I started Nita in 2016 (I think) and there’s a page in the Works in Progress menu here that shows six revisions of the first scene, one for each year from 2016 to 2021. (Don’t read all six. If you’re curious read the first and last one, reading all six will make you hate the book.) So now it’s 2022 and this is the last damn time I’m doing this because it really does get to the point where I’m washing garbage.
So here’s my method for revising scene.
I do not do this for every scene in the book. It would make me insane. But there are two times I need this kind of analysis. One is for a scene that just is not working but that I know I can’t cut. Like the first scene in the book that introduces the protagonist. The other is for a major scene, a turning point, that has to be absolutely precise in what it’s doing. Like the first scene in the book that introduces the protagonist. So here we are, using the “analyzing a scene by beats” method to fix the first scene in the book that introduces the protagonist.
• A scene is a series of beats. A beat is unit of action, a unit of conflict.
• In cause and effect linear fiction, each beat follows the last because it’s produced by the last beat.
• Each beat is of higher intensity than the last to build expectation and to keep reader interest.
• Each beat is (usually) shorter than the last to increase pacing.
• And the last beat ends the scene’s conflict and throws the reader into the next scene.
So the first thing I do when revising scene is figure out the beats.
Since this is not my first time revising this damn scene, the beats are pretty clear. I thought.
Protagonist Goal: Go into Hell Bar to find out who’s afraid in there and fix it.
Antagonist Goal: Keep her drunk partner from damaging her career and Button’s by feeding her coffee to sober her up and keeping her in the car.
What the scene needs to do:
Introduce Nita with the hopes of attaching the reader to her
Introduce Button with the hopes of attaching the reader to her
Foreshadow Nick with the hopes of making the reader want to see him, and especially to see him and Nita meet
Foreshadow the Nita/Button partnership
Set up suspicion about Something Bad going on
(Please note: I don’t think about ANY of this during the first drafts. This is revision stuff.)
BEATS FOR NITA’S FIRST SCENE:
1. Nita tries to make it clear why she has to go into Hell Bar even though she’s had too much drink and she’s in pajamas, Button politely disagrees. Beat is 471 words, ending with Nita trying to get out of the car and Button saying, “Wait.”
2. Button argues more directly against getting out of the car, proposing an alternative. Beat is 604 words, ending with Nita trying to get out of the car and Button saying, “Wait.”
3. Nita is getting out of the car when a patrolman and a detective both arrive to stop her while interacting with Button, showing the difference between them while moving the plot with back-up for Button and stronger conflict for Nita, who really needs to get into that bar and save somebody. Beat is 1311 words and ends with Button saying “Wait.”
4. Nita tells Button she understands why she doesn’t want her in the bar but she has to go in and tells Button to leave her. Button refuses, cementing the partnership. Beat is 280 words and ends with Nita heads for Hell Bar, not waiting, and Button following.
• The first and second beats are the same, don’t escalate
• Beats that are over a thousand words are too long; making the pacing is too slow, so beat three needs to be split into two and should be anyway because of two interruptions.
• As written, this does not foreshadow the romance which is the main plot of the book.
• That third “Wait” should escalate. Maybe “Wait,” “Wait,” “WAIT.”
So the plan is to:
• Combine the first two beats..
• Cut and split the third beat to be increasingly shorter and more intense.
• Make Nick more of an (unnamed) presence in the scene so the reader begins to anticipate the meet.
• Fix that third “Wait.”
• Cut this in general. We need to get to the Meet.
The easiest way to do this is to open four docs, one for each beat, and work on each beat as if it were complete in itself. Button’s “wait”s are the turning points, ratcheting up the conflict, and the last beat ends with her not saying “Wait,” but following Nita into the bar instead.
Easy peasy. (Screaming inside.)
I’ll put Scene One 2022 up on the WiP page as soon as I get it done. Don’t hold your breath.
40 thoughts on “Revising Scene: Nita’s First Scene AGAIN”
Wait for me!
Robert McKee says beats are changes in behavior (e.g. talking to arguing to physically fighting).
You’re doing that (talking, arguing, Nita getting out of the car, the two of them going into the bar together) but I wanted to throw that in for people like me, who don’t always see the obvious and need to have it explained.
Beats in theater are a unit of time, I think. Beats is what you make ’em. I like units of conflict because talking can be just chat, but it’s probably the same thing: conflict causes change.
I think it’s the changes in behavior that create the sense of escalation.
Two ways of saying the same thing.
But you can have changes in behavior that don’t escalate, string of pearls changes that are just different attempts at solving the conflict.
The thing that makes the changes more desperate is the escalation in the conflict. If the conflict doesn’t escalate, the behavior doesn’t have to.
