Monday, November 17, 2014

Questions to Ask When Editing Scenes

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Every writer is different, so maybe it helps some people when they hear the advice that, "Every scene should have a beginning, middle, and end." That just confuses my poor, simple brain. Maybe it's the pantser in me, I don't know. For whatever reason, I work better with lists.



Scenes come in all shapes and sizes. In a first draft, I write my scenes by feel. I go into it knowing what my goal is, and I frequently know what my character's goal is, but I usually don't know more than that. I don't pay attention to how long the scene is, I just write until it feels done, and I try to find something snappy, poignant, or "I must turn the page to find out what happens next" to end on, but sometimes I don't even do that in a first draft.

It's when I'm editing that I start asking questions like these:

How does this scene impact the plot? If I cut it, would it matter?

I've found this is the best place to start. Otherwise I might spend a lot of time editing a scene and then deciding I don't need it at all.

Can I make this scene work harder for me?

I like to ask this question next because sometimes in my first drafts a scene only accomplishes one thing when it could easily take care of two or three if I just use my brain a bit. 

I'm going to use a scene from my novella Throwing Stones as an example. I like using my own stuff because I don't mind critiquing it, I know the thought process I went through (rather than presuming what another writer must have been thinking), and this particular book of mine is a free download on my website so it's easy and cheap for you if you want to see the whole thing.

When I considered the second scene of my first chapter, I needed it to communicate several things to the reader that are important to the story:
  • Abbie works hard to be a good student, but her life is very hectic.
  • It introduces her older sister, Skylar, and tells us she's getting married in 2 weeks.
  • Abbie feels jealous of the life her sister is living.
  • Skylar encourages Abbie to wear something nicer to dinner. Abbie thinks she's being bossy, but in the next chapter we'll learn that Skylar was trying to help out her little sister.
Even though the scene is short (472 words) I'm able to accomplish a lot. Which is critical to the success of a 16,000 word novella.


Am I telling it from the right point of view (POV)?

This is a moot point in most of my stories (all my published books have only one point of view character) but it's a very important question if you have multiple point of view characters. The guideline for deciding this is asking who has the most at stake in this scene? Or another way to phrase that is, who has the most to gain or lose?

Sometimes this question is very simple to answer but not always. Another issue you might face is that sometimes a character is suffering too much to be a good point of view character. Say your book has two point of view characters. They're both at a funeral for character A's mother and character B is here to support her. While Character A clearly has more at stake here, you might find she's too ensconced with grief to make for an effective POV character and that character B will give the reader a clearer picture.

Did I arrive late?

Just like the age-old writing advice of, "Start your story in the middle of the action," your scenes should each start that way as well. Something should already be happening.

This is how the second scene of Throwing Stones starts:

“Abbie!” From the bottom of the stairs, my sister somehow manages to groan and yell my name at the same time. “We’re gonna be late!” 
I flip my textbook page. “I’m coming!”
“You said that five minutes ago.” Skylar does nothing to hide the irritation in her voice.
She sounds so much like mom, I feel like a kid again.
I slide a foot into my flip-flop as I skim several more sentences. “This time I really am!”

In my early writing days, I might have chosen to start it like this:

After I fed Owen a snack, I put on the T.V. for him so I could study for the next day's test. I had been studying for several hours when I heard my sister come in the front door. In about fifteen minutes, I bet she would be harping at me to get ready for dinner with the Ross family. Sure enough, it wasn't long before she yelled, "Abbie!" up the stairs.

Do you see how much more effective and intriguing it is to start with the action of Abbie's sister yelling for her? While example number two certainly gives us more information and answers more questions right away, it isn't as interesting to read.

Do I help provide context for my readers? (Who, what, when, where, and why)

Once you've found the right action for starting your scene, you need to give your reader context as quick as you can. That means answering the who, what, when, where, and why of your scene. Who is there? What is happening? When is this taking place? Where are we? And why are we here?

Here are the next few lines of that scene in Throwing Stones:
I slide a foot into my flip-flop as I skim several more sentences. “This time I really am!”
From downstairs, I hear the muffled voices of Skylar and Owen. Then Owen yells, “Mommy? Where are my light-up shoes?”
“Don’t you want your nice shoes?” Skylar says. “To go with your nice shirt?”
“No. I want my light-up ones.” The duh is implied at the end of his sentence.
“Hey, Owen, let’s wear your nice shoes tonight, okay?” I call as I uncap a highlighter. “It’s a special night for Aunt Skylar.”
As are many nights.
Owen thunders up the stairs to his room, retrieves his black loafers, and runs back downstairs. And during this, I manage to read another two paragraphs.
“Oh, pal, you look so handsome,” Skylar says in the soft-hearted voice she only uses with Owen. Louder she adds, “And I bet your mother looks beautiful.”
I groan, mark my spot in the book, and clomp downstairs.
Let's see how I did with providing context in the first 200 words of my scene:

Who is there?: Abbie, Skylar, and Owen
What is happening?: Abbie is trying to study, Skylar is trying to get to dinner on time, and Owen is enduring a wardrobe change.
When is this taking place?: The last scene was Abbie picking Owen up from school. Here Abbie refers to wearing his nice shoes "tonight" so the reader can piece together that this is after school but before an evening event.  
Where are we?: A house. It doesn't state that Abbie is in her room, but she's studying upstairs and Owen goes past her in the hallway to his room at one point, so most readers would probably (correctly) assume she's in her room.
Why are we here?: Abbie is upstairs trying to get some peace and quiet to study. Skylar is downstairs trying to get everyone out the door. Owen goes back and forth.

