Monday, April 22, 2013

Advanced Manuscript Revision (with 'Great Scene' Checklist)

Hello, Revisors,

Revising to polish a manuscript to its best self is an art, and an act of devotion. It takes a long time to get it right, for most of us. There are loads of anecdotes from famous authors about this—the one that pops into my head at the moment is Hemingway stating that he wrote the first draft The Sun Also Rises in a matter of weeks, then it took six years of diligent work to revise it to its finished form.

Revising can be a joyous process, though, and doesn't have to take that long, so long as we believe in our manuscript and in our ability to be objective and figure out what to do. Fortunately, there's no shortage of good advice on the subject.

Today I want to share a technique I've cobbled together from a couple of experts that makes sense to me as an advanced revision technique . . . one to apply when you've done all the basics and want to polish the high notes of your story to their utmost.

Once we have done the basics:
  • basic copy edit level—eliminate all unnecessary adjectives and adverbs (especially adverbs); edit spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and if you're not great at that let someone who is great at it do it for you, even if you have to pay, etc.
  • basic structural level—make sure the story arc elements are in place: inciting incident, major plot point one, midpoint, major plot point two, climax, and denouement.

. . . and the more advanced content level:

  • use of detail, strong sentences, when to tell and when to show, setting descriptions and character development, use of tension, etc.

. . . we are ready to look at our manuscript in a broader sense, to see if it is, in fact, a wonderful manuscript.

Let's say you've finished your second or third draft, but it's still not quite where it needs to be. Let's say you've hit the mark on the basics, though, including not only the copy basics, but you have a good story that unfolds quite well, and wonderful characters to make it come alive. And your writing style—the voice of your book—is good and strong. But there's something missing, because even though you and at least one or two of your beta readers love it, others whose opinions are important to you are not finding your manuscript compelling enough to give it a big thumbs up. What's missing?

You might need a spot check to make sure your key scenes are not just adequate, but outstanding.

Key scenes, or Great Scenes, are the ones that your readers will remember in detail when they close the book for the last time. They act as pivot points in the story, which everything else either flows to or from. They can make or break your success in writing a truly compelling story.

You should have a minimum of three of these scenes, but a novel-length project can have seven, eight or more. The climax is almost always a Great Scene, for example, and the early scene that incorporates the inciting incident (the event that turns everything upside down and sets the story on its trajectory) often is, as well. (James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers)

Think about your story. What are the key turning points for the protagonist and for the story itself? This will help you identify your Great Scenes.

Once you've identified what and where they are, it's time to make sure they qualify as Great Scenes on the basis of how they're written. Great Scenes must meet certain requirements:

A Great Scene must be packed with conflict, emotion, and surprise.* Passions run high; the stakes run higher. What happens in the scene affects the rest of the story, and in a big way. (James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers, p. 160)
*Conflict: Crank up the conflict through emotion. Make sure readers see the stakes to the inner life of the character. (Bell, p. 161)
*Surprise: the unexpected setback, revelation, or question raised by the events. (Bell, p. 161)

There must be a reversal of intentions and emotions on the part of the main characters in the scene. (Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer's Guide to Fiction). In other words, by the end of the scene, the characters' intentions and emotions must be different than they were at the beginning of the scene.

There must be setting details, physical sensations of the pov character; and the scene must end with surprise or disaster (Lyon).

So, your Great Scene Checklist is:

1. Conflict (built up through emotion)
2. Emotion (stakes to the inner lives of the characters)
3. Surprise (unexpected setback, revelation, or question raised by the events)
4. Reversal of character's intentions and emotions between the beginning and the end of the scene
5. Setting details
6. Physical sensations of pov character
7. Scene ends with disaster or surprise
8. Scene must affect how the rest of the story unfolds, in a big way

For a more in-depth discussion, including an example of a Great Scene and how it meets the requirements, check out this earlier post.

And here's a trick I was taught years ago that I've come to appreciate as essential. When you're choosing what particular actions are in the scene (remember, action includes dialogue), make sure the action is driven by the character's emotion, and not by your need to make a point or move the scene forward. This holds true whether it's a large or a small action. When the action comes from the character's emotion, the authenticity quotient skyrockets.

Best of luck with your final revisions. May you polish that manuscript to an irresistible shine!


  1. Great tips. I'm working on revising some blah scenes now.

    1. It's so hard to stay objective and specific when you're revising . . . sometimes a checklist really helps! Best of luck with your scenes, Natalie. I'm betting they'll come out great. (heh)

  2. THANK YOU! I'm printing this post as I write. So... Sunday I finished my 3rd edit and just printed 518 pages! This is exactly what I needed. Now I am going through with the inspiration you wrote.
    Timing is everything. And perfect!

    1. Yay! Congrats on getting through a third edit, and may this one work beautifully for you!

  3. I'm taking notes! This is fantastic and just what I need right now as I am neck deep in revision. Thank you!

    1. I'm so glad it's useful, Heather. Knowing you, you will zip right through and make your scenes sparkle!

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