The most important thing before attempting a revision, is figuring out what exactly we’re revising. So the top question to ask when we pick up any considerable chunk of text should be — is this a scene, or a sequel?
The difference between the two isn’t always obvious. Scenes are often mixed with elements of sequels, such as internalization or backstory. But a story episode cannot be both, scene and sequel, so before revising it we must make sure we’re accelerating it toward the right target and making it stronger, not derailing it by paying attention to the wrong elements.
So what’s the difference between scene and sequel?
A SCENE is a story episode in which an external conflict is carried out through physical action.
Scenes are mini-stories all by themselves, with beginning, middle and end, a protagonist and an opposing force, in the form of either another character or a physical element of the setting. Scenes are dramatic accounts of events, and can easily be performed by actors on a stage in a way that makes sense.
A SEQUEL is a story episode in which an internal conflict or the impact of a previous scene is internalized by a character in the privacy of his own mind.
Sequels are the glue between scenes, and are built of emotion, thought, realization and decision—all elements of personal, intimate experience happening inside a character. Sequels can have many shapes and sizes, span large periods of story-time (not synonymous with page-count, mind you) and put things into perspective. They can offer insight or increase tension, modulate pace and enrich the story. Sequels are not dramatic accounts and cannot be performed on stage.
In the case of omniscient or objective third person narration, sequels are often replaced by transitions, story episodes in which the narrator recounts past events and offers story backdrop to the reader, without employing the help of a character.
When revising a novel draft, each story episode will ideally fall into either one of these camps, and ought to be revised accordingly. Keep in mind that novels heavy on scenes often tend to become cinematic and shallow, while novels heavy on sequels tend to become convoluted and pretentious. But once you start marking your story episodes as either scenes or sequels, you should see fairly quickly where you need to focus. Always strive for a healthy balance to keep readers hooked.
So, to not end up ripping my desk apart like a creatively frustrated Hulk, I’ve built two checklists. I fill these out after I read each scene/sequel of the draft, so I know exactly what I’ve neglected in the first run, and what should be improved in the rewrite.
I hope you guys can use them too!
1. Who is the protagonist in this scene? What does he want, and why?
One protagonist, one vie-point character per scene, and it should be recognizable fairly quickly who that is, especially in a novel with more POVs. Also, scenes are driven by clear and practical character goals. Philosophical ideals are not goals, so things like “I want to make a change” or “I want to be loved” are not functional scene goals, but “I want to save the puppy from the fire” and “I want to get Mary to date me this Friday” are.
Why the protagonist wants what he wants is also very important. Without a motivation, there is no credibility to anything he does, however heroic or important. The protagonist’s motivation must be comprehensible to the reader, unless the obscurity of his motivation is created on purpose (like in scenes where the tension is created by making the reader die to know why a character just murdered another).
2. Who or what is standing in his way, and why?
A scene without opposition is not a scene, it’s animated exposition. As a rule of thumb, large chunks of text where nothing is at stake and the character is just tiptoeing through the tulips, kill the story’s tension and momentum stone dead. Unless the writer is a literary genius and his style alone is so mesmerizing the readers are licking the letters off the pages. But even literary mammoths don’t rely solely on their style to enthrall readers.
Just as important as the protagonist’s motivation, is the reason he encounters opposition. If another character is trying to stop the protagonist from getting what he wants, what’s in it for that character? Why bother? Is his wish to stop the protagonist realistic? And if it’s the setting, or a particularly damned cocktail of circumstances, their reason to exist and act up must be plausible.
3. Does the protagonist achieve his goal?
I strongly believe there are only two ways in which a scene can be concluded so that it is satisfying to read, especially in genre fiction.
YES — the protagonist gets what he wants,
BUT — he now finds himself in a new conflict. What conflict is this and what are the stakes now?
NO — the protagonist fails to get what he wants,
FURTHERMORE — the protagonist has worsened the initial conflict. How have the old stakes risen?
Each scene in the story must have all of these elements. It never ceases to surprise me how many scenes land in first drafts (including mine) that have no clear stakes, where the opposition is not motivated enough to put up a fight, where the protagonist’s goal is not made clear to the reader or is too abstract, or where the outcome is a let down because it’s too jolly. Basically, for each victory the protagonist achieves, there must be a some form of defeat, otherwise the story is boring.
The only exception are scenes (or stories) where the protagonist is a bad guy, and where each of his victories means a defeat to the good guys, to the off-stage protagonist, even to the reader.
Small reminder here, cause I know it’s needed. I certainly need it. *wince* It’s perfectly okay to find duds in your drafts, in fact, it’s a great opportunity to make the story better. Cut useless scenes out, combine scenes that essentially achieve the same things, turn weak, melodramatic scenes into strong sequels (for example), or condense any cumbersome stretches of words into powerful nuggets. Don’t forget, drafts are playgrounds, you can do whatever you like with them as long as you increase the fun.
1. Who is the protagonist in this sequel, and what is his dilemma?
Sequels are driven by a character’s need to understand the events of the story, to cope with setbacks and adjust his strategy, or to understand his position in life. The “dilemma” of a sequel can be a problem, a question, the aftermath of a setback, the impact of new information obtained during a previous scene, and so on. Basically anything that matters to the protagonist, and thus to the story.
2. What prevents him from solving it?
The opposition in a sequel is internal in nature, not external. It can be the protagonist’s fears, his unresolved issues from the past, or his reluctance to change. He can be aware of the opposition, and have a sort of internal fight between rivaling parties, or he can be oblivious, and interpret things in a distorted way, twisting facts to avoid confronting his issues. Either way, a sequel had better not be a peaceful internal monologue, or an attempt to mask an info dump. Sequels must always contain conflict, just like scenes, even if this conflict is played out inside the character’s mind as he goes about his daily business or prepares for an upcoming scene.
3. Does he solve the dilemma?
The only rule regarding the conclusion of a sequel is this: it must affect the protagonist. So by the end of the sequel,
YES — the protagonist reaches an understanding, has a realization or makes a decision, and proceeds to put it into action in an upcoming scene,
NO — the protagonist is even more confused, desperate or afraid than he was before, his pondering having added a new dimension to his problem, and this affects his attitude and behavior from now on.
So, the bottom line is — revision is gruesome but necessary, and absolutely rewarding. The clearer things get for us as we work, the better.
I’m up to my elbows in my draft, and currently rewriting the first third of it (having written the end kinda puts things into perspective, not to mention that my execution of it was below crappy). I still have a long way ahead of me, but on the upside, I know my story is getting stronger every day, and while it does, I’ll have plenty of material to blog about.