Tuesday, March 3

Day Three: Analyze the Scene Structure

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Three of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop. This first stage is all about getting the story and plot worked out, and identifying any holes or problems to guide us in our revisions and let us know where we need to focus our time. We’ll be analyzing plot and narrative structure, and making sure the novel is working as a whole.  

 Now that we’ve identified and strengthened the major turning points for both the internal conflict and external plot, it’s time to dig deeper and look at the individual scenes and chapters. Connect the dots so to speak.

Today, we’ll make sure our scenes are moving the plot we just worked so hard to refine, and aren’t just a string of loosely connected events.

1. Analyze the Scenes

Begin by looking at your editorial map and asking the below questions. Start with scene one and go scene by scene to the end of the novel. I highly recommend writing these down, as having to be specific makes it very clear when something is missing from a scene.

For every scene, ask:
  • What is the point of view character trying to do? (the scene goal)
  • What goes wrong/what's the problem or challenge? (the scene conflict)
  • Why is this important and how does it potentially hurt the point of view character? (the scene stakes)
  • What does the point of view character do next? (the scene drive that moves the plot to the next scene)

If the scenes are structurally sound, you should be able to clearly see how they move the plot forward. Some scenes will take small steps, others giant leaps. If you can’t answer all of these questions, that could indicate a piece is missing, or the character doesn’t have a personal reason to do whatever is required in that scene.

If you find scenes with questions you can't answer, just mark the scene for now. The next few days will focus on fixing any weak areas found during this session.

Revision Red Flag: Scenes that lack narrative drive are often there to illustrate an aspect of the story or world, more like extended infodumps than plot-driving events. Try adding (or finding) the above four elements so the scene moves the story forward. If that doesn’t work, it might be a scene that needs cutting or merging into another scene. If you find a lot of similar answers, such as the same basic goal or reason it's important, that could indicate nothing new is happening and the scenes might feel repetitive.

(Here’s more on writing a scene)

Problems Found?

I’ve found that most times, when I have a scene that isn’t working it’s because there’s no personal goal or stakes driving it. My characters are just doing what I tell them to do and they don’t care how it turns out. Things are happening to the characters, not because of the characters, and they’re just along for the ride. If you find a scene that feels this way, try exploring it a little deeper with the following questions:

What is the goal of the scene? This pinpoints what's driving the scene and where the scene needs to go to advance the plot. You might have both external and internal goals here as well, so check to see if those goals support each other or if they conflict (both can work depending on the scene). If the goal spans multiple scenes or chapters, look for the specific step in that long-term goal to make sure it leads somewhere. Things to look for:
  • Is the protagonist actively trying to do something (or avoid something) or is she just going with the flow and having things happen to her?
  • Is the goal clear or would it be hard for a someone besides the author to figure it out?
  • Does the goal lead the protagonist somewhere or does she hit a dead end?

Revision Red Flag: If there's “nothing going on” in the scene, that suggests the scene is lacking a goal and you have a reactionary protagonist. Try determining what the protagonist is trying to do and how she’ll go about doing it.

What is the obstacle of the scene? Something or someone should be keeping the protagonist from the goal, and it must be circumvented, overcome, or endured. This will help pinpoint the conflict of the scene. Things to look for:
  • Is there a reason why the protagonist can't accomplish the goal?
  • Are there things or people making the pursuit of the goal more difficult?
  • Are there moral beliefs or personal issues the protagonist has to reconcile to succeed?

Revision Red Flag: If the protagonist has nothing to struggle against or overcome, that could indicate there's no conflict in the scene. Try determining who or what is preventing her from solving the problem in that scene.

What is the reveal in the scene? While not every scene has to have a gasp-worthy, plot-centric reveal, a "discovery" is a good way to keep readers hooked and maintain plot momentum. This doesn't have to be a major plot secret--it can be new information about the world, a discovery about a character, or a clue that hasn't been solved yet. Things to look for:
  • Does the protagonist learn anything she didn't know before this scene occurred?
  • Is there any new information readers learn?
  • Does this scene answer any previous story questions?
  • Does the reveal create new story questions to hook readers?

Revision Red Flag: If the scene has nothing new to offer on any level (plot, character, world), that could indicate the scene isn’t needed and is just rehashing what’s already been done. This is a strong candidate to either cut, or combine with another weak scene.

What is the hand off in the scene? Maybe the scene is working fine, but it’s not doing anything to move the plot to the next scene. Try looking at the results of the protagonist's (or POV character's) actions. Why will readers want to read the next scene, and what is the likely goal for the next scene? Things to look for:
  • Does the resolution of the goal lead to another goal?
  • Does a conflict create another problem that must be solved?
  • Does a reveal make the protagonist re-evaluate her actions, beliefs, or plan?

Revision Red Flag: If the attempt to accomplish a goal doesn't have a consequence or trigger a reaction, that could indicate the scene is just part of a series of things happening with no actual narrative drive. Episodic scenes often lack conflict, because there’s nothing to change the outcome of the scene. Protagonist does X…and stops, then they do Y and stop. Try adding a conflict or obstacle and force the character to make a decision, or reveal information that will give the next scene its goal.

