We’ve heard of rewriting, revising, and even re-imagining, but what does “re-envisioning” mean? I recently came across the word in a great post by Juliette Wade about how to redo a scene without rewriting.
When a scene isn’t working, it’s tempting to blame the scene and get rid of it. Sometimes, that’s for the best. Maybe the scene doesn’t have a point or isn’t needed for the story arc.
But if the scene is necessary, we have to find a different approach. In those cases, we have to figure out why the scene isn’t working and make adjustments.
- Is it lacking tension?
- Does the character motivation need to be stronger or made more clear?
- Should the character motivation be changed to increase conflict?
- Does the scene break the flow of the story?
Those sound like they’d require big changes, maybe even starting over. But just because a scene isn’t working doesn’t mean we have to start from scratch. Sometimes a simple change in focus will transform a scene, like how from a certain perspective, a stack of pipes can make a flower design.
A few weeks ago, I decided to change the motivation for the point-of-view character for a scene. Although the old motivation worked, the new one set up a stronger contrast with the following scene by playing with reader expectations. Instead of focusing on the character’s selfishness, I showed the character thinking he was rescuing another character.
From self-centered to rescuer? That’s not a minor change. I thought I’d have to rewrite the whole thing, and I imagined several hours worth of work ahead of me.
In the end, I changed only four sentences. Yes, really. In another scene, I completely changed the emotional arc by adding a single sentence.
Most of the time, we’d consider changing four sentences over the course of a scene to be minor. Possibly even approaching the nitpicky level my friend Rachel Graves calls “fiddle-factor.” What made these changes different?
How Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference
Everything in our story depends on reader interpretation. So when we’re changing a scene to make it work better, we’re really trying to influence a reader’s impression.
As readers, we can sometimes point to a single sentence to explain why we don’t like a character. Maybe the character’s motivation made them seem stupid. Maybe their justification for a questionable action seems lame. Maybe they thought something too mean. The point is that we know—as readers—how much a single sentence can make a difference.
Now notice how the examples above are all things showing how a character feels about and reacts to a situation. We use internalization (internal narrative or internal monologue) to reveal a character’s assumptions, rationalizations, and reasons for acting a certain way. Changing a character’s internalization changes a reader’s impression of a scene.
You can completely change the significance of a scene – what the scene means to the rest of the story – while hardly changing anything that happens in it. All you have to do is change what the events mean to your protagonist.
Juliette’s post also gives several fantastic examples to explain this point. Here are her first two examples, where we can see how readers would come away with opposite impressions with just four sentences:
[Shannon put her hands on her hips and said, “God, Dana! ‘Active engagement in the message’ – that’s awesome, you should totally major in English.”]
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, all daring. “I love to write.” For a second I thought that was it, I’d done it, my year with her was made.
And then Brian walked in the door.
Summary: Dana tries to be brave enough to accept Shannon and Brian wrecks the moment.
I was speechless. Without even thinking, she just tore my secret hopes out of the safety of my heart and turned them into some stranger’s ultimatum! How could she?
Before I could think of anything to say, Brian walked in the open door.
Summary: Dana resents Shannon’s nosiness and is rescued by Brian.
So when a scene isn’t working, look first to the internalization sentences. Ask your critique partners and beta readers for their impression of the characters based on those sentences. Changing the character’s assumptions, rationalizations, or reasons for their actions might strengthen the scene and fix the issues.
Have you ever started from scratch on a scene? What was wrong with it and what needed to be fixed? Have you tried this technique before and did it work for you? Have you caught yourself being influenced by a sentence or two as a reader?Pin It