Do I leave early and give my reader a reason to come back?

As soon as I've accomplished my objective with a scene, I want to get out of there. Even if it's not the end of a chapter, but just the end of a scene, I always try to end with something snappy, reflective, poignant, or question-provoking. Here's the close of this scene from Throwing Stones:
Skylar glances at Owen and bites her lower lip. “Which I appreciate. I just would suggest that you go upstairs and put on, like, that orange silk dress or something.”
Gosh, she’s bossy. I can’t wait for her to get married and get out of my hair.
“I’m not. Changing. My clothes.” I take Owen’s hand and stalk out the front door.
The next scene opens with the three of them in the car driving to dinner, so I could have made the choice to keep it all as one big scene. I liked ending here because it's more interesting to me than details like Abbie grabbing her purse and Owen getting his booster seat to ride in Skylar's car, etc. We end with a clear shot of Abbie's attitude and mood going into the evening, and it sets up the next scene nicely.

Any questions about scenes that I can answer? And don't forget your contest entry needs to be turned in on Wednesday!

49 comments:

  1. This is something I need to work on big-time.

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  2. Hmmm... I don't have a completed novel yet to apply these to, but I feel like these would good questions to keep in mind while I'm writing, as well. Plus, I'm a little bit like Roseanna White in that tend to edit (on a small scale) as I go. Very good post! :)

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    1. I edit as I go too, Ashley! And good luck with completing a novel :).

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    2. Thank you! Haha. I know everyone pushes for "getting it down" and then editing, but I just can't function like that. Crazy as it sounds, I'm getting more done now that I'm taking time to edit because I'm not as worried about the quality of what I wrote the day before.

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    3. I know! Same here. And you're welcome! :) :)

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    4. Hey and...Mrs. Morrill? I was wondering. I'm homeschooled so I don't get to meet many people, are there any groups I can join where I can meet more writers? On GTW, I mean, or maybe even beyond?

      Oh, and I'm twelve.

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    5. Wow, we're both homeschooled and twelve...

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    6. We have a Facebook community for Go Teen Writers members. If you have Facebook, you can join that: https://www.facebook.com/groups/goteenwriters/

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    7. Jonathan, I'm homeschooled too! :)

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  3. Wow! Thanks a lot for the post. This is definitely going in my favorites.

    But I had two questions. Firstly, most of my scenes are 800 to a thousand words give or take, sometimes even less. Which means I at least have three scenes in each chapter. In chapter 1 of my WIP, (which I just finished a few days ago) I actually have *four* scenes, the last one less than 100 words to end with a bang, from the villain's POV. Usually, in books, scenes are longer than that...And I just can't get myself to write longer. I can't. Just me, I guess.

    What do you think? 800-1000 too less for a scene?

    The second question is, I'm a pantser. Which means, I hate to plot, and sometimes it means I lose track of where the scene is headed, and many times I end up getting gravely stuck. I also love editing as I write, so I end up fixing anything if needed, but it's too tiresome. Any thoughts?

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    1. I also tend to write short, Jonathan. My CHAPTERS are generally around 1,500 words. I think it probably depends on what you're writing. For example, for my NaNo attempt my genre was mystery/drama. I set the word count goal in my writing software for 1,500 (per chapter), but quickly realized it wasn't going to be enough. However, now that I've failed NaNo and I'm experimenting with middle-grade, 1,500 is a pretty good number.
      From what I've read in writing books, as long as your scenes are pushing plot forward or revealing characters (or both) and as long as the pacing is good, there's enough variation in the publishing industry to make it work. :)

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    2. Thanks Ashley, that helped a lot!

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    3. Ashley is right. There's no industry standard for how long a scene should be. Mine vary depending on what book I'm working on. In my current book, my scenes were mostly turning out very long, but I occasionally had 500 word or 1,000 word scenes. That's fine.

      I'm not sure I understand your second question. Can you explain further?

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    4. Oops...embarrassing since I'm a writer. What I meant was, that when writing scenes I often lose track of where it's headed and then I get stuck or have to come back and fix it later, and that makes for quite a cumbersome and tiresome process. Any thoughts?

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    5. Honestly? That's just part of the writing gig. And it's the downside of being a pantser. When I pantsed my novels, I often got stuck or wrote several chapters that had to be scrapped when I realized they didn't work. But there were also times when I got in a jam, had to rely on creativity and brainstorming to get myself out of it, and came up with something I loved that I might not have had I outlined. So it has its perks too.