(Here’s more on scene and sequel basics)

Is the Scene Still Not Working?

Sometimes, no matter what we do, a scene still doesn’t want to work and play well with the rest of the book. Try looking at the words you use to describe the scene (trust me on this). You might be inadvertently focusing on the wrong narrative aspects and that’s leading you astray. Ask yourself:

How are you describing the scene? Pay attention to the verbs you use in this summary. Are your characters running, chasing, searching, crying, or are they thinking, pondering, considering, debating? If your verbs all mean "being inside a character's head" in some way, odds are nothing is physically happening in the scene to move the plot. Try revising to get the characters out of their heads and acting on whatever internal thing is going on.

What will readers learn or discover in this scene? Pay attention to the types of things discovered. Are they all traits or information about the character and her past, or information that moves the plot forward? If the discoveries are heavy in the character area, that could indicate there's too much backstory, infodumping, or exposition. Aim for a mixture of discoveries, with character traits, potential problems, or plot elements. There's no perfect mix here, but aim for at least one plot detail to help move the story forward. Add in other details depending on the type of scene it is: a character-developing scene, a plot-moving scene, a set-up-scene, etc. Revise your discoveries as needed.

What will readers worry or wonder about in this scene? Pay attention to how specific the details are. Vague responses suggest vague conflict or stakes, which can make the scene feel like it’s not going anywhere. If there’s nothing for readers to worry about, that could indicate low or missing stakes and consequences facing the protagonist. There’s a good chance there’s no dangling carrot (a story question) to entice readers to keep reading. Try raising the conflict and/or stakes or leaving the outcome a little more uncertain to keep the tension high.

This will probably be one of the harder questions to answer, because a lack of conflict is a common problem in early drafts. Often, there is nothing to actually worry about because you (as the author) know the protagonist gets through the scene unscathed. Try letting the protagonist’s uncertainty shine through, and making it look like things could go wrong, even if you know they won’t.

What will make readers want to read the next scene? Pay attention to the story questions left unanswered and the consequences of actions taken in the scene. Vague responses here can indicate there's not enough mystery to keep readers hooked. Also consider predictable outcomes vs. unpredictable ones. "To see if the protagonist makes it out of the hotel alive" probably won't make readers read on, as the hero isn't likely to die. "To see if the protagonist makes it out of the hotel with the information that will get her inside the secret lab" creates a scene-moving element that also advances the plot. Will she get the information? That answer could be no, so readers will read on to find out what happens.

2. Move Scenes as Needed

As we work through our scenes, we might discover that some events work better in other parts of the novel, and we might shift a few things around. If you discover a scene or elements of a scene that fit better elsewhere, reorganize the manuscript so it unfolds in the strongest way possible. This can also apply to chapters.

After this revision session, we should have a workable plot, solid scenes advancing that plot, and a sense of the story unfolding. It might still be rough in spots, but the next several sessions will focus on smoothing those rough edges and tightening the story overall.

Tomorrow: Tighten the Goals and Motivations

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Really loving your revision at home tips. So useful. :)

  2. Am enjoying your revision workshop. Now to take it to the story I am revising and make magical changes! Thanks.

  3. There is so much information here, Janice, and so many checklists. Fabulous! Now to find more time to apply it!

    1. Thanks! I hear you, I need a few more hours a day myself :)

  4. Was up late on this step last night. Overall, things checked out, but I was a little dismayed that there were still two scenes destined for the 'Deleted scenes' link on the website for after the book is published! I keep reminding myself, readers love to discover the deleted scenes after they've read the book, so writing them wasn't a waste...

    1. Aw :( Readers do love deleted scenes, and who knows? Maybe by the end you'll find a way to get those scenes back. Or feel good that you were strong enough to leave them out!

  5. Thank you so much for this step especially. It's helping me figure out exactly why I've been having trouble revising my novel and how to fix the problems.

    1. Oh good! Glad it helped. I'm a big fan of getting the structure right before I do any major rewrites.

  6. When I list the turning points in my external plot they mostly are the same as the turning points of my H/h, there are only two outside influenced turning points in the plot. Does that mean my plot is too character driven, or is that how a character driven plot works out? tx.

    1. Not necessarily. You want turning points that are external as in "the character does something externally to move the plot." They're influenced by an outside force in some way, even if it's a small event or trigger that made the character realize or decide something vital to move the plot. The turning point might be "Jane realizes she has to quit her safe job and take a risky job at the children's center," which can fall on both the plot arc and the character arc. But something will have triggered that realization. Jane wasn't just going through her day as normal and made this life-changing realization.

      If the turning points have no forward-drive aspect (the point does nothing to make the character act), then that's an indication that the point is internal and there is no driving plot force. For example, "Jane completely breaks down" doesn't do anything to move the plot. It's what she does after that that will send the story forward. But "Jane completely breaks down from the stress, which makes her realize she has to quit her job before it kills her" is a plot-driving moment.

      Does that help?

    2. That's a great explanation. Very helpful. Thanks.

    3. You're welcome! Just let me know if you have any more questions :)

  7. Great posts, Janice. Simple ? What makes a top novel? Easy, huh?