5 Steps to Effectively Revise Your Scenes
While revising a scene isn’t often as overwhelming as revising a whole novel, it still has its challenges. Scenes are the building blocks of your story. If a foundation scene is too weak, the whole story collapses. These five revision steps will ensure your scenes are strong and impactful.
1. Your Scene’s Purpose
Every scene needs to serve a purpose for your story. When you begin revising your scenes, make sure they are either advancing the plot, deepening your characters, or both. If your scene isn’t doing one of these or serving another purpose vital to the success of your story, you most likely need to cut that scene or combine it with a different one. Scenes that don’t serve a purpose slow your pace and feel like unnecessary tangents.
Once you understand your scene’s purpose, make sure it is accomplishing that goal. Is the new information you’re revealing clear and upfront? How are you advancing the plot? How are you deepening your characters? Look for ways to heighten these aspects of your scene. In short, make sure something happens. This will ensure your scene has tension as well.
2. Your Scene’s Description
First, look at your scene’s setting. Is it clear where your characters are and what they are doing? Are you describing the aspects of your setting that matter and impact your story in enough detail? Are you spending too much time and space describing setting components that don’t affect your story? Your readers should be able to picture your setting without feeling like the story has been put on pause. Weave your setting information throughout the scene instead of dumping it all in one section.
Second, make sure your characters are easy to picture. What do your characters look like in this moment? If this is an early scene, you might spend more time describing your characters. If it’s a later scene, you might focus more on the aspects of your characters that have changed. What are they wearing in this scene? How are your characters moving? Is it clear where each person is? Don’t forget to describe how your characters are feeling and responding to what’s happening around them.
Third, are you effectively describing what happens? If this is an action scene, have you captured the chaos of the moment? What is happening to the characters? What is changing? How is it changing? Make sure your choreography – the way people and objects are moving – is clear and consistent.
3. Your Scene’s Dialogue
If there are two characters present in a scene, there should almost always be some kind of dialogue. It can be verbal or nonverbal, but communication must be present. Through dialogue, readers learn your characters’ personalities, motivations, and emotional state. The plot advances when a secret is revealed, a plan is made, or a lie is told. Dialogue should deepen your characters and advance your plot just like the other aspects of your scene. Add dialogue where possible.
When revising your dialogue, cut any lines that don’t reveal something about the characters or plot. Often writers mimic speech too closely during their first draft. Phrases like “How are you?” do not serve your story and should be eliminated. Also cut or alter any sections where your characters are talking to the reader more than each other. If two characters know what happened last summer, why would they talk about it in detail? When your characters talk about things for the reader’s sake, your dialogue becomes an unnatural information dump.
Heighten what isn’t said. Every person wants something out of every conversation, so your characters should too. However people and characters don’t often say exactly what they want. Make sure what your characters want out of the conversation is clear, even if they don’t say it.
4. Your Scene’s Mood and Tone
In addition to a purpose, your scene needs an emotion. Part of the emotion of your scene will come from what is happening, the other part will come from the tone and mood.
Tone is the way the writer approaches the subject or story they are writing. How a writer describes someone attempting to steal an elderly woman’s purse determines whether the scene is serious or funny. Think about how you want your scene to come across. Is it meant to be comical, sarcastic, or serious? Cheerful or sad? Tone is created by the author or narrator’s word choice and descriptions.
Mood is the emotional atmosphere of a story. The way the setting is described, the characters speak, and the tone the author writes with come together to create mood. A glistening river inspires a different emotion in a reader than a murky one. Make sure your word choice is conveying the emotion your readers should feel during this scene.
5. Your Scene’s Pace
The pace of a scene is determined both by what happens and how many words you spend on each aspect of the scene. If you want a scene to feel fast-paced, make sure you’re using shorter sentences and only describing in detail the parts of the moment that directly affect your story. If you want slower pacing, use longer sentences and spend more time on all aspects of your scene. Also make sure your scene has the proper pacing for its placement in your story.
Why a Developmental Editor Recommends These 5 Scene Revising Steps
Each scene is unique, so there will be other aspects you will need to revise for your story. However, these steps are a good starting place for any scene. The reason I recommend completing these steps in this order is because all of the aspects of your scene are connected. When you change your descriptions, you change the emotion of your piece. When you cut lines of dialogue you affect the pacing. Performing the steps in this order ensures you make the big changes first. There’s no point in worrying about mood and word choice when that line might be cut completely.
Revising scenes is one of my favorite parts of revision because I can see the end and immediately see the effects of my changes. By elevating your scene’s purpose, descriptions, dialogue, mood, tone, and pacing, you will Ignite Your Ink.
How do you revise your scenes? Share your process in the comments below. For a list of writing aspects to look at during revision, download your free revision checklist.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.