The conflict is the key. I agree that conflict can cause behavior change, but I think “She changes her behavior in each beat” misses the point. She changes the intensity of her behavior, not necessarily the behavior itself.
That is, if she’s feeling threatened by the conversation, she might cross her arms in front her, then hunch over, then curl up in a ball, but those are all protective behaviors spurred by the conflict. If the conflict isn’t there, behavior change can be changed by something internal (she’s had to much to drink, she’s coming down with the flu) or something that’s not a product of conflict (it starts to get cold, the room fills up with too many people), but it won’t move the scene because the conflict isn’t growing more intense.
I think you always have to look at what the PoV character is trying for and how that’s being thwarted or blocked in the scene to see why it escalates and why she’s going to be changed at the end. She’s changed because the conflict has forced her out of her comfort zone, so look at conflict first.
Nita’s first beat is wanting to go into the bar and Button stopping her. Nita’s patient because this is a new partner and she’s just a kid, but she’s still going into that bar.
Her second beat is Button getting backup from Frank–don’t go into that bar. Nita is sharper because she knows Frank and she’s annoyed that Frank and Button have bonded, but she likes both of them and she’s still going into that bar.
Her third beat is Button getting more backup from Jason, which is when Nita gets much sharper–Jason is annoying–but she’s still going into that bar.
Her fourth beat is ending the conflict, telling Button to get a new partner and going into the bar.
Her behavior does not change except at the end when she gets out of the car. Things change during the scene–Button gets a much better idea of who she’s partnered with, and so does Nita, their relationship has changed, their partnership begins–but Nita’s behavior hasn’t changed. She’s stubborn and she knows she’s right, she’s not going to change in this scene aside from getting out of the car. I’m good with that. I think a lot of behavior changes here, Nita trying different approaches to get what she wants, would weaken her character. She knows what she wants, she knows how to get it, she’s going to stonewall anybody who gets in her way. She’s the human equivalent of Agnes’s frying pan.
HOWEVER, that’s just how I write my fiction. If behavior change does it for you, go for it. Many roads to Oz.
I guess the thing I’ve found with using behavior changes as an expression of beats is that it keeps me from writing talking heads scenes. It forces me to make the characters actually do things instead of just jawing at each other.
I can also see that, given Nita’s character, her approach is going to be to stonewall any attempts to deflect her.
Looking forward to this one getting out into the world so I can see where you take her!
Just Wow! As an uninitiated writing-mostly-for-therapy-and-fun person, this is beyond complicated. I am in awe. I’m not finding the Works in Progress. Maybe in Critique and Revision? I think I need to take the time to read all the writing sidebars. Thanks for sharing your process.
It’s at the very top of the page, between “Post Series” and “Everything Else.” (Or at least it is on desktop; not sure about mobile)
I’d forgotten I’d put Post Series up there. Should finish that. Or take it down.
I actually think that’s a good solid analysis of your first chapter. I’ve read several iterations over the years, and while I always liked it, I agree that your proposed changes would make it a lot better. Power to you (and all the writers here) who go back and revise things over and over again. I don’t think I’m built for that kind of work, and it takes a specific brand of grit and determination to do it.
I really like the huge change between the first version in 2016 and the one last year. See, I can learn, I can change (g).
That’s awesome! Definitely means you’re moving in the right direction, so hopefully this’ll be the last push this chapter needs. I’m so excited! I love the premise for this book and can’t wait to read it! (I know, with the publishing process probably not for another year or two, but I can wait!)
Thanks for this Jenny. I am learning. You rock.
I can (I think) see where you’re coming from in analyzing the framework and progression of events in the opening scene, but my biggest problem with the drafts I’ve read so far is that upon starting the book, I find myself disliking Nita almost immediately. She’s unaware of what’s wrong with her behavior from a police procedural perspective, she’s callous with Button, she’s belligerent about wearing what she’s wearing, and she’s already decided all kinds of questions about what to do, who to browbeat into assisting her, and how she MUST be the Queen of All She Surveys.
I kind of get the feeling that I’m going to like her eventually from some of the later scenes you’ve either posted or mentioned, but Demon-spawn or not Demon-spawn, I still think she needs to show some level of awareness, concern or respect for others, and hesitancy mixed in with the obsessed sense of danger and responsibility for fixing things, and she needs to show that earlier in the novel, or else you’re turning readers off in Chapter 1. Which, well, I think that might be worthy of some more thought.
Could you maybe show us a little of the actual beginning of things before the scene with Nita in the squad car being stubborn and drunk and monomaniacal? The point where she learns something is wrong at the tavern and gets alarmed? The point where she shows up at Button’s door/desk/laundromat or whatever and asks her to drive her to the tavern? The explanation, whatever it might be, that she offers to Button about why she’s bothered and worried? Some allusion to why & how she’s gotten so drunk?
