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Cut Up Your Scenes

Before we get started on this topic…you may want to watch THIS VIDEO.

When people view this or read about this action step in one of my books, they are often incredulous:

“You mean, you actually print the manuscript out and cut it up?”

“Is that every scene in the whole book right there?”

“I don’t have a table big enough for that!”

So I wanted to show you some real people.

This is Liz; Liz is doing it. There are her orange scissors. Closest to her in the front row are some meaty scenes, where multiple paragraphs and pages are paper-clipped together. And there, in the center of her table, are those scraps of paper she has been dragging around from draft to draft that probably belong in this pile:

We call that the detritus pile because that is one of the nastiest words for “trash.”

We heard Biz talk about how terrifying it is to toss something out: “What if the best line ever written by a human being is somehow stuck under that pile?” Well, as Ro$hi tells Biz in one of the deleted scenes, “We don’t have anything to fear, because your creativity is inexhaustible.” Besides, forward motion cures many ills.

Here’s another example of a work-in-progress:

After Wendy cut up her scenes, she was able to move her individual scene names around with more confidence. In the foreground, you can see her scene list of the good, bad, forgotten, and missing. And in the background is her outline, the one she was able to put together after her messy draft—as opposed to those complex outlines done before any work has begun that I have rarely seen truly work.

And eventually, it looks like this:

This is the end of Sondra’s process in preparation for her method draft. Her scenes have been grouped and rearranged, and some have been dropped. The Post-it notes on top of each scene contain instructions that she wanted to remind herself about when she rewrote each scene.

Sondra was writing a memoir about her sister, who died of cancer. When Sondra and I met for the final time to put all of her scenes together, we convened in a room at Grub Street, Boston’s incredible writing center. There was nothing in the room at all except this one book, a poetry collection from a college writing program whose front cover simply read, “MARGIE”— which was Sondra’s sister’s name. I think we both felt at liberty to follow our instincts that day, to trust ourselves to envision the structure a little more deeply.

The Five Definitions of Scene

(Felsenkammer, Paul Klee)

What’s the big deal about scene? Well, as a group of self-contained passages within your narrative, they are nothing less than the building blocks of your work. Finding the places where your scenes break and separating them into discrete units can help you move scenes around, divide and combine them, and eliminate them when necessary.

The most commonly heard expression in writing circles is probably “Show, don’t tell,” which means you must put us in the scene. Don’t tell us about it, don’t tell us that it happened, don’t tell us that your characters—or you as the narrator—had a certain set of feelings about it; make it happen for us as readers, as viewers.

From this we get the first definition of scene:

#1. A scene is where something happens.

If you are working in non-fiction, consider a scene to be the material that is grouped under a subhead where you have demonstrated your point, which is the same thing as making things happen. Now that you have introduced new material into the discourse, the discourse has shifted—which is what our second definition of scene is getting at:

#2. A scene is where because something happens, something changes.

Once you have identified these units that are your scenes, you can determine if each scene is weak or strong, a hopeless aside, or the climactic scene, in large part by whether or not any given scene belongs to a recognizable series, what you might also know as throughlines or narrative arcs.

#3. A scene has to be capable of series.

You would be surprised by the number of scenes that are written which contain nothing that is repeated elsewhere—not the characters, not the place, not the ideas. Readers have a limited ability to track information, so unless you are intentionally presenting a red herring, what are these one-iteration series doing, just hanging out? The vibrant cafe owner with caustic wit but a heart of gold: Where did he go? That cabin that seemed so mysterious: How come we never went back there?

A series becomes animated through scenes like these; if a scene doesn’t have any series to embody, it will likely feel flat and lifeless. If you take all of your series and braid them together as strands, you get a strong rope, which is your theme. Because your theme is strengthened by each and every one of your series threads, which, in turn, spool out of your scenes, it makes sense that,

#4. A scene has to be in the service of the one central theme.

If all of your scenes serve the one central theme, you almost can’t miss at that point. But if you do have a scene that is not related to the one thing your book is about (because your book can only be about one thing), it has to be expandable, or it is expendable.

Finally, the fifth definition of scene is this:

#5. A scene has to have “it.”

That’s it; just “it.” I, for one, don’t think we should be above talking about things in this way. Each scene must carry with it a sense of excitement, for both the writer and the reader. A bad or forgotten scene that you decide to keep while putting together your provisional scenic order might have “it.” That might be why you haven’t dropped it yet. You may not know what “it” is, but you can still detect it; it resonates; you can’t quite shake it. This scene has “it”—not that it’s perfect.

Not only should we not be above talking in ways like this, sometimes I think the situation demands it.

Good Beginnings Ask Good Questions

Beginnings in literature are highly confusing. In media res, inciting incidents, grab-‘em-in-the-first-five-pages-or-I-can’t-represent-this… you know the drill.

To back up, I think the easiest way to think about plot is that a story has to ask a question. And then not answer it. And then answer it. If it’s a novel, you might want to have several questions, some of which are answered as they resolve themselves into different and perhaps more difficult questions.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In fiction or creative non-fiction, we start with a question. (In prescriptive non-fiction, the equivalent is identifying a lack which the reader perceives within himself or herself). Beginnings ask questions. Good beginnings ask good questions.

 

Begin at the beginning: what in media res really means

I have been making an unofficial list of the world’s most commonly used writing axioms, and I’m pretty sure in media res needs to be on there. In media res means “in the middle of things.”

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What is in media res?

Writers are advised to start their stories with an action that will capture the reader’s attention. This action should be compelling—it cannot waste too many precious words on exposition or setting the scene. This action should inspire curiosity. 

So far, so good. In the past twenty years, however, in media res has taken on a much narrower definition. Now, it means something like, “Start with a scene from the middle of your narrative (chronologically speaking); then spend the next chunk of the story leading up to it again until the reader can figure out exactly what the first scene meant after all.”

Really?

In media res was originally used as a tool to help Greek playwrights figure out where to begin their narrative. Presenting a scene first indicates its importance to the whole, just as deciding which scene will come last indicates the dramatist’s moral intent through the fate of the characters.

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But the dramatists did not go back and fill in the details of what had happened previously. They assumed that the audience would already have this information (which battle had been fought, who had been the victor, what situation these characters found themselves in, etc.).

Where in media res goes wrong

By contrast, today’s writer who begins in media res starts us off with a lone, out-of-sequence scene, then tells us a flashback, in essence, for what can amount to half the book. Readers can find this approach disconcerting because, basically, we forget about the scene that started everything off. At best, we may harbor a mild curiosity about why the author has given that scene such special placement and when it might recur.

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Selecting the right scene to begin with

I would argue for two ways out of this current dilemma.

If you are going to begin with a scene from the middle of the narrative, why not continue to utilize the narrative possibilities of flashbacks and multiple concurrent timelines to ensure that your first scene does not look like an ugly duckling?

Perhaps a simpler solution to the in media res dilemma, once you have begun in the “thick of it,” is, don’t backtrack. If your first scene engenders interest, if it implies a world where something is at stake and immediately transports the reader into a situation with dramatic tension, why not just continue from there?