      When I'm doing line edits, it takes me 20 to 30 minutes to edit each page. After a while, It feels cumbersome and tedious. Sometimes I wish for a magic wand. But if you persevere through that, you'll wind up with something really great.

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    6. Thanks, Mrs. Morrill! This really helped a lot.

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  4. This is definitely going to be something I keep in mind, especially as I finish a third draft and start needing some microediting on a story I'm working on... scenes are VERY hard for me, but we'll see how it goes. :) Thanks for giving me some direction, Stephanie!

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  5. I'm still in my first draft, but this is going to be very helpful when I start the editing process. Thank you, Mrs. Morrill!

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  6. Great advice, Steph. I'm a checklist girl too.

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  7. This is a great list, Stephanie! Super handy to have around when looking back over those scenes you're not quite a hundred percent sure about.

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    1. And I've got plenty of those when I'm working on a second draft :)

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  8. I am excited and pleased. This weekend I get to start editing the story that I finished during the last word war, and you have been posting a lot of posts on editing recently. I'm also approaching a very exciting climactic part in the sequel which I'm really looking forward to writing. The suspense is killing me. AND the finalist results for the writers prompt are coming soon, though I doubt I'll be a finalist, I hope someone that I ish-know from here gets there :)

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    1. I'm sure it's because I've been working on edits. I'm so glad the timing is working out well for you!

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  9. Oh my gosh, I needed this - I'm starting really hardcore editing really soon and I've been collecting articles on some tips and tricks for it and such, seeing as this is my very first time working on a fourth draft. Thanks so much for this; it's great!

    Aimee @ To the Barricade

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    1. I'm so glad! Keep me posted on how it goes.

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  10. This is fantastic! I've often thought about these things in my subconscious as a reader, but didn't exactly put my finger on them until just now. Great post and great tips! Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Emily! Sometimes we do these things naturally when we edit, but when I have a sticky scene, I find I HAVE to look at my list and work these questions out on paper to jar the answers loose.

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  11. Such a helpful post! I love "Throwing Stones" :D

    So... it's okay to not know the Beginning, Middle, and End of a scene? *sighs with relief.* I've read that a lot, but I have a hard enough time figuring out where the Beginning, Middle, and End of my novel fall.

    I need to work on getting my scenes snappier. "Arriving fashionably late" is not a natural gift of mine. (Not in writing or in life...)

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    1. I think when I'm reading, the beginning/middle/end of a scene thing makes sense to me. Like if a scene ends too abruptly (or not abruptly enough), I can tell. As a writer though, it just messes with my head to try to identify "the end" of a scene in chapter 7, you know? I hear that advice a lot, though, so it must work for someone.

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  12. Brilliant post! Now to make sure I did all these things in my story...


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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  13. Sometimes I feel like my scenes are too short and choppy, like I'm moving too quickly or something (usually when I'm not sure how to "fill in" what happens between plot points). I can usually tell when this is happening, but I can't usually figure out what to do about it. So, sometimes pacing issue, sometimes plot issue. Any advice here? :)

    Thanks for the post! I loved Throwing Stones. I think of Owen and the cars every time my youngest brother is playing with cars and making them talk violently. LOL :)

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    1. No advice here, Amanda, just agreement. I have the same problem! My chapters are about 1500 words long, and I worry that my novel won't be long enough because all my scenes are so short. My goal is 25,000 words for the first draft (pretty puny, I know, but I add a lot in editing.

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    2. Aww, thanks, Amanda! I had so much fun writing that little book :) As for your question, that's not something I struggle with, but Jill does. I've asked her about it before, and I think she maybe wrote a post on it. I'm going to ask her because I can't seem to find it. Or maybe it's in the Go Teen Writers book? Let me do some investigating.

      Alyssa, I'm like you where my first drafts have low word counts, and I I add a lot in editing.

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  14. Mrs. Morril:

    I was on vacation all last week, and I have not had time to write for that contest. If I entered today, would it still count?

    Thank you!

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  15. Bookmarking this so I can use it when I write my second draft. There's some good stuff in here!

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  16. Printed and on my desk. ;) Thank you, Stephanie!

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  17. I've printed this too, Steph. I need all the scene help I can get!

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    1. Now I feel even more honored :) Hang in there, Jill. You'll get on a roll soon.

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  18. Thanks Ms Morrill, this was just what I needed! I've always been iffy about my scenes. By the way, I just ordered Me, Just Different and Captives by Ms. Williamson and I'm really excited about them :)

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  19. I entered my entry last night, but I noticed some things I need to change. I think you said something before about typing something at the beginning of the draft, when you enter again. Could I do that? Thank you!

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    1. for the contest, hehe.

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    2. I saw on another post that it looks like you figured it out?

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  20. Ooh, this is a very helpful guide to editing. Thank you for posting it!

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