story yet—Gunner’s lone perspective was flat and lacking—nor did I fully understand the scope of the world I was trying to write about. (This made it really hard to move beyond the inciting incident.)
But here’s the thing about writing: Eventually, when you reach the end, no one can tell where you struggled. No one can tell how many times you rewrote the thing. How many scenes you restructured. How many characters you combined or cut or recast. How many hairs you pulled out or tears you shed or times you yelled, I’m never going to finish this stupid book.
If you do your job well, your novel will read like it came out of you perfectly on the first go.
This is why, when I’m drafting or revising something, I remind myself to not compare my story to a published one.
It’s why, when things get really hard in the murky middle, I tell myself that I’ve been here before. It always feels impossible until it’s suddenly done.
Don’t compare. Take deep breaths. Cut what isn’t working and revise until things click. It doesn’t matter how you reach the end, just that you do.
Happy writing, friends,
Again, if you’d like to preview a bit more of Contagion, click here.
From the Desk of Erin Bowman is a reader-supported publication. Please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
It may very well be on sale through other retailers too, but these are the three I’m aware of.
Honestly, this book wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Susan. Writers, get yourself some trusted writer friends to brainstorm with and bounce ideas off them often.
Hence the evergreen writing advice, “Kill your darlings.”