Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Strengthening a scene

In my post earlier today, I mentioned I was revising my manuscript. Part of the revision process is strengthening scenes. It doesn't take much to show a reader something, as opposed to telling them. But it's crucial in making the novel readable as a whole.

While my overall intention is to tighten the novel, my editor wants me to amp up some scenes where my descriptions are a bit lackluster. That's easy to say, so I thought I'd provide a quick example of what I mean.

The following is a fairly mundane paragraph in the second chapter where the main character, Michael, arrives at a local Denny's restaurant to meet his friend. This particular scene kicks off a crucial point early in the book, and it needed some more color, more showing, to bring the reader into the scene.

Here's the scene as it appeared initially:

A few minutes later, Michael pulled his silver Honda into a parking spot in front of Denny’s and hurried inside. It had begun to rain and he could feel winter in the November wind. Gary grinned and raised a hand in greeting from a booth in the rear of the restaurant’s smoking section.

Not awful, since it's fairly straightforward narrative. I wanted to show the reader that the weather, which had been unseasonably warm the previous day, had worsened. That winter was imminent. Here's the same scene, amped up just a bit:

A few minutes later, Michael pulled his silver Honda into a parking spot in front of Denny’s. Tiny pellets of sleet had mixed with the morning’s drizzle and the November wind threatened to wrest Michael’s lightweight umbrella from his hand. After hurrying inside, he stamped his wet shoes and peered into the crowded restaurant. Gary grinned and waved from a booth in the rear of the smoking section.

The difference is slight, to be sure, but instead of telling the reader that it was rainy and cold, I showed them by describing the pellets of sleet mixed with rain, and how the wind was threating to rip the umbrella from Michael's hand. When he stamps his wet feet, it puts the final touch on the scene.

I'm slowly and laboriously doing these kinds of small scene changes on each page of the book -- all 457 of them! And that's just a small one. Some are far more expansive. And I need to remember that each change I make early in the book can cause ripples throughout the entire manuscript.

For instance, if I get creative in Chapter 4 and add a description of someone's hair as blond and curly, it had better be blond and curly in Chapter 20!

So I sit with a notebook and jot down any such changes. And before each page I revise, I check my notebook to see if a ripple has occurred.

Ah, the glamorous life of a writer.


  1. That was a hard lesson for me to learn. Nicely done!

  2. It's amazing how a few words can change a whole scene and make it much more descriptive in the readers mind. It sounds like you're working with a sharp editor, which can make all the difference in the world. Good luck with the tightening and editing!

  3. Editing... GAH!!!! The torture device of choice inflicted on writers.

    The second paragraph does a better job of telling, but there's still a bit of slack in it. Try ditching "lightweight" before "umbrella" and see if it doesn't sound better without the extra syllables. And it may be nitpicky, but I'd switch "wet shoes" for "shoes dry". (We know the shoes are wet because it's raining, so calling them wet reads redundant. Stamping them dry accomplishes the same action without the repition.)

    I'll stop shredding your edits now and slink back to my corner. :-P

  4. Alright McQuein, you're .... um ...

    ... exactly right. Changes made. ;)

    Wow. I need a beta reader like you. Seriously.

  5. "Simple changes?" Are you kidding? I really liked your rewrite, and can now clearly see and feel the difference. Hang in there. Good job.