Carving and Shaping: The Scene-by-Scene Edit

Now you have your structure in place, it’s time to focus on the details. Carve away any excess words, smooth the rough edges, perfect the balance between description, action, and dialogue, and fill in any gaps to create a scene to keep readers engaged from the first word to the last.

When approaching the scene-by-scene edit, I believe a methodical approach is best. Think of it in terms of carving a cake. If you start hacking into it randomly, you are likely to end up with mismatched, lopsided, or unbalanced tiers. Whereas if you tackle a section at a time, you can better judge the adjustments to achieve the needed shape and balance.

Where to start?

As with the assembly, I recommend going through your reader feedback and notes first. List everything relating to scene specific issues—how a character comes across, whether a scene feels too slow/fast, if the dialogue drags, etc.

Also, for each scene, remind yourself what it is YOU want the scene to achieve. Is its main purpose to:

  • move a plot forward?
  • advance a relationship?
  • show another side to a character?
  • sprinkle in some foreshadowing?
  • do something else?

Are there any secondary purposes you want the scene to achieve?

Does your scene:

  • show the setting clearly enough for readers to picture it?
  • achieve a good balance between dialogue (internal or external) and action?
  • contain enough movement to keep a reader engaged without drowning them in detail?
  • convey the character(s)’ emotions and/or thoughts clearly?

Analyse the Issues

Before editing each scene, take a few minutes to sit with the list of issues (if there are any) and read through your work again. Can you see what is a causing the issue and how to fix it?

If you can, that’s great. Go ahead and make the changes.

If you can’t, its time to put your scene on a turntable, spin it 180 degrees, and view it from a different angle.

Example One

Your readers might have said, “John’s anger didn’t come across in the scene.” But when you take a fresh look, your initial reaction might be, “but he hits the table, then he shouts. How can they not see he’s angry?”

This, however, may be the wrong question to ask. Instead, ask yourself what he’s doing to appear calm.

Consider his dialogue. Not just the volume, but the rhythm and coherence of what he’s saying (or thinking). How is he speaking? In full sentences or snatches? With logic and reason, or with passion and stubbornness? Is your character’s speech pattern conveying the wrong mood to your reader?

Consider his body language too. Aside from hitting the table, what else about him says angry? Is he tense, pacing, clenching his fists, etc? What beats could you add to show his anger? What beats do you need to change?

Look at the pacing. Is he angry from the moment the scene starts, or does his anger build as events unfold? If it’s a building anger, have you shown its progress? What changes in body language, action, or dialogue show his shifting mood?

Finally, if there are other characters in the scene, look at how they react to him. How does his anger make them feel? Do they become defencive, aggressive, fearful? Do they stand up to his anger or back down? Are they dismissive or understanding? Is their lack or reaction the reason his anger fails to come across?

Example Two

You’ve written a description of a key setting but readers are saying it makes their attention drift. You address the issue by stripping out all but the vital details but their reaction remains the same.

Here the problem might not be what you’ve written but how you’ve written it. Often it’s not the setting itself that’s the problem, it’s a lack of reader or character engagement.

What do you want your reader to feel?

  • A sense of wonder at the fantastical?
  • Empathy or mystery at a crime scene?
  • Excitement at a funfair?

What words evoke these emotions? How can you show these things to your reader? Don’t tell them, “the cave was amazing,” show them what about it makes it amazing. It could, for example, be “lit by moss twinkling like stars,” or have, “walls covered in ancient art.”

Have your characters react to the setting too. Show their amazement, confusion, or excitement through their actions and dialogue. Or perhaps use their lack or reaction to hint at deeper issues distracting them from whatever is around them.

Alternatively, if no emotional reaction is needed, use your characters’ actions to break description into smaller chunks. Have them interact with their surroundings by:

  • Moving through the space
  • Picking up or fiddling with an object
  • Examining the wall art
  • Noticing smells, sounds or textures

If your character is engaged with the setting, emotionally or physically, your reader is more likely to engage with them.

Look Beyond Your Scene’s Boundaries

Although this is a scene-by-scene edit, not every issue can be fixed within the scene itself. Sometimes the sprinkle of flavouring you add mid-bake can result in a bitter aftertaste.

For example, in one of my stories I introduce a spark of conflict between my MC and a secondary character. Prior to this conflict, my reader liked the secondary character, but by the end of it she not only disliked the character, she also distrusted him. Not the reaction I wanted.

The problem arose through a combination of the secondary character’s apparent (and unintended) bullying and my MC’s lack of reaction to it in the scenes which followed. The solution, then, was not only to change the secondary character’s initial behaviour, but also the reactions of the MC in future scenes.

Don’t Overthink the Solution

Not everything flagged by readers requires the rewriting of a paragraph or scene. Sometimes the solution is far easier than you might think.

Returning to the example above, although it required changes across several scenes, the biggest impact came from reworking a single line of dialogue.

In the scene, the MC is a courier delivering a message, but he left it in his saddlebags. In the original version, the secondary character said, “Go to the gatehouse and search this man’s saddlebags. You’ll find a message pouch in one of them. Bring it to me.”

Taken in context, it gave the impression he was bullying the MC by ordering his bags searched.

After revision, the same dialogue now reads, “Go to the gatehouse. Find this man’s message pouch and bring it to me.”

By removing any mention of searching, it becomes an order for his servant to fulfil the offer to fetch the MC’s pouch for him.

Don’t Attempt to Fix Everything at Once

As with the structural edit, the scene-by-scene edit may take several passes before it’s complete. You could, for example, choose to fix character issues in one pass and description issues in a second.

Set yourself editing goals you can manage, whether that’s to fix a scene per session or a single issue.

Be realistic about the time each issue will take. Some can be fixed by tweaking a single sentence, but others might need the reworking of several scenes—work requiring multiple sessions to complete.

Don’t feel pressured to fix everything at once.

How do I know when to stop?

Knowing when to stop editing can be as tough as knowing what to edit in the first place. As you grow and learn as a writer, it can be very tempting to go over a story again, applying everything you’ve learnt since the last edit. This, however, can leave it stuck in limbo forever.

When you find yourself tweaking the same sections over and over—adding a drop of vanilla extract, tasting it, finding it too sweet, adding chocolate, tasting it, finding it too bitter, adding more vanilla, tasting it, finding it too sweet, etc—it’s time to stop.

Don’t aim for perfection, because you will never get there. Aim for something readers can enjoy.

What’s Next?

Once you’ve carved your story into the shape you desire and coated it with a layer of butter cream or frosting to contain the crumbs, it’s time to decorate. The final editing stage will look at ways to polish your story, readying it for publication.

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