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Scene-by-Scene Revision of the Novel

In the iterative process of drafting a novel -- and especially during the final draft -- I've found editing at the scene level to be most comfortable and efficient.

That is, I proceed scene by scene, going through the following eagle-eye checks. This article presents a step-by-step guide to the elements you need to address.

What I Mean by "Scene"

What do I mean by the word "scene"? Well, I mean the common definition of "scene." But I'm really referring to any section of text marked off by a hiatus and centered asterisks or hash marks -- depending on your formatting preference.

To refer to Elizabeth Lyon's story mapping elements, I'm referring to scenes, sequels, shortcuts, segues, and set pieces. (Lyon's book A Writer's Guide to Fiction details these "Sherpas," as she calls them.) Don't worry if you don't know all of them, because other authors on writing craft use different terms anyway. Just remember: each section of text set off by itself is a "scene" for our purposes here.

Balance Macro and Micro

Of course, required structural changes pop up as I gain increasing insight into the whole story, and I note these to-dos as I go; I work on them after revising the whole book at the scene level. More on this later.

At the opposite scale, I'm always reading the text carefully, spotting typos and correcting them as I go. So, constantly watching out for spelling errors, homonyms, and other flubs, I produce my next draft of each scene by following the steps below.

One Step at a Time

In the list below, the steps involving hooks, rhythm, and tightening owe much to Noah Lukeman's discussion of them in his book The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.

To avoid becoming overwhelmed, focus on one point at a time, and work through the whole scene on it. Then advance to the next point, and so on.
  1. Hooks, opening and closing.
    • Take the opportunity to elucidate character, setting, theme, etc.
    • For the opening hook, you may use mystery to draw in -- hook -- the reader.
    • For the ending hook, you may supply shocking information, make it a cliffhanger, or leave the reader with a strong story question.
  2. Dialogue.
    Is it lacking tension? Too much ping-ponging of questions and straight answers? Try to "slant" your dialogue, i.e., make it oblique, which is closer to what you'll hear in most actual conversations. (Thanks for my writer- and painter-friend Ivano Stocco for pointing out the importance of oblique dialogue.) For a master of oblique dialogue, read Thomas King, e.g., his novel Truth and Bright Water.
    •  Have each character stick relentlessly to his/her goal within the scene.
    • When asked a direct question, have the character talk about something else (see point above about goals).
    • Try spreading a character's single sentence of dialogue over several exchanges with the other character(s) in the scene. In other words, chop up the character's sentence into two or three chunks, and sprinkle them between the other character's lines.
  3. Description and Exposition.
    • For description, use the SSHTT mnemonic (which sounds, when you say it, like a stinky bodily product). Look to see how many senses your descriptions include: Smell, Sight, Hearing, Touch, Taste. If you've only included sight or hearing, try to add at least one other sense impression.
    • For info dumps of exposition or description: (a) break big chunks down and spread them out through the scene; (b) have the characters talk -- with conflict -- about the topic or environment.
  4. Rhythm.
    Aim for variety of rhythm, and create sharp contrasts of it for emphasis. Address the following levels:
    • paragraph level
    • sentence level (Get variety via the four sentence types -- simple, compound, complex, compound-complex -- and via sentence length in general.)
    • word level (For example, avoid "echoes" -- repetition of a word or sound -- where focus and hence lyricism isn't warranted.)
  5. Tightening.
    Proverb: shorter is usually better.
    • As you gain insight into the whole book, remove redundant passages, from the sentence- to the chapter-level.
    • Edit for clarity (esp. misplaced modifiers and several pronouns in a sentence).
    • Shorten needlessly long phrases or strings of phrases.
    • Where two adjectives modify a noun, keep only the stronger or more necessary one; better still, find a stronger noun and kill both adjectives.
    • Where two adverbs modify a verb, keep only the stronger or more necessary one; better still, find a stronger verb and kill both adverbs.

The Need for Insights

That's the scene-by-scene revision process. Be sure to note your structural insights (on plot, theme, character, etc.) as you go. Then, from your notes, make the big changes last.

Do the big revisions last? That may sound counter-intuitive, but I need first to gain insights as I read -- closely -- the previous draft. Only then can I confidently make the structural tweaks.

This isn't the most comprehensive revision checklist, but it covers the key elements and lets me work without getting bogged down or disoriented. Give it a try. I hope it works for you.