Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 10 - Torture test your scenes

I've been working to improve scenes that showed up in my story but aren't up to the quality of some of the other scenes. It took me about three hours to go through 20 scenes of a Young Adult novel I'm working on, and it made an amazing difference. Here's what a card for one of the scenes looked like.
Now to explain:

Scene number indicates where it is in the manuscript. This is the 12th scene in the novel. I added "S" because this manuscript has more than one viewpoint character and this scene is from Sarah's point of view.

Title That bolded bit above, Stalking 101. This is optional, but I've found titling scenes helps me to keep a focus on them. Often, it also reveals something about their nature. If I can't title a scene, it's a pretty good indication the scene isn't really needed.

Pages (pp38-40) In addition to providing a reference for revision, having the page numbers across many scenes gives me a sense of how much variation there is, when scenes run long and when scenes run short.

Goal Every scene needs a purpose. The main goal here was for Sarah to solve the riddle of some strange behavior by the new boy at school, Daniel.

Conflict Sarah had a goal, but it wasn't easily accomplished. As she followed Daniel, he seemed to sense he was being spied upon. And once he got to the abandoned house he was squatting in, he was able to catch her snooping.

Consequences I have these in practical terms (got her secret, but got caught) and emotional (responsibility, fear, empathy). For each of the scenes I analyzed, I included both of these.

Setting For me setting is time as well as place, and I want to check to see there are enough touchpoints to help the reader get/stay immersed in the story and that the setting is appropriate to the experience. Here, noir-ish elements support feelings of guilt, fear and vulnerability.

Cliffhanger This does not have to go all "Perils of Pauline," but there needs to be a reason to keep reading. Usually, an interesting question suffices. Making sure the reader cares about what happens next is good enough.

A lot of these card sections are reference. and some are not for everyone. I do believe that testing each scene for a goal, conflict, consequences, enough of a setting for reader immersion, and a reason to keep reading is essential to effective story revision. That means five factors for each scene (about 40 scenes in a feature script, typically 60 or more in a novel.

This simple analysis showed me some scenes I'd written were incomplete (and ideas on how to fix them came readily to mind). I also noticed which felt underwritten and thin. The surprise for me was how the cards came together to reveal sequences and suggest ways to cut, add, and improve story logic. A lot was accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. (If this had been a script, it would have provided direction for fixes for half the story!)

So here's what you might try at home. In your story, think of a scene that is less remarkable than your other scenes. Create either a full card for it (like the example) or just test the scene for goal, conflict, consequences, enough of a setting for reader immersion, and a reason to keep reading. If anything is missing or weak, you already have a payoff from the exercise. But don't stop there. Analyze the scene before and the scene after so you get a good view of how it fits into the larger story. Chances are, this will give you additional insights.

Even if you don't do every scene, looking at the weak ones is likely to provide you with ideas on how to make them -- and your story -- stronger.

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