Revision Tips: Scene by Scene

I have a love-hate relationship with revisions. I love making my manuscript shiny and new, but I also hate the in-between stages where everything is a mess (much like my kids’ room when they’re in the middle of cleaning it).

I also have to revise in stages, or I get so overwhelmed by the mess that I can’t function. I posted previously about revising for plot. Today, I want to talk about revising for scene.

What is a scene?

The general consensus is that a scene is a discrete bit of action: something that happens within a set location within a set time frame. But in writerly terms, a scene is often a bit more than that.

I find it helpful to think of scenes as miniature stories–just as a paragraph is often structured like a short essay, a scene can function as a very short story. Scenes need forward movement, and they need to have a distinct shape or arc to them. A scene is not the same thing as a chapter, as one chapter might be composed of many short scenes, or a scene may extend over several chapters.

The most commonly referred to definition of scene belongs to Dwight Swain, who broke down action sequences into scenes and sequels. (For a more extended definition of these terms, see here).

Scenes are made up of the following parts: goal-conflict-disaster

*Character goal–the POV character should want something in the scene. This doesn’t have to be the overarching story goal (for instance, a girl who wants to save the world might, in one particular scene, just want to find a few minutes alone to process things), but it should be a goal.

*Conflict–just as in the larger story, something needs to oppose the character and his goal.

*Disaster–something goes wrong for the main character. I have to add that a disaster in this sense doesn’t always have to have the negative connotation of real-life disasters. I think a disaster can simply be a plot point from which there’s no turning back. For instance, a kissing scene, though  normally a good thing, could also be a disaster in the larger sense if it proves to be a point of no return.

I like Janice Hardy’s approach here, because it’s not as formulaic–and it notes that disaster doesn’t *have* to be the only ending for a scene. But a scene ends when the character’s immediate goal has been resolved in some way.

The problem with having the character actually achieve their in-scene goal, as Janet Dean points out, is that it can often stop the story short. When writing a scene, you want to consider what will happen to the overall story if the character gets what they want.



Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire Destruction 1836

Scenes in turn, lead to sequels

If scenes are where the external action happens, sequels are where some of the most important internal action happens. Swain divides sequels into reaction-dilemma-decision.

*Reaction: how does the character react to the disaster that just occurred? This is one of the most critical parts for me, mostly because it’s one of the parts I always forget. Sometimes I’m so busy chasing one plot point after another that I forget the important emotional reaction to a scene.

*Dilemma: Characters should do more than just react, their reaction should also point them to a dilemma. For instance, I have been reading Laini Taylor’s lovely Dreams of Gods and Monsters, and in one scene, two of the characters find themselves kicked out of the place they have been sheltering (that’s the disaster). Their initial reactions are a mixture of shock and outrage, but they can’t dwell on the reaction for too long, because they’re faced with a dilemma: where to go next? They have virtually no money, and are accompanied by a third character who needs some kind of medical care.

*Decision: The sequel ends when the characters make a decision, which ideally leads to a new goal, which in turn leads to new conflict . . . and you can see where I’m going with this.

Jami Gold points out that ultimately scene-sequel is about cause and effect. Every event in the story should have some kind of clear causal relationship. She does warn about some common problems with sequels, including extending them too long without some kind of action.

This scene-sequel system is not something I naturally think about when I write. But I’m finding it very helpful as I revise, if for no other reason than it helps me make sure each scene is pulling it’s weight. If it’s not easily identifiable as a scene or sequel, chances are good it’s not really a necessary scene and any important information can be combined with a scene that actually moves the plot forward.

Some other helpful ways to think of scenes

Value shifts. In Story, Robert McKee offers another useful way to think about scenes when revising. He argues that scenes gain momentum partly through shifting values. That is, if a scene begins on a high note, it should end low, and vice-versa. And if a scene opens with two friends affirming their friendship, it should end with something that forces them to question their friendship (putting the value itself in flux).

Pyramid of Abstraction. In an episode of Writing Excuses, the authors argue that scenes should start and end with concrete details. We need to know where and when we are, and which characters are present. As the scene progresses, and characters are engaged in the action and dialogue that drives the scene forward, beats and concrete descriptions lessen. But as we prepare to leave the scene, writers need to reground the scene in a real-world description.

Questions for revising scenes:

  • Does the character have a goal in the scene (beyond your goal to show something about the character?)
  • Is something opposing that goal?
  • After the scene resolves, in either good or bad ways, do we see the character reacting to that scene?
  • If the scene goes well, how does this drive the story forward? How does it contribute to increased tension or problems for the character down the road.
  • After the character reacts, do they make a decision to act?
  • Are there sufficient concrete details to ground us in the scene?
  • Does the scene (or the scene-and-sequel) represent some kind of value shift?



What helps you as you revise individual scenes?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. She’s currently working on a YA historical fantasy, set in nineteenth-century England and Hungary.

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