Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Improving a Scene

I only got about five pages written before I realized I needed to do some more planning, and then I knew I was really in book mode when I couldn't sleep last night because I kept dreaming up characters and scenes. That's good when that happens, but it also leaves me feeling like a zombie the next day, especially when we get a couple of waves of thunderstorms overnight that wake me up after I finally get to sleep and start the mental writing cycle all over again.

And it's another Writing Wednesday. Since I've recently finished revising a book, I thought I'd continue on a theme related to those darlings that deserve to die I mentioned a while ago. One of the major doomed darlings is the scene that doesn't really go anywhere or matter to the book. But how do you know if the scene works, and how do you make it better if it doesn't?

A scene needs to serve some purpose in the book -- showing or developing a character, furthering the plot, foreshadowing, giving important information. Ideally, it should do more than one thing. A scene that exists only to illustrate what kind of person a character is becomes much stronger if the actions that define the character are related to the main plot. That means you really can't justify your "doing laundry" scene on the basis of defining character, unless there's no other way you can convey that character information.

When you're analyzing a scene, first consider if it needs to be there at all. If you could cut the scene entirely without affecting the story, it needs to go. If there's just one bit of information that's necessary, find another scene where that information can be conveyed.

If the scene is necessary, ask yourself what purpose it serves. If it only serves one purpose, consider working that purpose into another scene so you have one strong scene instead of two weak ones. That would be like what I mentioned above, with using action that furthers the plot to illustrate character.

Is there action in the scene? If it's mostly people talking or thinking, is there something else they could be doing while that's happening to give the scene movement? Preferably something that serves a purpose to the plot. And, as I have been forced to learn, walking doesn't necessarily count as action. That conversation or internal monologue could be combined with an action scene so you don't have talking or thinking heads. That doesn't mean making up meaningless stage business like making coffee or tea, but rather action that moves the story forward.

Is there conflict in the scene? What is the viewpoint character trying to do in this scene, and what's getting in his/her way? Is there an opponent in the scene? Mind you, conflict doesn't have to mean arguing or fighting. It could just mean that the character is thwarted. There should be some tension or conflict in every scene.

Have you exploited the scene's full potential? Is there something that the characters talk or think about that you could make actually happen? Again, that's moving from talking heads to action, from telling to showing. I learned how much of an impact that can have when revising Enchanted, Inc.. I wrote a scene involving my heroine and her new co-workers doing a girls' night out. They talk about meeting men, and the heroine makes an off-hand remark about how you have to kiss a lot of frogs -- a remark that her magical friends take literally and say that's not very effective. In the initial draft, that discussion ends there, and they go on to have the usual night out. My agent suggested that there was a whole scene buried in that bit of dialogue, and they should actually go out to kiss frogs. That became one of the better parts of the book. (To see the difference that made, you can read the before and after on my web site. The before is the original girls' night out scene at the bottom, and the after is the excerpt listed higher on the page.)

That list of 20 things I mentioned when talking about creativity boosters is a great way to mine the potential in a scene. Try making a list of 20 things that can happen, and you might find one or two that take the scene to the next level. If you can't come up with a list of 20 things that could possibly happen in a scene, maybe you need a different scene. Most of the things that happen in the scene need to be related to the story. A busy scene that has a lot going on isn't necessarily a good, active scene.

Finally, what changes in the world of the story because of this scene? Have the events in the scene changed the situation or the characters in any way? Are there consequences? Did the scene make things better or worse for your characters? Ideally, every scene should change the status quo in some way.

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