Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Imagine you've labored over this scene, and you know it's lovely, but you know something is off. Your beta readers talk about how funny this part is, and how surprising that part is, yet they seem somehow unenthusiastic. Contest feedback is positive, but the final judges never ask to see more. You don't know what's wrong, and you find yourself adding paragraphs of description or witty dialogue exchanges to try to improve the scene. You think long and hard about the worst possible thing that could happen, and you write that in. You keep adding pieces, and yet somehow, the scene does not get better.

We run into this periodically, a manuscript with scenes that do convey key information, but there's so much noise packed in around that key information that the scene doesn't work. This is a problem of focus. Imagine, for example, a scene in which an amateur sleuth in an historical romance is trying to determine which man in a ballroom might be the one who has been sending her secret notes. And let's say that during this scene, another secret note somehow finds its way into a potted plant. The key fact or event is the discover of the new secret note. Our sleuth is probably spending a good bit of time observing the men in the ballroom and looking for clues, so that kind of information might be relevant enough to be considered key.

But the scene also contains great, funny dialogue with the sleuth's bff about the terrible lemonade, a lengthy discussion about the merits of the orchestra, a witnessed conversation between the bff and a matron about whether it's appropriate for a particular couple to dance, a chunk of backstory explaining the sleuth's relationship to the matron, and so on. Each of these bits might be well-written, even entertaining. But that doesn't mean they belong in the text.

So what do you do with a scene like this? The best fix requires three ingredients: a printed copy of the scene, highlighter markers in at least three colors, and an attitude mixed with equal parts boldness and objectivity.

First, decide what the scene is ABOUT. What is the reason for its existence? This will be a key moment -- usually a bit of action or dialogue, but sometimes a moment of mental clarity -- which cannot be cut if the reader is going to be able to make sense of subsequent scenes. It's the most important detail in the scene. If you were to write a five-word summary of this scene in a plot summary,  all five words would be about this detail. Sometimes, there will be more than one key moment, but usually, it's just the one.

Now find that key moment in the printout, and highlight it with one color (say, yellow). If it's a sex scene, for example, the key moment is the moment in which consent to sex is granted. If the scene is about the discovery of a mystery clue, highlight the sentence or sentences in which the clue is found. Highlight it, and then put that highlighter away. You should only use this color for the true key moment.

Next, take another color (say, blue) and highlight every detail that directly relates to that key moment. If the key moment involves finding a mystery clue, then here you will highlight the details which are directly related to the clue. If she finds the clue behind a potted plant, then this will include the moment the pov character notices the plant, the decision to examine it more closely, maybe a bit of description of the pot and foliage. But this will not include the conversation the character has with her brother while standing next to the pot.

Why not? Because it is the clue itself that matters, not the circumstances which lead to the discovery of the clue behind the potted plant. A good writer, given this scenario -- crowded ballroom, clue in a potted plant -- will be able to come up with ten ways to get the pov character to look at that plant more closely and discover the clue. Maybe her prissy brother will drag her to the side of the room to scold her for drinking too much. Or maybe not. Maybe her lover will try to steal a kiss from her behind the fern. Or maybe not.

That doesn't mean the scold from the prissy brother or the lover's kiss is unimportant. But what you have to do now is decide just how important it is. Think of it in these terms: Something will lead the character to the supporting details (blue highlights) of the key moment (yellow highlights). These are also supporting details of a sort. Perhaps the action leading up to the blue and yellow moments will be so important that the scene might be hard to follow without them. These might include details like time, place, and other characters who are essential -- not every dancer in the ballroom, not every matron or friend our sleuth speaks to, but the ones whose existence is meaningful to the plot. You can highlight these, too, to make it easier. Let's say these will be orange.

Now, everything that is not highlighted can come out. Yep. You heard that right. Cut the lemonade, no matter how funny the jokes. Cut the analysis of the orchestra, the critique of the dancers, the backstory about the matron -- none of this is about the clue in the potted plant. Remember when I said you would need boldness? This is why. You are going to be bold here, and look at this scene without any of the frippery you created to try to make it "better."

This might make you feel a little panicky, but this is why you're doing it on a printout. None of these changes are saved -- yet. But after this next step, you will probably run to your computer and make the changes permanent. Read just the pieces you've highlighted. Just those pieces, nothing more. Remember when I said you would need objectivity? This is where you need it. Not because you're trying to objectively figure out how to restore everything you've cut, but because you're trying to objectively analyze the flow of the highlighted parts. Do you need a new transition somewhere? A new dialogue beat to clarify where they are standing in relation to the potted plant? If so, add them, but challenge yourself to do it in as few words as possible. A sentence rather than a paragraph. A phrase rather than a sentence.

After you've added the smoothing bits, read it again. What you have now is a tightly focused scene without any extra bits, and chances are, the pace is very fast. Readers might no longer praise your clever lemonade joke, but they'll be so busy turning pages that you won't care. Save the lemonade joke for a PR blog post, and congratulate yourself on a job well done.



ABE said...

Okay in principle. I would alter it a little bit: my scenes have lots of bits that are put in intentionally because the reader is going to need to have that information, some of it now, and other stuff later. This makes scenes do double duty. If I gave a scene to every individual piece, we'd never be done.
But your method, a tiny bit altered to mark those pieces that are essential, instead of just one key bit (the yellow bit), will still work - to separate the necessary from the frills. Make what stays earn its place and I will agree the rest can go. Even when it is special.

Edittorrent said...

Okay, but if the scene isn't working, and it includes bits of information that the reader won't need until later, you might want to move those bits to a later scene.


Alicia said...

In my experience, writers often have a very difficult time deciding what is essential to the scene and what is discretionary. It all seems essential if we wrote it!

"Discretionary" means we can put it back in if it helps the scene. Theresa's great method gives the writer a way to determine what is discretionary and then look at it objectively.

I'd say "the reader will need that information" means discretionary but probably desired. But if you have the objectivity to determine that, you might not need to back off as so many writers do- you might be selecting as you write. But you might still go ahead and highlight that material and decide to put it back in. Theresa specifically said that you don't delete everything else, merely identify it so that you can decide if there's a good reason to keep it (and where to put it).

Some writers are more naturally analytical and design scenes pretty efficiently. But you probably can't know that without analyzing your analysis. :)

Anonymous said...

Wasn't arguing - just expanding. In fact, I'm trying to locate a third highlighter so I can go try this very thing.
It is a delicate balance - when is something foreshadowed in the right place, and when should it be moved to a later spot is never obvious. I've read recently that computers are 'writing' standard sports and financial stories - and that the results are both acceptable and indistinguishable from human efforts. But that is only because the human efforts in those areas have little 'human' in them: even the humans do it by rote.
When computers can write good fiction, I'll know the end of the world is near.

Edittorrent said...

I didn't think you were arguing -- I was just trying to offer some feedback. The thing is, this is not a one-size-fits all editing tool, but it will help refocus a certain kind of wandering, bloated scene.