Monday, April 18, 2011

Top Ten Reasons You Should Rewrite That Scene

When you're revising a novel, it's easy to lose objectivity become so delusional you can't tell if you've just created a stinking mountain of goat poop or written the next Grapes of Wrath. Each scene starts to read like a passage in a holy text—or does it just feel that way because you've read it so many times the words are looping through your brain like a mantra?

Fear not! INTERN is here to help. Here's INTERN's handy guide to figuring out when it's time to hit the delete key and write that scene again.

10. The scene is not really a scene.

Your scene is not a scene if nothing has changed by the end of it.
Your scene is not a scene if there was no internal or external conflict, no matter how subtle.
Your scene is not a scene if you were too timid to let anything dangerous happen.
Your scene is not a scene if you were too cautious to let anything unexpected happen.
Your scene is not a scene if the reader is banging her head against the wall saying “What was the point of that stupid scene?”
Basically, your scene is not a scene.

9. The scene doesn’t achieve anything new.

Does your scene introduce important new plot information? How about new emotional information? Are the characters’ relationships developing? Or is this scene just rehashing material you’ve already covered in other scenes? You might have a case of scenis redundanitus (see here for INTERN’s post on that subject). If your scene doesn’t bring anything new to the table, what’s it doing in your story?

8. The scene isn’t “worse” enough.

Classic writing advice says “make it worse,” but have you really taken the time to experiment? Here’s a before-and-after shot of a not-worse-enough scene.

Before: Milly and Bob are rookie cops (he’s the responsible, uptight one and she’s the funny badass). Milly’s antics make them twenty minutes late for an important training session. Consequence? They get chewed out by their superior and made to run laps. Big whoop.

After: Milly gambles away their squad car in a poker game. They show up to the training session six hours late and on foot. Sergeant Hardball throws them into a solitary confinement cell together/fires them on the spot/demotes them to the traffic beat/etc.

Obviously, things don’t need to go completely haywire in every single scene—that would be exhausting. But most first drafts err on the side of not worse enough.

7. The scene should take place somewhere else.

In Draft One, nine out of ten scenes take place in the same coffee shop. By Draft Two, you’ve realized that it’s actually pretty #%$@ boring when so many scenes take place in the same coffee shop. You rewrite so that some scenes take place on a chair lift, or in Central Park, or in a butterfly conservatory, or on the moon.

6. The scene should be combined with another scene.

In Chapter 3, you show a training montage of Sour Mountain High’s inept cheerleading squad struggling to learn a new routine. In Chapter 7, you show the Sour Mountain cheerleading squad struggling to learn the new routine. Both chapters bring something important to the story in terms of plot/character development/theme so you don’t want to cut them, but they’re too similar.

Solution? Try combining those two scenes into one. You’ve heard of combining characters. The same thing can work with scenes that fill the same function (sort of) but have valuable characteristics you’d like to keep.

5. The scene is boring.

‘Nuff said.

4. The scene belongs in a different novel altogether.

You wrote this really beautiful scene where a wise old man tells the protagonist the story of his life growing up on a farm in Idaho. The story goes on for seven pages and it has all these gorgeous images. The only problem? Your manuscript’s already 100,000 words long, it’s a thriller, and you wrote only the old man’s story ‘cause it was a nice break from all the action-y stuff.

Cut, save, file for future use. Your scene’s not wasted—it just needs the right home.

3. You’ve figured out who your characters are.

In Draft One, your characters have a fistfight over the contested ownership of a cheeseburger. By Draft Two, you’ve realized your characters are vegans trained in Non-Violent Communication. That cheeseburger scene in Draft One? It happened to different people.

2. You’re just filling time.

In Draft One, you account for every minute in your characters’ lives. Big scenes in which your characters experience major conflict are strung together with long, creaky suspension bridges of little scenes showing what happens in the meantime (vacuuming, taking a shower, going for a walk, etc.)

Do we need to know what happens “in the meantime”? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. Sometimes those details are more necessary at the beginning of the story than in the middle or near the end. But if all your scene does is act as a bridge to a scene that’s actually important, it’s probably time to rewrite.

1. You can write a better one.

In Draft One, you were an Adverb Queen with a flair for lengthy descriptions of your main character’s “pale and luminous aquamarine-hazel eyes”. By Draft Two, you’ve leveled up—way up. Just looking at your old scenes makes you want to barf. Congratulations! Aren’t you glad you decided to wait a month before sending this old barf bag around to agents? Now that you’re a better writer, you can write the rich, tense, beautiful scenes you meant to write all along.


