To explain what I mean, I'll start by telling you about an interesting - and to me somewhat baffling - experience I had a few years ago. I met a young and talented writer in an online writing community and happily agreed to look at some of her work. I liked a lot about the story, the characters, etc. It did have issues, though, so on a couple of sections I gave her an in-depth critique, with my opinions, including how she might go about changing it to sharpen the focus. For each section she thanked me and sent me a revised version.
The revised versions were completely different.
It wasn't rephrasing, or even reworking. The scenes had been moved to entirely different locations, and just about everything about them was different. Again, they were quite well-written, but with issues. At that point I didn't know what comment to make any more, because I was terrified that I'd make her feel she had start all over for a second time.
What I tried to tell her then (with my apologies!) is what I'm trying to explain now. You don't need to start over. 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.
I have an example for you - I spent quite a while finding this one in my old files, but I had to. Why? Because Janice Hardy mentioned this very sequence when she asked me to do this post, which originally appeared as a guest post on her blog. In this scene, Dana is trying to make friends with her new roommate, Shannon. This tiny interaction went through four different iterations as I tried to figure out how Dana felt about Shannon's interest in the fact that she writes notes in her novels. Here's how it starts:
"Well," I [Dana] said, "a lot of famous authors write in their books. It's a sign of active engagement in the message."
And she didn't miss a beat. She put her hands on her hips and said, "God, Dana! 'Active engagement in the message' - that's awesome, you should totally major in English."
What changed was the few sentences that followed, specifically Dana's reaction to Shannon's comment. Here are the four versions, and my summary of the effect produced:
"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
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.
What an amazing thing to say! She hit my dream straight on, as if she'd seen right into my heart; for a moment I was utterly convinced I'd had it right about her and me becoming friends. But before I could put words to my delight, Brian Bateson walked in our half-open door.
Summary: Dana feels a moment of true connection with Shannon but Brian interrupts.
Version 4 (final):
For a moment I was utterly convinced I would make it through, and that I'd been right about her and me connecting. But then she said, oh-so-slowly, "So, do you think you could tell if somebody was reading a magic book?" It felt like an insult. She was watching me intently, waiting for something, God knows what. Slowly I realized that this had to be some kind of test, maybe Shannon seeing if I had enough sense to laugh at my own escapist taste in literature. Before I could think of how to respond, Brian walked in our half-open door.
Summary: Dana hopes for connection with Shannon, but is subjected to a personal test, and Brian keeps her from knowing if she passed.
The difference between each these versions completely changed how my readers felt when Shannon and Brian got into an argument later in the same scene, and that influenced how their relationship came across for the entire book. That was why I spent so much effort fine-tuning it.
Now, you may be asking yourself, "Do I really need to do this?" Well, consider that you're sparing yourself the trouble of redoing the entire scene. Here are some spots to look at:
- The context in which a new character enters the story, which sets expectations about their future behavior.
- Any places where readers need the point-of-view character to give them a proper read on the motives of a minor character.
- Places where tension drops, character arcs seem to lose their drive, or character motives don't seem to match their behavior. (I'll return to this one in a minute.)
Here's an example of a chapter motive alteration from my current novel project.
Summary of the scene:
A young servant, Aloran, has a job interview with a family he's hoping to work for. It's the first time he's met the mistress, the person he would be working with most closely. Unfortunately, she's heard he's coming, and is terribly angry with her husband for inviting him (because he's firing her current servant without permission). She goes into a rage right in front of her husband and Aloran, making Aloran feel that he has failed in the interview. Later, however, he learns that she is actually going to hire him.
In version 1, Aloran went in feeling really keen to get the job. His apparent failure in the interview was a terrible disappointment, but he was so shocked by the mistress' behavior that he figured it was probably a good thing he failed. Then when he learned he was going to be hired, he was shocked and alarmed.
It made some sense, but something about it felt weak, and the chapter didn't seem to sustain tension and story drive. So I broke it down to look at the lead-in, the scene itself, and the exit from that scene, as follows.
Here I found the first problem. Aloran's knowledge of the family had a lot of gaps. This helped explain how much he wanted the job, because he might not have wanted it if he'd known how twisted they were. But it was also implausible. Because of his resources (school advisor, etc), he would be able to access more information about the family than that.
Another problem. The mistress flipping out seemed superficial as a reason for him to change his mind so thoroughly and dramatically.
Because he changed his mind completely in the scene, that justified his reaction of shock and alarm later when he found he was hired - but it wasn't well-supported because of the problems mentioned above.
Obviously I needed to revise, but it wouldn't have made sense to get rid of the scene entirely. Aloran he has to get the job somehow, and the interview is an important step in this. Aloran also has to learn something important about the mistress during the scene, so he can't fail to see her. Showing it in a different point of view wouldn't make sense either, because it's what Aloran learns that he has to carry forward. Changing the mistress' reaction in the scene would call for a major change in her character that would gut the rest of the story. In fact, every word that is said in the scene remains the same, because the mistress and her husband have precisely the same relationship and interaction, and though Aloran might feel different, he can't show his feelings in front of a potential employer!
So the interview scene stays, along with the blocking and the dialogue. The difference lies in the internal states of the point of view character.
The new lead-in:
Aloran has plenty of information to make him feel ambivalent about this family. He comes into the scene hoping for some opportunity to screw up on purpose so that the family will reject him as a candidate. His only regret about this chosen course of action is the fact that he's heard about the mistress and how wonderful she is in comparison with the other family members.
The new scene:
Aloran is totally broadsided by the mistress' reaction of extreme anger. Because of his shock, he forgets his strategy and doesn't do anything deliberate to sabotage his chances. He decides that her behavior means he has been rejected.
To his surprise, Aloran feels hurt by the mistress' reaction, and by the fact that she hasn't even given him a chance to show his quality. This is not a reaction he expected after planning to fail, but a gut reaction to the betrayal he feels after having heard how wonderful she is. Thus when he learns he has received the position, he is confused and frightened to be entering the family, but still harbors a hope that he hadn't expected, of seeing behind the mistress' anger - which motivates his actions once he starts working for the family.
What I'm asking you to do here is to consider how you might use your character's internalizations and mental states as a tool - a powerful tool that can completely change what a scene means, even while it leaves the essentials of the scene unchanged. It can help you keep your story drive, make sure your main character feels motivated, and keep the story flowing along smoothly. This is especially useful when you have a scene where you know a lot is right, but something feels wrong.
If you find yourself looking at a scene like this, break it down and consider:
- the lead-in to the scene. Is anything missing? What does your character know, or feel, or anticipate?
- the scene itself. Do the minor characters behave in a logical way? Can their actions be changed? How do they contribute to the overall flow of the arc or the larger story?
- the exit from the scene. Does it fit well with where this character's arc needs to go next? Is it positive, or negative, or ambivalent? How does that contribute to the drive?