I’ve learned editing is a cycle of dashed hopes. “This next chapter won’t need much work at all- hooray!” Then I reread it, and uh-oh! Spider-sense tingling. A character acted dumb for the sake of plot, or something I thought would be good feels awkward.
I always trust my niggling bad feelings. Time to reassess and rewrite. Again.
Reluctance and dread soon pale against an escalating panic. What do I change? How? Is anything salvageable? Ugh, I’m so confused. What needs to happen again? Oh FSM, I’m gonna unravel the entire damn plot-
Stop! Deep breath. Start with one thing: What do the characters in this scene want at this point in the story?
I don’t always have a clear picture here, especially when I’m rereading words I put down months ago. Good computer programmers intersperse comments amid lines of code to explain what they’re supposed to do- a guide to the programmer’s thought process. As you draft, you may also want to keep track of character wants in a similar way, either within comments or a separate document. These wants can help explain why a character says or does something at a certain time, if you no longer recall the significance. These aren’t set in stone- they’re allowed to change as rewrites happen- but they’re a good starting point for understanding your initial intentions for the scene.
Too late- you’re editing now, and didn’t track this stuff earlier? Yeah, me either. When I have to piece things together after the fact, I find physically writing down my notes helps organize my brain better, and calm down that panicky inner voice proclaiming the entire manuscript a failure. I just list out characters in the scene, and the wants/goals that are pertinent to them at that moment. If I’m feeling meta, I work down to the emotions that drive each want. After all, what you want is never a thing.
That’s a good starting point. It can- it must– get more complicated from there. Just because a character wants something doesn’t mean he’ll get it (obviously, stringing them along is what keeps the plot moving forward). It also doesn’t mean he understands his own desires, or that he’ll always choose the most rational path to his desired outcome. Gennaro (the lawyer in Jurassic Park) wants to avoid being T-Rex chow, but panic drives him to the fated toilet seat. Scarlett O’Hara wants love, but she’s so hung up on Ashley Wilkes that she spurns Rhett Butler- until the very moment he decides he’s had enough of her shit.
Track all the things complicating your characters’ wants: environment, altered emotional states, other characters, etc. Then figure out how the characters respond to the obstacles before them. This becomes the playbook for your scene. It’s where all the drama comes from!
If you’re having trouble with this, try doing it with a movie or book you know really well, like I did above with two of my favorites. Get as detailed with your analysis as possible, then turn that awesome analytical mind loose on your own work.
Of course, all this soul-searching might have an unexpected effect. If you’re really struggling to identify the above for a certain scene, maybe you don’t need to rewrite it at all. Maybe you just need to remove the scene!
Scene rewrites can be tricky. What methods do you rely on to focus yourself? Let me know in the comments!