Writing Process #3: Review the Scenes

BEFORE I go further, I have to mention that these posts describe my own particular writing process, the one that works for me.

A lot of books about writing fiction will tell you that everyone has their own process that works for them, and that what works for one writer doesn’t necessarily work for another. But I think it’s fair to say that, in the broad strokes at least, you’ll find that many of them are similar. If what I’m describing works for you, mostly, then that’s great. As it is, my process is based on writing processes that other writers have described, with some tweaks to make it fit the way I think, the way I like to develop stories, the way I like to write. And as you, gentle reader, work on your own stories, you’ll no doubt develop your own process that you’re comfortable with.

That said, on with the show . . .

Following on from the previous post, at this point I have a set of paragraphs, each a self-contained description of a scene. I don’t include anything that isn’t relevant to the story—for example, I don’t bother to say what the characters are wearing, or where the scene takes place, unless it’s important. If you read these paragraphs in order, you’ll get the whole story from beginning to end, and it should make sense. You should even be able to give it to someone else to read, and it should make sense to them, too. (And if it doesn’t, they should be able to tell you why.)

What form does this set of scenes take? That’s up to you. You could just write them in a notebook, if you want to. But you probably want something a little more flexible. I tend to use a spreadsheet on my computer (specifically, I use Google Sheets—that way I can access it from my laptop, or a tablet, or my phone in a pinch). I know of people who use index cards pinned on a big board. The point is, you want something that lets you move the scenes around.

You see, the next step of my process involves going back through all the scenes, and doing a couple of things as I do.

First and foremost, I’m organising the scenes into a Timeline. This is a spreadsheet page where each row represents a point in time (which can be as specific as the story demands—”1pm Thursday” for example, or “Winter”) and there’s a column for each character. Depending on the point of view I’ve decided to write the story in (third person limited, say), I colour-code each cell to highlight whose point of view the action will be written from for that scene. At the same time I fill in the other cells in the same row to tell me where the other characters are at that same time—that’s great for spotting some silly mistakes, like where Fred is in London while one scene is taking place but then he’s in Glasgow in the following scene, which takes place only minutes later. It also helps me spot action that I currently have marked as happening behind the scenes, as it were, but that might actually be better done as an actual scene in its own right. (And I often spot scenes that I intended to include in the story, that are actually better off happening off-screen and maybe mentioned in passing later.)

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As I build up the timeline, I’m looking for opportunities to add conflicts and obstacles to drop into the way of the protagonists. As you read back a scene, ask yourself, What can I do to make things tougher? My detective is driving like hell to get to the slaughterhouse where the evil janitor is about to chop up his next victim. What can I do to make things tougher? I know: it’s snowing hard and he can’t see the road in the dark. And . . . he hits a patch of ice and runs off the road, and totals the car. Yes! And he gets out of the car and he’s all cut up and dazed and, MUAHAHAHA, he hears the yelping of coyotes nearby. And then . . . well, you get the idea. Put your characters right behind the eight ball. Make them bleed. Then, if you like, let them dig themselves out of the hole at the last minute. But one thing to watch here is, make sure your characters act according to the rules you’ve set for them. Remember their wants, needs, motivations, and the kinds of people they are, and how you want them to change as the story progresses (I’ll have more to say about that in a future post), and make sure their actions fit.

Another thing I’m looking for is places where I read a scene and I get a feeling that somehow it doesn’t deliver—that it’s just flat, somehow. It’s hard to define, exactly. When I see scenes like that, and I get that feeling, the first question I ask myself is, Is this scene needed? If I delete it, does the rest of the story make sense? The answer to those questions determines how I deal with it, which might mean rewriting the one-paragraph description to beef things up, or trashing it altogether.

One more thing I’m doing is making sure that things flow nicely. That’s particularly important if the story has places where two or three things are happening in parallel—for example, I have a set of scenes where John is breaking into the tool shed to find the stolen Spanner of Justice, while in a separate set of scenes taking place at the same time, Janice is in her car, chasing The Mad Professor and trying to delay him getting to the same tool shed so that John has more time. So I have to make sure that as I switch viewpoint from John to Janice and back, it all makes sense in terms of the order that things happen. So I might need to change the order of the scenes a little to get that right.

Yet one more thing I’m doing is evaluating the peril and tension. I assign a number, usually from zero to five, to each scene. Some people like to assign one number for peril and another for tension; I usually find that they end up being pretty much the same most of the time, so I generally just use one number. If you’re using a spreadsheet, as I do, you can dedicate a column for that and then create a chart showing how the tension goes up and down as the story progresses. Getting a graphical display of this is priceless. What you’re looking for is a line that starts low and gradually climbs, in fits and starts, to a peak at the climax, near the end of the story, then drops in the denouement. If things climb, then drop to long flat spots, you should be thinking about how to get that tension up. You might need to rethink those scenes to add more cowbell, or combine things into one scene where the boringness can be swiped over quickly, or consider just plain tearing the slow scenes out. Whatever works.

And when I’ve been through the scenes from beginning to end, I put it all to one side for a couple of days. And then I do it again. And again.

I can easily spend a month or more doing this, until I reach a point where I really like what I have and I don’t want to change it any more. Once I’m at that point, I’m ready to start the actual writing. I’ll come to that in a future post, coming soon to a screen near you.

Until next time . . .

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