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  • Gregory Zeigler

Pursuit of the Perfect Scene by Gregory Zeigler

In my last effort for the Free Rangers posted in the final month of the previous decade (12/15/19) I introduced my scene checker, a legal pad that towers over my laptop. As I mentioned in that post, the scene checker reminds me what elements I should be on the alert for in each successive scene while I'm editing my work.

In this post, I want to drill down a bit on the first four bullets on the scene checker. But first a word about rewriting. It is my opinion that a writer must learn to love to rewrite. Writers spend more time rewriting than writing. First drafts are fun and exhilarating. Rewriting early drafts can be a grind.

Here I am (left) dreaming of the perfect scene.

But that slog can suddenly be even more exhilarating than the initial act of creation when in a fourth or fifth draft the light dawns and illuminates the computer monitor with brilliance. The brilliance necessary to perfect a sentence, then several and then an entire scene. Does that happen often? No, of course not. But the pursuit of perfection is what keeps the writer grinding away. I still hope one day I will write the perfect scene. And I'm certain if I do it will be after at least six or seven drafts.

Okay, now to the scene checker, my best tool in the pursuit of perfection.

I've listed the first four items again. Writer readers might well disagree with my definitions of these elements and are invited to do so in the comment section below.

Is the scene dramatized?

Does the point of view shift unnecessarily during the scene?

Is there too much internal monologue in the scene? Does the scene contain appropriate dialogue vs. telling what characters said?

Is the scene motivated?

Is the scene dramatized?

This seems simple but in fact it's an important concept. Ask yourself if the scene reads like a newspaper article (good in newspapers—not so good in novels) or if it reads like a mini-novel with a beginning, middle and end, rising tension, perhaps even a climax of sorts and at least some resolution? If so, the scene is dramatized.

Does the point of view shift unnecessarily during the scene?

Ah yes, point of view. I think it's hard for new writers to grasp the concept that even with an omniscient narrator a shifting point of view is disorienting to the reader. A first person narrator generally presents no problem. All is seen through the eyes of the narrator, right? So doesn't omniscient mean all-knowing and all-seeing? Still the omniscient narrator in a scene has a tendency to be, for lack of a better explanation, looking over the shoulder of a single character (or two characters if the two are working in tandem). I discovered an example of this common mistake in my novel in progress, Rare as Earth during the editing of a chase scene. Bad guy is in the lead vehicle, good guy is in the chase vehicle. I suddenly shifted the point of view from the rear driver, where it had been throughout the scene, to the lead driver. I caught and corrected this mistake in one of many rewrites.

Is there too much internal monologue in the scene? Does the scene contain appropriate dialogue vs. telling what characters said?

Here again, I occasionally make this mistake. The rule of thumb is a writer should avoid describing to the reader in the thoughts of a character (internal monologue) what was said in a discussion between characters, but rather should be conveying that information in dialogue. On average, in rewriting a novel, I would say I take roughly six to eight scenes that are communicated in internal monologue and convert them to dialogue.

Is the scene motivated? Does it move internally and move the plot?

This is a danger in my genre of environmental mystery (or climate fiction). I feel my mandate is to educate and entertain. It is that educate thing, especially as a former educator myself, that can be a sticking point, literally. The writer can get stuck conveying information to the reader in a scene that does little else. It would almost be preferable for a scene to read like a newspaper than read like a textbook. As I used to say to my middle school drama students when they were trying to master improvisation milling about on stage, "Something has to happen. There has to be conflict." The same applies to writing scenes. That conflict might be an earthquake, or it might be a misplaced wallet, but "something has to happen,"and that "something" should move the plot forward.

If you haven't already, check out the rest of my scene checker in the 12/15/19 post below and let me know what you think.


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