Writers’ Tools: Scene-by-Scene

scene-by-scene-conflict

As NaNoWriMo drains words from me like a gigantic novel leech, I have to take that tried-and-tested piece of November advice and silence my inner editor. The emphasis of Nano has always been word count above all else, with the idea that we can fix all in the edit – in a similar way that film-makers “fix it in post”.

If you’re an intricate plotter, you probably start any new project, novel or screenplay or other, with a thick wedge of notes and an exact play-by-play of how your finished project is going to look.

If, however, you’re like me, you probably start with broad brushstrokes and then fill in the finer details as you go on. You may have a beginning, a middle and an end but how exactly those are going to fit together may be a complete mystery.

I hold an interesting position in that I am both a screenwriter and a novelist. Screenwriting tends to be much more heavy-handed when it comes to structure, particularly meeting the expectations of directors, producers and others with whom you will share a script during development. Novels are a lot more free-form, though thriller-type crime novels tend towards the pacey end of the novelling spectrum. Your audience wants to know what happens next and you have to keep their attention.

In an attempt to form a bridge between the waffley first draft of a novel and a thrilling page-turner, I like to utilise a technique I learned when I first started scriptwriting. I call it the scene-by-scene breakdown.

What is a scene-by-scene?
For me, a scene-by-scene is part of my first pass edit. It involves me looking at every chapter of my novel and addressing each scene by checking its relevance to the work as a whole.

Before I go into exactly how I do this, let me tell you a little bit about how I came to it in the first place.

Scene-by-scene – the origins
I owe my discovery of this breath-takingly simple technique to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. Mr Snyder was a bit of a stickler for screenplay structure and he permitted writers only 40 index cards for a feature-length film, each representing a scene or sequence.

Only 40! Like most screenwriters, I live and die by my index cards and the idea of culling them like this makes me want to cuddle them to my chest. However, he makes a very good point about what each card must contain and its this that I use as the basis for my scene-by-scene.

A screenplay card might look like this:

INT. THE BAR – NIGHT
Erin confronts Dee about her relationship with Saul, but Dee denies it.
+/- Erin is angry with Dee but pacified by her response; Dee is defensive, but feels uneasy that she’s not telling Erin the whole truth.
>< Erin wants reassurance that Dee values her opinion; Dee wants to live her own life.

The symbols that Blake suggests represent:
+/- emotional change within a scene
>< conflict Conflict is the bread-and-butter of screenwriters. Without conflict, there is no drama and your characters just pootle along in their vacuous lives without being changed or challenged. That does not an interesting film make. While novels are less rigid, you still need to keep the reader's interest. If your scenes are heavy on exposition or emotional outpourings, your audience may wander off and find something else to do. If you want a reader to turn pages, you need to give her a reason to do so. How I write a scene-by-scene
I started writing scene-by-scene breakdowns when I was editing Binary Witness, the first Amy Lane novel. The below examples are from the edit of the second book, Code Runner.

Because novels are quite a bit longer than screenplays, I tend to write my scene-by-scenes in Evernote or Word, not on index cards. I also use a slightly different format to Blake Snyder and add some extras to help with my edit:

Chapter 7: The Devil’s in the Details
Amy finds the murder victims on Facebook and Jason wants to go downtown (BRYN: Amy v Mystery; Jason v Amy; Jason v Bryn); Jason cleans the oven and leaves Amy alone (AMY: Amy v Jason) [too long?]

Breaking the note into its composite parts, we see:
– Chapter # and title
– Brief summary of scene events
– POV character – name in all caps
– Conflicts, including emotional
– Edit notes [in square brackets]

If there’s more than one scene in a chapter, they are separated by a semi-colon.
scene-by-scene-povcount
By adding the POV character, I can also check the balance of POVs in the novel. When I wrote Binary Witness, Jason had almost double the number of POV scenes than Amy did and they are supposed to be co-protagonists! I recently completed a scene-by-scene for Amy Lane #3 and you’ll see that the POVs came out a lot more balanced between the protagonists, with Bryn always a lesser third.

It’s perfectly placed at the beginning of an edit, because it can serve as a reminder that a plot was dropped in the first third and never picked up, or a question was posed in Chapter 5 but the characters only remembered it in Chapter 19. It’s also useful to see all my terrible chapter titles in one place so I can flag up the ones which desperately need a rethink.

I’ve found this technique particularly useful for highlighting my personal weaknesses. For example, I have a tendency to write a lot of emotional scenes that don’t really go anywhere – especially for Amy, a character who lends herself to wallowing in angst. It also picks up if a supporting character has disappeared for a stretch of scenes or we’ve been too long without slipping into the Killer POV or catching up on the police investigation.

How do you kick off your edit process? Do you think a scene-by-scene could be useful in shaping your novel? Let me know in the comments!

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