How to Edit the Scene

Copy of fiction 104_ editing the scene

As we continue this editing series how we can develop a great story, I hope you’re able to see that the elements of storytelling hinges on more than concept and characters. By having all the layers in place before actually writing, you can have a clearer idea of where your story is going. Or if you’ve already written your book, how to make sure all the layers are in place so that you give your readers a delightful reading experience.

The fourth layer in developing a great story is developing the scenes within your story, whether nonfiction or fiction.

The scenes within your story link the characters and plot together like a colorful construction paper chain link that can be as short or as long as you want them to be.

How to Edit the Scene

  • What does the character want or how does the character react in this scene?
  • What is the most important dominant impression in this scene?
  • How does the scene propel the plot forward?

What does the character want or how does the character react in this scene?

As you know, in storytelling, it’s really all about what’s at stake for the main character. And the best way to show that is to show the character interacting with the scene. We’re not going to talk about the character right now, but more how the elements in the scene help the character.

In my recent, unpublished (yet) work-in-progress about a woman who retrains retired cavalry horses, my character encounters an accident where one of the horses has gotten tangled up in barbed wire fencing. The horse has been there quite a while, has thrashed around, and is lying with its neck stretched out, as if struggling for the very breath of life.

Now, what kind of elements would this scene need to include for it to grip readers by the throat and pull them through this rescue?

We must ask ourselves the following potential questions (not exhaustive, by any means):

  • What is the end of this scene?
  • What does this scene tie back to?
  • Does the scene open closer to the middle of the scene, rather than setting up the scene and easing the reader into it?
  • What is the driving emotion and motivation for the character?
  • Are any of the five senses represented here, and how to incorporate them?
  • What character actions would enhance this scene?
  • What is the takeaway for your readers?

If it seems that every aspect of storytelling is comprised of asking lots of questions, you’re right. It is. As writers, we must don our analytical hats and comb every journalist-style question as we map out the story basics. For in asking those deeper questions, we will be able to craft a compelling scene that dazzles and engages readers.

Here’s a piece of my draft scene for the story I’m writing:

The tips of Laurie’s shoes caught under some overlain bumps of grass, and she landed facedown near a pile of manure. She pushed herself up and limped toward the mare’s cry.

Ebony writhed, struggling, next to the fence.

Laurie dropped to the ground. “Easy, girl,” she soothed in her calmest voice—or what she hoped sounded calm. “Let’s see what’s wrong.”

Barbed wire had wrapped several times around the mare’s right foreleg. The wire carved gashes in her leg; skin and blood mingled together.

“Oh, my girl, how did you get into this fix?” She found out where the wire started and began to unwrap it.

The mare kicked and struggled to rise, causing the barbs to sink into Laurie’s fingers.

Laurie winced, tears springing to her eyes. “Listen, Eb.” She stroked the mare’s sweaty neck. “You’ve got to stay still until I get this wire untangled. Just take it easy, girl. Relax.” She took a deep breath as the mare squinched her eyes in pain. “It’s okay,” she soothed, working the fencing wire around and around.

Ebony apparently sensed Laurie’s racing emotions and fought to get up. The wire dug deeper into her skin as well as scraping Laurie’s fingers again. As the mare’s sweat dripped onto her bloody cuts, her fingers burned. She blew short breaths, hoping the action would distract her from the pain.

“Ebony, easy, easy,” she commanded in a shaky voice. “Hold on.” She worked furiously despite the fire sensation in her fingers. “I almost got it.”

Ebony settled down, even if the constant twitching in her shoulder did not.

Like it? It’s not perfect, and will change, but it’s a start. Can you picture the scene as if you were right there? Do you notice words that invoke emotions such as fear, intensity, pain, anguish? Do you feel the rush and the patience that Laurie does as she works to free the horse? Do you feel the blood, smell the sweat, hear the rushing of your heart in your ears?

Think about your own story, and what your character wants. Got it? Now what kind of things would need to be in your scene for the character to act upon or react to what they want, or what is happening within the scene?

What is the most important dominant impression in this scene?

The dominant impression is what stands out most in the scene. The dominant impression is the wrinkles in grandpa’s face as he smiles at his grandchildren while he’s remembering the bittersweet moments from his own childhood. The dominant impression is the dank cellar filled with root vegetables during the Depression. The dominant impression is the quirky flying car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

In my draft scene example, the dominant impression was the horse, and I used words and descriptions and motivations that described the animal, while bringing focus to what my character was feeling—and what she wanted.

In short, the dominant impression centers around the scene and helps bring focus and emotion to the scene and whatever happens in it.

How does the scene propel the plot forward?

Propelling the plot forward is tough. Not gonna lie. It’s that delicate balance between stop, listen to the birdsong, and go, race through the sun-splashed woods.

In making the scene move forward, whether slower paced or break-neck speed, it’s crucial to set certain actions, thoughts, motivations, descriptions in such a way that the scene builds to a crescendo. If you’ve ever listened to Handle’s Messiah, you know the rush of emotion you get when that last stanza is played. Same for your writing because readers will be able to experience all those emotions with your characters at those levels, and then when you raise the stakes, then that emotion only grows.

For example, in my scene, the highest propeller is toward the end of that scene:

Ebony apparently sensed Laurie’s racing emotions and fought to get up. The wire dug deeper into her skin as well as scraping Laurie’s fingers again. As the mare’s sweat dripped onto her bloody cuts, her fingers burned. She blew short breaths, hoping the action would distract her from the pain.

“Ebony, easy, easy,” she commanded in a shaky voice. “Hold on.” She worked furiously despite the fire sensation in her fingers. “I almost got it.”

As if Laurie’s fingers are going to get pinched off, right?

Secret Sauce to the Best Scene. Ever.

Classic film director Alfred Hitchcock said,

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

And let that be true of your manuscript, however you choose to set up your scenes in your story, whether you choose to ease in, ramp up, create waves, let it ebb and flow—or go off the deep end. No. No. Don’t do that. But do make your readers anticipate every moment of every line of every scene.

Each writer and author benefits from exploring their characters inside and out, while asking “what if?” at every turn when crafting their novel’s scene because it’s really the secret sauce to writing a great story that captivates people, agents, editors, readers, marketers, and the person who wouldn’t necessarily pick up a book and read it.

Questions? Comments? I’d love to engage in the conversation with you! Drop your question or comment in the chat below, and I’ll look forward to responding!

Your Turn!

What is the dominant impression in your scene?

Which of the five senses will you use in your scene, and how?

5 thoughts on “How to Edit the Scene

    1. Great question!

      The writer’s bible and editor’s bible, Chicago Manual of Style (17 edition) states that you can consult your dictionary for proper spelling of domestic animals and horticultural categories.

      However, typically Thoroughbred is capitalized because it is a breed name.

      Like

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