Or, How to Fine Tune Scenes During the Revision Stage
There are dozens of types of scene cards and twice as many ways to use them to improve your writing, either in pre-writing or in the editing stage. I took ideas from different sources and designed a scene card that suits my style perfectly. If you’re having trouble visualizing how each individual part of your story works together as a whole, try this.
Each scene gets its own card. Each POV (point of view) character gets his or her own color. Blue for my hero and pink for my heroine (to make it simple). Purple or green for my villain or any secondary character with their own POV. Then, because my novel, Spell of Summoning, is a paranormal romance I also wanted to track how often magic was used or how often a character communicated with a spirit. So I taped a yellow card behind any scene that had magic in it.
Now comes the time consuming part of this exercise. Starting from the beginning of your manuscript, read each scene and note the following details:
- The chapter number / the scene number;
- The date the scene takes place in the story;
- The POV character;
- A quick summarizing title for the scene;
- The POV character’s goal in the scene;
- The POV character’s motivation for that goal in this scene;
- The conflict that keeps the POV character from reaching their scene goal;
- The main characters’ clothing or hair style in this scene;
- The setting.
Here is an example from Spell of Summoning:
I included notes on costume because I never want to forget my hero wore a charcoal gray suit and black tie in the morning and then pulled off a black suit and red tie at the end of the day. Keeping the information on my scene card makes it easier for me to track costumes through multiple scenes in multiple locations.
The GMC (Goal-Motivation-Conflict) on each card is simplified. In my more elaborate pre-writing notes I have written both external and internal GMC for each character in each scene, but the size of the card does not allow me to express all this. Instead, I jot down easy to remember notes that trigger in my head the more complex workings of my characters. However, even having to fill out a simplified GMC chart for each POV character was extremely rewarding.
For example, I got to one scene around the middle of the book that had no conflict at all. I had written a cute little scene where Rebecca is flinging witty dialogue at her receptionist as she marches through her office. When I tried to write her GMC I had quick answers for her goal and her motivation, but I couldn’t think of a single hint of conflict. To give the scene more punch I re-wrote it, took Rebecca’s employee out of the office, and added an awkward phone call, instead. After the re-write, Rebecca doesn’t get what she wants and a new layer is added to her overall arc.
If I hadn’t practiced this scene card exercise I might not have found that scene and I imagine anyone who read the original would have skimmed quickly over it to get to something more exciting.
Finally, because I’m a visual learner, I made space on my bedroom wall and taped each scene card under its chapter heading to see the whole story. Posting the scenes helped me see which characters were getting too much attention and which weren’t getting enough. Plus, I could see how often my villain popped up with his own POV and whether I was using too much or too little magic.
This is a note-taking and scene tracking system that worked for me, and I will use it again on the sequel, Spell of Binding. If I was very organized I would be able to write out scene cards before I started writing the manuscript and lay out every scene, every chapter, and every act exactly as it needs to be in the finished novel. But I’m not. Maybe that will be my next writing goal.
Or, How I Kicked the Word ‘Was’ Right off the Page
Whether you write in third person past tense (e.g. Maggie stubbed her toe on the lip of a paving stone and belly-flopped onto the grass) or first person narrative (e.g. Drake looks at me like I’m nuts, but I know what I saw) forms of the verb to be screw with our writing. Was, were, been, is, am, are. AKA, my nemeses.
When I’m writing a first draft I type scenes and dialogue as fast as it pours out of me so I can get the framework down, from the first meet to the happily ever after. But that means I lose my critical eye for a few weeks and open the door for all kinds of sloppy, lazy writing to squeeze through. One of the worst–the word was and his brothers, were and been.
Before my first read through I use my find & replace tool to bold all the forms of was. Like this:
Martin was tired.
This is weak and lazy and just plain telling, not showing. Instead, I want to use stronger verbs and better phrasing:
Martin yawned. Or,
Martin yawned into his fingers. Or,
Martin’s head bobbed, startling him so badly he kicked the side table into Sarah’s shins.
It’s one of the easiest problems to find, but often the hardest to fix. It’s so tempting to write Martin was tired and hurry to the next action scene or romantic turning point. It’s a lot harder to dig in deep and immerse the reader in a complex and engaging world. So, roll up your sleeves and replace those devilish to be verbs with vivid and fast-paced action verbs that keep us all hanging on the edges of our seats.
Or, There is Such a Thing as Being Too Descriptive
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Stephen King
I love adverbs when they add emphasis to a phrase I can’t get another way. For example:
She was alone. Absolutely and completely alone.
The word alone sounds so sad and final at the end of those adverbs, like a death sentence.
I hate adverbs because writers shouldn’t use them. Once in a while, a fun adverb spices up your writing, but more than a handful in your novel and your writing slides into high school English class territory. For example:
Trey quickly ran his fingers through his jet black hair before stomping furiously
through the yellow swinging door into the sparsely furnished living room.
Of course we want to set the scene for our readers, but sometimes we forget how rich our readers’ imaginations are. They don’t need a ton of set-up to create vibrant and fantastic worlds populated by our characters. So, how about:
Trey stomped into the living room, grumbling a string of curse words.
I cut out the unnecessary description, quickened the pace, and I can still see the character perfectly in my mind’s eye, including the furious expression on his face. And, if I want to imagine him finger-combing his hair, it’s up to me.
I love adverbs for their ability to add unique rhythms and emphasis to certain words and phrases. But I hate adverbs because they slow down my writing and encourage readers to skip to “the good parts.” I get rid of them by searching for “ly” and highlighting each adverb in neon blue. (This is time consuming. If you have a simpler method, let me know in the comments.) I read the sentence containing the adverb and decide on a case by case basis if I need it there, or not. For example, I left this one in:
Becca was thinking clearly again. She just couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
Because I like it. And, every once in a while, an adverb is okay.