Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Should you cut that scene? A Revision Quiz.

In celebration of finishing my latest round of editing, today I’m talking about the sometimes brutal process of revising a “finished” book.  For me, this is very different from revising-as-you-go or revising the first (or second) draft.  Once I’ve taken something through a polishing phase, I’m more attached to the words, and it’s harder for me to see what does and doesn’t deserve to live. 

Fortunately, there are two well-known and often-quoted questions I think most writers use to decide if a scene should stay in a book: Does it advance the plot?  Does it reveal something about a character?  The answer had better be yes to at least one of those questions.  Of course, if you’re like me, it isn’t always easy to know the answers, particularly to the character question.  I mean, of course this scene reveals something about my character!  Doesn’t everything?

Yeah.  We all know that’s not true.

So.  When I run into a problematic scene, I have a handful of more directed questions I ask myself, and here they are in handy quiz form!  Put your favorite problem-chapter to the test and see if it gets to keep breathing.
  1. Who has new information at the end of the scene? (Chose all that apply.)
    • The reader
      • +5 points (This should pretty much always be true.)
    • The main character
      • +5 points
    • A side character
      • +3 points
      • Does the side character have an impact on the plot?  If not:
        • -3 points.  And I have another problem.
  2. What's happening?
    • People are talking.
      • +1 point
      • Are they saying anything important?
        • Yes: +2 points
        • No: -5 points
    • People are running*/fighting/kissing/searching/etc
      • +5 points
  3. How are things different at the end of the scene?
    • They aren't
      • -5 points
    • The characters are one step closer to figuring something out: who killed the butler, why there’s an adorable puppy on the front porch, whether or not they’re in love, etc etc etc.
      • +5 points
    • Someone's entire worldview has shifted.  (Example: When Harry hears the prophecy in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)
      • +10 points
  4. Is it beautiful?
    • I had to read it twice before I figured out what I was trying to say.
      • -5 points
    • I mean, it's not hideous...
      • 0 points
    • You know, it's actually pretty good!
      • +3 points
    • It's the most beautiful thing I've ever written.
      • -10 points.  Yes, that’s right, negative points.  Here’s the thing about beautiful sentences:  It’s like going on a date with some guy who looks like Ian Somerholder.  He might be the most sensitive and interesting conversationalist since Charles Bingley**, or he  might spend an entire hour at the restaurant texting other women, and then not even offer to share his umbrella when we walk to the cab in the rain.  But I’m not going to notice, or even care, because I’m going to be staring at him like a dog at bacon.  Beware of beautiful sentences.
How did your scene score?  Can you keep it?  Anything less than ten points makes me nervous, but every book is different.  I think one or two scenes with "low scores" can stay as long as they're still doing something important, like world-building, but it's still better to weave that sort of thing into the action.  Happy Editing!

*And not just for their health.
**Darcy was a shitty date.


  1. Ha! I'm officially in love with this post. Thanks for the laugh this morning.

    And CONGRATS on finishing edits :D

  2. :)

    This post is made of win.

    And congratulations on finishing the edits. That's always awesome and disorienting (in the good way).

  3. This scoring system is great. This is one of those things I think (I think....) I do naturally. My "strength." Whereas I suck at putting out beautiful sentences the first time, or world-building, etc. You know, the actual writing part. The scene building part, I tend to be pretty solid on... thank God.

    Yay for finishing your edits!

  4. And Bingley IS better than Darcy.

  5. Thanks, everyone!

    @Feliza: I'm definitely in the disoriented phase!

    @Jaimie: Not that I don't love Darcy, but I'd rather be sitting next to Bingley at dinner.