If you did that and made Nita just a tiny bit more human in that prelude scene, I think I’d be less bothered by her squad car/tavern behaviors.
You’re right, I need to make her relatable in the first scene.
I can’t start any earlier, it’s already too early really. The book starts when she meets Nick.
I think the best I can do is emphasize that she’s going in there to rescue somebody. The people arguing against her are doing so for personal benefit–don’t get me a black mark, stay out of my area of power–but she’s trying to help somebody. I like it that she keeps going to do that. I think it takes her too long to do it, she needs to run over these people to get to the person who needs help, but I don’t want her to be nice. She’s not nice. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever written a nice protagonist.
I think all the things you object to are because I wrote her badly because they’re all the things I like about her: she’s willing to break procedure to save somebody, she’s honest and upfront with Button, she doesn’t let other people guilt her about what she’s wearing or what she’s doing, and she has a clear purpose. She’s not “Queen of all She Surveys” because she’s not ordering anybody else around. She’s doing what she needs to do without involving anybody else, taking on all the responsibility, all the blowback. She’s her own woman and she knows she’s all alone. And she tells Button she’s off the hook at the end, she doesn’t drag her into anything.
I like a protagonist who’s confident, independent, focused, and active. I just need to get that better on the page.
I like those qualities in a main character too, but if there’s no visible warmth or vulnerability or consideration for other people, those same traits could describe an Elon Musk, or a Vlad Putin.
Vulnerability is always key. But that’s a perception, too. She’s sick, she’s had too much too drink, it’s cold, she’s trying to explain things to hostile people, she wants to do the right thing; all of those make her vulnerable to me. The fact that she’s resisting all of them doesn’t make her invulnerable, she has second thoughts, but her goal stays the same.
I just have to work on the perception there.
I’ve been reading all the variations on this scene since the beginning and I never saw Nita as arrogant or self-centered or uncaring. I love her attitude and her determination to do what is necessary without regard to the consequences to her. I love Nita.
This just goes to show that every reader brings something a little different to the story, and sees something a little different in the story.
(Jinx, if I have, in my usual clumsy fashion, implied that I think you are wrong, I apologize. I just wanted to say every reader sees a story, or a character, differently.)
Echo Carol C. I love Nita from the start.
Jinx’s feedback is good, and I don’t think you implied she’s wrong.
But I do agree that everybody brings something different to the story. I write half of it, and you all write the other halves of the story as you make it yours. So it’s always good to get feedback on perception.
I think I just have to hit harder that she wants in that bar to save somebody. Which is a great point, so thank you, Jinx.
I did think that it was a bit vague why she was so worked up over this phone call (I’m probably forgetting, but all I remember is that “someone in that bar is scared”), so maybe adding something a little more concrete from the phone call or like a more defined danger if at all possible (“someone in that bar thinks their life is at stake”) or something along those lines
*I’m realizing from the comment below that you were more specific, so apologies
Absolutely no need to apologize; it’s good feedback.
No harm here, carolc! I’m a Jenny Crusie fan just like everybody else here, and I want this book to be one that gets published with all the support from the industry and readership it deserves.
I think we all can benefit Jenny’s thinking process by bringing up our personal pros and/or cons insofar as it could spark an evaluation or a “nope, that won’t work” from her, because she’s in both writer and editor mode here. Sometimes the one approach can be at odds with the other, and what she’s doing now with Nita isn’t easy.
I love your analysis. And your method of working.
When you talked about she had to go in that bar, I couldn’t remember why. So I went to the last revision. The reason that she has to go into the bar is kind of buried in that last revision. Which is why I didn’t remember it.
Nita blinked at this evidence of clear-thinking. “You are going to be an excellent partner. I apologize again for drunk dialing you. I got this mystery text that said the Devil was in the bar and the texter was afraid, and I tried to call the number back to find out who it was and accidently hit your call in ‘Recents’ and–”
She gets a text that sends her to the bar.
In your analysis I think this reason should be part of the first beat. In a way the dead body is a sidebar to what she’s really after: to get in the bar to help the Texter.
Everything you write is funny and appeals to me but I do see what you mean about clarifying the beats. You are one awesome Writer and teacher.
Aw, thank you.
Yeah, that was incredibly helpful realizing that I’d buried her motive. Six years I’ve been working on this and didn’t see it until now.
I really dislike drunk protagonists. If she’s drunk at that important first introduction to the character, that will set her at a big disadvantage in making a connection.
Especially since we don’t get an explanation and most importantly a sense of the unusualness of her drunkenness in this first scene, it really creates a big warning flag of “possible alcoholic, the struggle with that is likely to be an important part of this book” that needs to be overcome soon.
