Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Revision: Scene by Scene

I had a particularly grueling (in a good way) therapy session this morning. My usual therapist is on vacation, and as a fill-in I had a strapping young man who really pushed me, both in the stretching and manipulation he does and in raising the difficulty level of the exercises. I can already tell a difference in the shoulder. It's moving a lot more freely. I suspect I will be in some pain later in the day, and I'll probably have to do some stretches tonight to keep it lose. There may be swimming pool time, just to be in the water and moving, but I'm now so close to normal that it's exciting.

Now, it's writing post time.

I'm still talking about revision. Last time, I dealt with the big-picture, story-level revisions. I'm going to get into the more detailed level of revision, but first, something occurred to me a day after I posted about big-picture revisions. One way to check that your story is working is to compare it to a standard story structure, as found in writing books, especially screenwriting books. That's a good way to make sure you've got turning points spaced in a good way. There's the hero's journey, the three-act structure, and plot structures for all the various sub-genres. Novels don't have to follow structure as closely as screenplays do, but this is a good way to check your plotting and pacing.

But once you have the big picture roughly the way you want it, it's time to dig deeper. This is like the medium-grit sandpaper after you've used the chainsaw and chisel. At this phase, I like to look at each scene individually and in more depth than in the scene-by-scene outline I do in working on the big picture. I make sure that at least one character in each scene has a clear goal and that there's some conflict -- something stopping the character from achieving that goal or making it harder. Also, something should change as the result of each scene. Someone should learn something, change their minds, change their attitudes. Or the context or physical situation should change. Either the characters or their world should be at least a little bit different after each scene. Otherwise, why is it there? If nothing changes, then think about why the scene is in the book. Are you trying to convey a particular piece of information or character development? You may be able to put that information into another scene where something changes. Combining two scenes and cutting out any extraneous material is a good way to tighten a book and improve the pacing. I've seen some writing books say that each scene should turn on an axis -- either positive to negative or negative to positive, possibly negative to even more negative but probably not positive to more positive -- but I've never managed to make that work in absolutely every scene.

Something else you want to look for is too many scenes that look too similar when you outline those key elements of goal and conflict. For instance, if your characters' goal is to escape and the conflict is that the bad guys are after them, and that happens in scene after scene, you may have a repetitive-feeling story. In a pursuit or escape story that can be hard to avoid, but you can make each scene unique. Look at ways to mix things up by having the situation change in different ways with each chase. The characters can learn something about the bad guys that affects their next step, their actions while escaping could make matters worse for them, they could find something other than the bad guys blocking the way. Or you could make something other than escaping from the bad guys be the primary goal for some scenes, like maybe trying to find something even while the bad guys are chasing them. You can use a similar-seeming scene to show how the characters change over time because of the different way they react to similar circumstances. And sometimes, you may find that you don't actually need one of the scenes because it just repeats all the same beats as another scene.

One thing I've tried recently (after a workshop recommended it) is color-coding the manuscript for things like dialogue, introspection, description and action. That's a good way to see when you've got infodumps of introspection that could maybe be broken up or delivered in dialogue or when you've neglected to put in any description. So far, though, I think my main benefit from doing that comes from reading each scene several times to highlight everything and then again to evaluate what I've highlighted. I do think this has helped me spot when a scene really isn't working or is maybe a little boring. You should usually have a kind of mosaic effect with the colors, where the dialogue, action, description and introspection are all woven together instead of being in huge blocks, though that may vary depending on what's going on in the scene.

During this phase, it's also good to check for continuity, especially if you've made a lot of changes during the previous draft. Make sure that you don't have references to things that no longer happen or that happen in a different order and make sure that everything's been set up properly or that characters have all been introduced.

Next time: the fine-grit sandpaper.

And now I think I'm going to get domestic. I need to bake a peach cobbler, so I need to clean the kitchen a bit, and then I'll need to clear some space in the refrigerator for other cooking I'll be doing later this week, so it's time for a refrigerator purge. Tonight will be a movie night (to be enjoyed with cobbler), but I haven't decided if I'll go with a chick flick or something that relates to the project I'm researching. Maybe I'll do a marathon, with one of each, or I'll find something that combines the two.

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