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May 24, 2011

Re-Envisioning: How to Fix Big Problems with Small Changes

Stack of pipes reflecting light like a flower with text: Revisions: Find a Different Perspective

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.

As Juliette says in her post:

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.”]

Version 1:
“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.

Version 2:
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?

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JA Paul

Great post! I just did something like this over the weekend. It’s always a happy moment when the scene suddenly clicks. Thanks Jami!

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

You’re absolutely right about a single sentence changing your thoughts about a character. I immediately thought of Collette’s back-handed compliment to Caleb, and how it took me from liking her to “not so much.” Great post Jami, as always.

Susan Sipal

Jami, you’ve pinpointed something I’ve thought about for a long time, and not just with writing. It seems that some of the things I procrastinate on the most in my life only take a few minutes to complete when I finally get to it.

And with writing, it’s incredibly frustrating to get back a rejection based on a change you can fix in a few minutes with a few sentences. But that’s how important those sentences are, and you’re right — it’s usually about motivation or conflict.

Thanks for helping me see this more clearly!

Laura Pauling

I love this! And that is exactly what I’m going now. I need to keep a couple scenes but I need to change their emotional and internal significance! Awesome.

Carradee

Yeah, I have this in a WiP. I’ve had a bunch of instances of scenes not quite working, because something’s slightly off. For example, I had one sentence that accidentally made the MMC seem like a creep, which was not how I’d meant it. Removed the sentence, and the scene’s still slightly creepy—but in a way that’s entirely overturned, later.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I can totally relate to this post. Actually, over the last few days I’ve been re-envisioning a scene. I needed the scene itself, needed the characters in it, and the setting, but the way I had written it initially wasn’t working. It stopped the flow of the story (as chapter 3’s sometimes tend to do)
I took a good look at the scene, asked myself if it moved the story forward, if it upped the conflict, if it reinforced my heroine’s goals, and…it didn’t.
I couldn’t fix it with a few sentences, but reworking the chapter really did the trick.
Great post as always!
Have a fantastic day:)
Tamara

Juliette Wade

Jami, I’m so glad you found my post inspiring. Thanks for passing those thoughts on, and for adding to them in such an interesting way!

Irene Vernardis
Irene Vernardis

Great post Jami :D.

Small changes can make great differences. It doesn’t work always, but it works many times. However, this way should not be a substitute for scenes which really won’t work and should be taken out. 🙂

Thank you for the interesting analysis.

M. Howalt

Great post! I think it’s very common for writers to have a scene that is, in theory, necessary and well-written but just needs that extrra twist to make it work to its full potential. I recently intrduced a character much earlier than he “should” have been into a story because the scenes in that section of the story would work so much better with him on the sideline.

Kait Nolan

Oh this was a really great post, and one that’s well timed. I think whenever I get to a scene that isn’t working that I think I’ll have to scrap, I move it to my scratchpad rather than delete it, because I often wind up coming back and grabbing bits I already wrote to incorporate into the “new” version. And I don’t think I’ve analyzed what I’m doing, but I’m betting you’re right. I’m betting it IS the internal stuff that I’m changing, not the action.

Gene Lempp

Great Post Jami! “The devil is in the details”, things that appear small often have powerful impact. I like the re-envisioning concept, anything that improves the efficiency of our writing has to be a good thing. The fact that it focuses on internalization, the deep thoughts and core of the character is perfect since that is the place that often resonates in a readers mind the most.

Amber

I love helpful posts like this. They don’t freak me out and make me think I need to start all over. But they do make me go back and reexamine scenes with the feeling that I can make them better and NOT be overwhelmed. 🙂

Tiffany A White

Thanks so much for the questions to ask when a scene is weak but necessary!

Candace Rose

I’d actually read that post from Juliette Wade a while ago, but somehow your explanation made it a lot clearer for me. Sometimes I just need to hear things 300 times before they really sink in.

Julie Musil

You’ve given me hope! I’m finalizing revisions on book #3, and will tackle book #2 when I’m done. But wow, book #2 needs sooooo much work. I’m intimidated. But your post made me realize the whole thing might not be so bad! Thanks 😀

Mallory Snow
Mallory Snow

I came across this situation not too long ago. Both my critique partner and I knew a scene wasn’t working yet neither of us could put a finger on why. Finally, I locked myself in my office and went through it. I only ended up changing a couple of sentences but when I sent it back to her, she said it was perfect!

Thanks for this reminder right before I start edits on my novel!

PW Creighton

Brilliant post! When I pushed through revisions my last run was a series of these revisions. It’s amazing how adding a few words here or cutting a sentence there can change the tone dramatically.

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[…] 252 words to totally change a scene from blerg to…well not BLAM but better.  Reminds me of this post by Jami Gold on how small changes can make a BIG difference.  And yesterday, I finally picked back up a bit with 965, which was as far as I got before hubs […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hey this is pretty cool! Yeah I remember disliking a character that I liked all along just because of ONE internal monologue sentence. XD And that example was definitely helpful in explaining this idea.

Gry Ranfelt

This is so true. I wish someone told me this years ago. But then, creative writing classes rarely focus on anything but “let’s look at this apple, listen to some music and follow our inspiration.”

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[…] Luckily in our stories, we can fix the problems we find. And luckily, we’ll often discover that big problems are caused by small—and relatively easy-to-fix—issues. Sometimes just a line or two might be enough to fix missing or broken goals, stakes, or motivations. […]

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