I understand that she needs to be in pyamas, with her judgement (possibly) impaired, but might there be another way to create that situation?
If the drinking is not an important part of her character, which I gather it isn’t, could you give her the flu, or a migraine, as a reason for being in bed and not thinking so clearly at the start of the story?
Being badly irritated by her mother (IIRC from the previous iteration) made her take an drink (or two, even though she usually doesn’t) but it might equally well have triggered a migraine or a bad headache.
And I think I remember something being said about developing a flu – that could be a very good reason too, no alcohol needed.
Nope, she’s going to take another drink in the bar and it’s an important plot point.
I think (for me, not for you) the fact that she’s had two drinks and she’s tipsy pretty much says she’s not an alcoholic, but I also don’t have anything against heroines who drink, so I’m not a good judge of that.
But I do understand what you’re saying. I will not read a romance where the heroine is a student and the hero is a professor. Spent too much time in colleges for that. And for some reason, I can’t do shifters, even though lots of people love them. Everybody has their “I won’t go there.” Hell, I drop a book if the hero smirks.
I admire your perseverance and determination to make this work. Also, I continue to look forward to your book on writing, someday.
I’ve read everything iteration of this too, but it’s been a while so I went back and reread the 2021 version. And found myself appreciating the banter – I love your banter – but thinking just shut up and get into the bar already.
And then in one of the comments above you said that the book actually starts when she and Nick meet. So … ducks for cover from all the arghers … have you thought about dropping this scene altogether? Then you could start the book with Nita vs Nick and show us Nita as a competent though tipsy professional. And maybe the best of the banter could happen the next day.
I thought about dropping the first two scenes altogether. I just can’t figure out how to make it work.
I had the same problem with Faking It. That book starts when Tilda meets Davy in the closet. I knew I should cut the first three scenes, but again, I couldn’t figure out how to make it work.
I’m actually not very good at this. Which is why I yelled for Bob on Lavender’s Blue.
I love the first scene in Faking It. I’m all for Tilda the artist, the caregiver, the rescuer, the financial support, the problem solver. Also, I know that Tilda is making a decision to step away from being a fake.
I need to know all that before she meets Davy; otherwise, it would be Davy’s book.
I agree completely. That is one of my favorite first scenes ever.
I just read the 2021 version of the first scene. The fact that she wants to go into the bar because someone needs help is in there a lot. In fact, her overall motivation of wanting to help is in there a lot. I don’t think you could put it in anymore without being repetitive.
To me, Nita doesn’t act drunk in the first scene. However, drunkenness is such a red flag — being out of control, irresponsible, untrustworthy, just plain wrong — that it puts enormous pressure on her to do the right thing. She has to slow down and sort out her thoughts/actions/feelings. Yet, slowing down to do those things is a sign of being drunk.
While I initially responded like jinx and Hanneke — back at the first go round — I’ve become convinced that Nita’s “drunkenness” works. It’s a provocative excuse that doesn’t excuse her to herself or to others.
I think it’s a sign of her mental state, too. She’s had a bad day and it’s about to get much worse.
But I don’t have the problem with being drunk that a lot of readers do, so I may be blind here. She is drinking coffee that Button hands her, and she’s not pretending she’s not drunk. Also she’s not rolling; she’s just at that stage where you stop monitoring your thoughts and say things you should be just thinking. Not that I know anything about that.
I wish failure to edit while speaking was alcohol related for me.
Instead alcohol makes me more inclined to pet people. Which also can be awkward. No drinking in bars with strangers for me.
I avoid books with drunken protagonists as a rule. For me, she sounded very much like someone who normally didn’t drink and was sorry she’d crossed her own boundary. Everyone get free pass once in a while but if later there was the same behaviour with the same reason and reaction then I’d be thinking: hmm, maybe not for me. This, I expect to very pleased to read, indeed.
Chiming in late here on the alcohol issue: It really only bothers me in a protagonist if it is unacknowledged. I am thinking of Grace from Grace and Frankie here. She was a functional alcoholic and I really like the way it was handled. Acknowledged, seen as a potential issue and an unhealthy coping mechanism, but a part of her and very real. If the writers had treated it as ‘normal’ or part of a lawyer’s wife culture, I think that it would have bothered me more.
I am the child of a functional alcoholic and don’t drink at all, but it also doesn’t bother me that people do. My partner hardly ever drinks at all, and he is Asian, so he is a lightweight, but he is so happy when he is buzzed that it is stinking cute. Enjoying it is different from abusing it.
And generally I don’t write of a protagonist in the first scene. Only really poor writing makes me put a book down before 50 pages.
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