Revising Scene

Okay, I’m slammed again today and tomorrow is PopD (His Girl Friday! YAY!) so here are the rough notes for another teaching handout that’s going up on the website soon, this one on revising scene. Yes, I am buying you off. You’re going to see some similarities to the Revising Story handout because novels are made up of acts, and acts are made up of scenes, and scenes are made up of beats, and novels, acts, scenes, and beats are all units of conflict, just different lengths. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, the structure of the atom is the same as the structure of the universe. Be the scene. (Too bad Caddyshack isn’t a romcom.)

BASIC SCENE DYNAMIC
The PROTAGONIST (who owns the scene)
VS
The ANTAGONIST (who shapes the scene and who if removed from the scene would cause the conflict to collapse).
IN PURSUIT OF A CONCRETE GOAL
(The concrete, specific, external things they are trying desperately to get, not inner peace.)

CREATE THE CENTRAL STORY QUESTION:
Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and get her goal?
When the reader asks that question, the scene begins.
When the reader knows the answer, the scene ends.

GOALS
The goals of the protagonist and antagonist must . . .
• Convince the reader that they will lose everything if they don’t win
• Be difficult to achieve because of real barriers
• Bring the protagonist and antagonist together in direct conflict.

Conflict alone is not enough, you have to have focused conflict, conflict that neither the protagonist or the antagonist can resign from and that leads them inexorably to a final confrontation. Which brings us once again to the conflict box:

So as you’ve probably noticed, the plot of a scene is constructed exactly the same as the plot of a novel, just, you know, shorter. It has a beginning where the conflict starts, a middle where the conflict escalates (rising action) and a climax where the protag and antag fight the final battle and one of them wins. The only difference is that the units of conflict in a novel are scenes, and the units of conflict in a scene are beats. I’ll do a beat analysis on a Liz scene this weekend (we’re watching a movie tomorrow, remember?).

Finally (and probably more usefully) here are two cheat sheets for critiquing scenes, one for authors analyzing their own scenes, and one for beta readers who are analyzing somebody else’s scene.

Scene Analysis Questions (for Authors)

Character
Who is my protagonist?
What is her goal?
Who is my antagonist?
What is his goal?

Conflict
How are the protagonist and antagonist locked in conflict?
What are the beats of that conflict?
How do they escalate?
What is the payoff in this scene?

Setting
Where is the scene happening and how does that affect the conflict?
When is this scene happening and how does that affect the conflict?
Who else is in the scene and how does that affect the conflict?

Impact
How have the characters changed between the beginning and the end of the scene; that is, how has the character arced?
How has the plot changed between the beginning and the end of the scene; that is, how has the story moved?

Overview
Where’s the fun (excitement, worry, fear, emotion) in this scene?
What must be kept in this scene?
What needs work in this scene?

Scene Critiques Questions (for Beta Readers)

Who is the protagonist?
That is, who owns this scene?

What is her or his goal?

Who is the antagonist?
That is, who is the person causing the conflict in this scene; the person, who if removed from the scene, would cause the conflit to collapse?

What is his goal?

What expectations does this scene create?

What must be kept in this scene?

What needs work?

18 thoughts on “Revising Scene

  1. Man, reading this and the last writing post, I’m beginning to think I need to completely switch out my hero’s goal for the rough draft I just finished.
    Consarnit (I try to stick to Yosemite Sam style swearing).
    He and heroine just don’t have goals that are truly opposing and that might be why my middle is so muddled.
    Seriously, thank you for sharing this. Revision is where I need the most help!

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  2. Jenny said:
    You’re going to see some similarities to the Revising Story handout because novels are made up of acts, and acts are made up of scenes, and scenes are made up of beats, and novels, acts, scenes, and beats are all units of conflict, just different lengths. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,

    And the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone.

    *heading to m-w.com to look up ontogeny and phylogeny which sound like possible character names for a previously undiscovered Greek tragedy.*

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  3. This blog is like a mini MFA in Creative Writing. There are no classes like this available where I live, and I can’t imagine anything better than learning from Ms. Crusie. Thanks for sharing!

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  4. Thank you for sharing this. If that’s how you buy us off, I’m game.

    Can we be the beat, too? It sounds cool. Be the beat.

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  5. no offense intended to you personally, but as someone in the middle of a harrowing draft read through, the excellent and comprehensive strategy you put forth kinda makes me want to die.

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  6. if more people knew how to actually structure novels i bet the number of people who make resolutions like ‘hey, i’ll write a novel this year’ would be much, MUCH lower.

    thank you for putting this together in tidy and concise formats. it’s still daunting and makes my head explode when i think of putting it all into practice but at least i don’t have to reinvent the wheel for myself.

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  7. I have been using the questions for critique group for awhile, but I think my critique partners got the memo on author questions before I did. 😀 It’s nice to see these all listed together, along with the goals for the scenes. Thanks!

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  8. Jenny, Good point to your comment on the hero. (I’m not going to risk nesting!) I think actually changing his goal and motivation has helped me come up with a very cool secret for him. I like characters with secrets.
    I’m just, you know, lazy and wish I had figured this out before. 😉 I swear I do prep work before my rough draft, but then the story becomes this crazy beast that gets away from me.
    It’s all part of the learning process!

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    1. Really, it’s all part of the writing process. Your first draft is a discovery draft when all this stuff pops up. So you’re doing it right.

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  9. I didn’t know anyone who hadn’t read Stephen Jay Gould as an undergraduate could say Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny!! I love reading your blog for so many reasons. Here is one more.

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  10. Wow, I’m in the middle of writing a story about the last couple years of my life… well just changed a bit and different characters enter and depart, but this has helped me so much that I think I may really want to keep this going. Cuz I have found that when I hit a wall, I feel defeated and quit.

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