Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Self-Editing Checklist: Scene Analysis

You've got a completed manuscript and you're ready to self-edit, right? So now the big question: Where do you start?

My answer: a self-editing checklist. (If you're just jumping in, check out my post from two weeks ago where I introduced the why behind a self-editing checklist as well as some ground rules.)

Once you feel pretty good about your overall story and characterization, it's time to start in with an analysis of your scenes. Now this can be done however you want. I usually take out my 4-page checklist and work through the entire thing on one scene at a time. If that doesn't work for you, do whatever does.

Here are the first two points on the checklist.

#1 - Scene or Sequel (as coined by Dwight V. Swain in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer). Does my scene have a clear goal, conflict, and disaster? If it's a reaction scene (aka sequel), does it have a reaction, dilemma, and decision that propels it into the next scene? I track these items in an Excel spreadsheet (the CPA in me never dies). :) It helps me make sure I don't have an aimless scene.

Resources: For the full description of the concept behind Scene and Sequel, I highly recommend Dwight's book. Or if you want shorter article-sized summaries, check out Randy Ingermanson's website or Camy Tang's Story Sensei blog.

#2 - Does the scene enact a tangible change, both inwardly and outwardly? This is a direct quote from a Donald Maass post on Writer Unboxed. To read the entire post, click here.

Your homework for the next two weeks, should you choose to accept it: Read the articles I've referenced. And if you have a few extra dollars and some time on your hands, buy Dwight Swain's book (or borrow it from your local library) and read Chapter 4. Then analyze your scene for these two points.

Do you tend to get in the trap of writing aimless scenes? What's your best advice to ramp up a scene and make it meatier?

* Book photo by winnond /
**Flower photo by Filomena Scalise /


Debra E. Marvin said...

I'm so happy you're doing this series. I'm editing ==hopefully polishing, a completed story and I have a pretty lengthy checklist that I use while I go through each chapter. One in particular gave me fits until I found what was lacking. My story is plot driven, I can't deny it. There's plenty of bad stuff being thrown at my h/h.
My concern is the little voice that keeps saying your characters must be proactive not reactive. In this case, it's a matter of them taking two steps forward and one step back. And the target is always changing!
I'm blessed to have beta readers who are willing to be honest with me about what they see. Because it's pretty difficult, I think, to analyze from this close.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I always ask what the point is of each of my scenes, how is it moving my character and the plot, not always sure that happens...hence editing.

Thanks for your email. Will write back soon. Dentist, vet, church group for girls today. Busy day.

What? What's that you say? You're going to send me Dwight's book. Oh Sarah--too kind. :D :D :D

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Great post! When I first started writing, I had no idea scenes were supposed to have a goal. Silly me. There is so much more to writing than I ever thought. I thought you just wrote down the little movie that played in my head! lol

I am really enjoying your series...keep it coming!

Susan Anne Mason said...

This is what I struggle with the most! I find it so hard to imagine that in every scene the hero has to have a goal. *big sigh*

Thanks for this post. One of the these days I hope the light bulb comes on!


Keli Gwyn said...

Great points, Sarah. I've had to delete many scenes that didn't work. That experience has taught me to plot my story before I write it. The pantser route I used to follow created more work for me--and more pain as I had to make frequent use of the delete key.

Julia M. Reffner said...

I'm saving these checklists since I'm at the draft stage. Actually, that's what I have to let go of right now, self-editing during the process of writing. I see all my weaknesses and now I'm at the point where I'm just making myself put the words on the page and FINISH my manuscript.

Katie Ganshert said...

I can't recommend Dwight Swain's book enough! It changed the way I wrote fiction - and definitely for the better!

I also have a post on my blog about scene/sequel. Short and sweet. Here's the url address:

Jillian said...

My copy of Dwight's book arrived the other day, thanks to Camy's recommendation. I plan to start digging into it this weekend. Sherrinda, I'm 100% with you when you said, "There is so much more to writing than I ever thought." Thanks for a great post, Sarah!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Debra, So glad this list is coming at a good time for you! I tend to be plot-driven too. My newest wip started out with characters, though, so I'm a little topsy-turvy trying to figure it out. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Wendy, my friend! Hmm, maybe you'll hit the jackpot on one of my Amazon giveaways when I resurrect them again? Does that count as a free copy of Dwight's book? :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

LOL, Sherrinda, Isn't it funny how naive we all are when we start writing? Sometimes an aimless scene is necessary in the drafting process, but you have permission to be ruthless while editing. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Sue, Just keep stretching up on your toes until you reach that light switch. I think we're all doing that exercise here on the Alley. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Keli, I get shingles just thinking about trying to 'pants' my way through a m/s. The plotting route is much more predictable for safe ol' me. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Julia, Eek! Yes, definitely don't think too much about this stuff while you're drafting! You'll drive yourself bonkers. One of my worst habits, by the way. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Katie, Thanks for sharing your link! There's lots of good stuff in that book once you get used to the different vernacular. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Jillian, What great timing! I like Camy's series on the book because it summarizes most of the points in more understandable language. Hope you enjoy! :)

Pepper said...

Oh Sarah -
Great post.
As you can probably imagine, I usually figure out my poor scenes in hindsight (you know, I don't even think I know how to use excel ;-)

I didn't 'get' the idea of scene goals for a long time. It makes such a difference when you can kind of pinpoint of each scene. I have a clearer view after I've written my first draft.

Camy's website is an amazing resource.