Diving into a rewrite has often panicked me. All those great suggestions in critique group make no sense as I stare at my document. I’ve needed to learn ways to reimagine the scene to improve its impact.
Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few ideas for re-imagining a scene:
In Media Res
In media res is the fancy term we use to describe where most scenes should begin—in the middle of the action. In other words, readers will skip a lot of background, throat clearing or scene setting to get to the action. Ideally, you’ll want to orient your reader (set the scene) with the setting, the time and the POV character. Then jump right into the action.
Without the reader orientation, readers will be confused: Where am I? Is this scene before or after the last one? Who’s telling me this part of the story? Yet going on too long with descriptions or back story can be equally confusing. The best path is to give readers just enough info and then jump into the action. Readers almost always prefer action to narration, description or exposition.
To illustrate, I use a little story about a woman in a white silk gown who orders a glass of red wine. The waiter balances the glass on a tray. He trips. The glass bobbles, then falls, arcing the red wine toward the gown. Where does the scene begin? When she orders? When the waiter trips? When the glass spills? Usually, the best place to open a scene is just before the wine hits the dress. You give a minimum of set-up and then, sploosh.
Action v. Narration
Another way to rearrange or rewrite a scene is by taking a look at the action and the narration. Action should show, narration usually tells. A major but common mistake is to put inconsequential info into action and then narrate the major action bits.
Let’s say your story is about a dad who treats his daughter to a restaurant meal because she made the honor roll. What parts should you act out and which parts are better in summary or narration? If you put into action the part where they order the food, but narrate or summarize the real purpose of the scene, readers will be disappointed. Unless, of course, you’re writing a story like the film “Five Easy Pieces,” with Jack Nicholson. Then you’ll want to act out the scene where he orders plain toast.
Take a look at the scene’s ratio of action to narration.
If you identify places where you’ve narrated important stuff, pull out that part and re-imagine it as a scene, with purpose, dialogue and action. If you spot scenic action with no pay-off (it makes no difference to the larger story), remove it and summarize or narrate.
Where’s the Gut Punch?
Knowing where to begin a scene (in media res) so that readers are directed toward the meat of the story is crucial to maintaining interest. Getting the action to narration ratio right is equally important to keep the story’s pace humming along. But most importantly, consider how the reader will react emotionally to what you’ve written.
I say this a lot, but emotion really is the key to keeping readers. By tapping into emotion, you keep tension tight, maintain reader curiosity and buy-in of your story and you help readers identify with your protagonist. One way to up the emotion quotient is to revisit your character, story and scenic goals. What’s at stake at each of these levels? Many writers set their story and/or character goals high but neglect the individual scene goals. Remember, you don’t have to write about every chronological moment in the story. You skip the boring stuff by summarizing or transitioning and go to the next big development.
If you believe your goals (what’s at stake) are all high enough, take a look at your obstacles and how your character responds to them. Are they worthy obstacles? If your character loses, does he/she shrug and say, “Oh well”? By infusing every scene with passion, your story will elicit the biggest possible emotional gut punch. Adopting these tips can make rewriting a little easier—what are some ways you perk up your scenes in revision?