  1. Excellent post! LOADS of information and a great checklist.

    May I ask a related question? You touched on it in #8. We hear a lot about pacing, and that seems to be one intangible that is EXTREMELY difficult to master. (For this writer anyway.) I agree, an entire manuscript filled with heart-attack action would fatigue the reader, and fast.

    Here's my question. Is the scene/sequel formula I read about passe? Or is it still something a writer should have in his repertoire, to be used (sparingly) when his readers need a breather?

    Thanks again for all you do. Love your blog.


  2. This is an awesome post! Love the blunt humour, too. I especially like #4, where you say not to throw anything away, just clip and save. It makes it feel like omitted scenes aren't really a waste. #10 is also great to keep in mind when writing the first draft, before revisions are even needed yet. Thanks!

  3. Thanks. I'm deep in the throes of a 438th draft and this is really helpful.

  4. Clip and save is a great idea. Bits cut out of book one have grown separately into their own shorts that may be the root of another full grown book someday.

  5. This is wonderful advice told in great way. Thanks for sharing it. :D

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Never mind the great advice, your delivery was hilarious. The publishing world could use a little humor. Thank you for that.

  8. This is SO spot on - being added to my bookmarks right away! Super!

  9. thanks for all the props! if anyone has any other scene-rewriting tips, feel free to share!

  10. Bryce asks "Here's my question. Is the scene/sequel formula I read about passe? Or is it still something a writer should have in his repertoire, to be used (sparingly) when his readers need a breather?"

    In INTERN's opinion, the scene/sequel pattern isn't mutually exclusive with fast-paced action, and it isn't inherently conducive to giving readers a breather. It's all in how you use it.

    At the end of the day, all writing advice (including the scene/sequel thing) should be a useful tool, not something that dictates how you write.

    Ack, this probably isn't very helpful! INTERN will think about it!

  11. What an interesting problem – one I wish I had more often. My first drafts are all 50,000 word extravaganza’s of punchy dialogue and non-stop, cliff-hanger plot action. I have to go back and add description to give the poor reader a break.

    For me, the assessment of boredom quotient, in my work or anyone else’s, is “glide factor”. If my eyes keep sliding down the page after reading the first sentence of a paragraph, it’s boring.

  12. Thank you for this, INTERN! :) Number 3 is a tricky one to watch out for, so it's awesome to see it called out.

  13. Mmmmm spot on, I believe, INTERN.

    #3 can be hard to deal with in the revising process, too. I have trouble with that one, personally. A lot of the time I find that there are defining things about characters that get dropped after the first couple of scenes. Then it almost becomes a game of who the true character is-- that person planned out early on, or that person that ended up marching through the rest of the story.

  14. Hah! Bookmarking this for constant reference!

    If you're anything like me, here's my Tip #11.
    Look at the length of your scenes, especially the very long and very short. Chances are those need to be reversed. If you're like me, you got squeamish in some of the more tense moments and rushed it!

  15. First of all, I'm SO glad to see you're still blogging. I missed you!

    Next, this post is so apropos for me because I'm editing my manuscript right now. Sometimes I wonder if a drunken monkey typed out some of my scenes but I'm trying my best to have coffee at the ready. Your advice is timely and wise, as always.


  16. Great post! I got here from Nathan Bransford's blog, and I'm definitely following. :)

  17. I, too, came over from Nathan Bransford's blog, but you're now on my blogroll, so I'll be back!

    I love this post because I rewrote chapter 2 at the beginning of this edit and now I'm reading it and wondering who wrote that boring drivel! I think a #8 might be in order.... Thanks!

  18. Fantastic post! #7 must have been about my novel, which really does take place in a coffee shop for a good chunk of time. Guess I'd better go back to editing again. Thanks for the swift kick to the . . .

  19. This is great! I hereby pledge to write fewer scenes in the Same Old Spot and more on the moon.

  20. Good overview of scene mistakes. Thanks.

  21. I need to save a copy of this, print it out, and refer to it when my first draft is complete and it's time to start the edits on my first novel. Thank you so much for this really timely post! You have lots of great information here.

  22. Freakin, great post. Agreed with everything it had to say. Loved it. :)