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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Evaluating the purpose of a scene and how it leads to pacing

So I admit, this is one topic that I struggle with. I'm a screen shot kind of writer - I see scenes play out in my head just as if it were a movie going on up there. I've spent hours with my eyes closed, just thinking of the day to day stuff my characters encounter. I see their facial expressions, I hear the tone of their voices, and I feel like I'm right there with them. Don't my readers want to see this stuff too, I ask? Unfortunately the answer isn't always yes.

So how to decide which scenes to cut and which to keep? The short answer I always hear is that if a scene doesn't move your story along then it can be cut. Now this doesn't necessarily mean that it has to be cut, just that it can be. And making such a decision is not always easy. One thing that was helpful to me in my first round of revisions was to make an Excel spreadsheet. In it, I made columns for each scene and briefly described what that scene was about. While I had columns for other things, like notes on how to improve the scene or what emotion I wanted to get across, I also had a very important column labeled "purpose". There can be many purposes to a scene, but each should have the end effect of moving the story forward. If it doesn't or if you come up blank with finding a good purpose for having the scene then you might want to consider cutting it.

 Some examples of purpose I had in my spreadsheet:

1. Instigating event - the instigating event is what launches the story. For NW this happens in the first scene when Sam jumps off the tower. Identifying your instigating event is important for deciding where to start your story. If it occurs much later than chapter 3 or so, then there's a chance that you're not starting in the right place. It can also be a sign that you're giving too much backstory too early.

2. Introduction of antagonist- this is very crucial for my story, but what if you don't have a villain? Well, sometimes the antagonist is the main character herself - an inner antagonist if you will. Scenes which show a person's inner struggle are very good for moving the story forward. But be careful you don't over do it by showing a number of instances that show the same thing just for the sake of driving in your point. For instance, you might want your reader to know that your main character struggles with insecurity - this could be her inner antagonist. But you don't want to show her getting cold feet in front of a crowd and then not talking to a boy and then having a hard time telling her friend that she's a bitch. Unless each of these events is critical to how the story unfolds, then it may not be necessary to show each one. Pick one that is the strongest and make that scene memorable.

3. introduction of the MC's conflict with another central character. This happened several times in NW - first when I introduce her parents and then again when I introduce Seth, her ex-boyfriend. In each instance I was basically laying the groundwork for subplots, so they were important for me, but what if you're not introducing subplots? Do you have to show your main character talking to her parents if they're not important in the story? Do you have to show interactions with all your MC's exes if they're never mentioned again? Here again, we're defining a purpose and while your purpose might be to introduce a character, it might be that the character isn't all that necessary to the plot in which case cutting a scene may be analogous to cutting a character.

4. Showing how the main character has changed - in other words, how the character has developed. Going back to our example of insecurity being an inner-antagonist, you might have a scene where the MC suddenly gathers the courage to talk to that boy. This would obviously be an important scene for your story. This sort of purpose usually happens toward the ending. If it's happening too soon then it's possible you're not pacing your character's inner changes very well. You don't want to resolve a major conflict way before you get to the ending.

5. mid-point reversal - I'd never heard this term before reading Janice Hardy's blog and here's a great refresher on what exactly it means. In Janice's words, it's like a mini-climax in the story that illustrates what the main character is willing to do to win or to show what's most important to them at a basic level. It's usually something unexpected that surprises the reader or even raises the stakes or tension higher.  I know exactly where my mid-point reversal is in NW even though I didn't think of it that way when I wrote it. It was basically me throwing a wrench into Nikki's plans and she spends most of the rest of the story finding a way around it. I was also surprised to find out that my other WIP, Bettina, also has a mid-point reversal and again I didn't think of it that way at all when I wrote it. See if you can pick out a midpoint reversal in your own story. If you can't find one, then consider whether the middle of your story is dragging and if you need something like this to move your story along.

7. to show the MC doing something to solve her problem. In NW, Nikki has a major problem she has to solve and she has to do some sleuthing. I have a couple of these scenes. Is each one critical? No, and I've tweaked some back and forth shortening here and lengthening there where appropriate.  This is one area where my spreadsheet has been particularly helpful.

8. Backstory - the dreaded purpose. We all need to incorporate backstory at some point, but devoting entire chapters to it can be deadly, especially if this happens early in the story. I try very hard to sprinkle it in here and there. The first 50 pages of NW has very little of Nikki's backstory. The only thing we learn about her is that her sister has died. This is a very critical event in her life and the central theme of the story, but that IS ALL that is mentioned about it. The place where I do have an entire chapter devoted to backstory is when Sam tells Nikki about his life before he met her. It happens about a third of the way through and was very hard to get around. One of my recent revisions was to take Sam's story and make it more active - I can do this quite easily because Sam is a genie (holograms are easy to conjure). But if you have a chapter devoted entirely to backstory think of how you can change it to make it more engaging. Can you add more voice? Can you entwine it with another event in the story so that you're not bombarding the reader all at once? Consider also if it's necessary that the reader know this RIGHT NOW. It's often the case that backstory isn't needed at the time it's presented and can be saved for later or broken up into pieces.

After writing this post, I realized that a lot of what I wrote here also relates to pacing. I'm not a strict outliner nor am I a pantser. I do a combination of both. If you're a panstser or like me, once you have that first draft written it might help to make a spreadsheet like this or an outline. It can help you define what needs to go, what needs to be added and what needs to be shuffled around. What's more is that you can look at each element critically and decide if every purpose has equal weight. Were you making up purposes for a scene just because you want to have an excuse for it to be there? Were there multiple times when you had the same purpose, and can you justify having multiple chapters devoted to the same purpose? And remember, even if you can't justify having a scene that doesn't necessarily mean that you have to remove it. I've had a few scenes that really didn't need to be there, but they were just plain fun. When I suggested taking these scenes out to my betas, they screamed no! So, if you're in doubt always go with your gut instinct - or you know, get that second opinion. Beta readers are worth their weight in gold.


Katy Upperman said...

It's sometimes so hard to say goodbye to those wonderfully clever scenes that do nothing for the pacing of the manuscript. Great info, and thanks for sharing!

Nomes said...

this is really good. i find it hard weighing up scenes as well especially when my work is more charcter driven and not so plot driven.

i liked reading all this behind the scenes stuff for Nikki's Wish :)

Angie said...

Nomes - I imagine that it's much tougher with character driven novels. Not having written one like that myself, it's hard to say that this method would work well for you. Perhaps as an exercise, you could take one of your favorite character driven novels and try breaking it down like this, evaluating each scene or chapter to see what it gives to the book as a whole. Might give you some insight into what types of scenes you find are unnecessary.

Hope you're having fun with your guests!

Angie said...

Katy- yes it's definitely hard to say good bye to them. Thanks for stopping by. :)

Jen Daiker said...

I work more with characters and like you there is a movie playing in my head, I've recently seen a spreadsheet that J.K. Rowling created for one of her novels and I was impressed, I don't have that type of dedication.

But maybe I should!



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