Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Cut-to's and Scene Profiles: A Second Draft Life Saver

You've written your novel. The creative juices were flowing, you hit a few blocks and snags, but you got past them, and it feels so great to have reached the end.

And now you have the second draft to deal with.

The drafts that follow that magical first one can be magical too, except this kind of magic comes with a price, that of lots of toil, pressure, overcoming self-doubt or self-delusion, sweat, and more dark valleys than bright mountain peaks. It's worth it; trust me; you don't want to put that first draft in a safe and leave it as is. Your baby has to grow up.

There are lots of ways to tackle subsequent drafts. I've tried many of them. I still use many of them. My favorite is quickly becoming the art of the scene profile and cut-to. Screenwriters use this technique and so can you. It's like rewriting your novel before you actually rewrite it and it'll save you having to do lots of other rewrites.

For example, have you ever started a rewrite - even with an outline - and at a certain point you realize that the whole things isn't going to work? Or maybe the story's been derailed or sidelined. Outlines are great to help prevent this, but outlines aren't written in stone and can easily be overturned or go astray. Outlines are pretty distant too, even the in-depth ones, giving you a panoramic big picture view of your story and where you expect it to go. The problem is when you settle in to write and all the little things start accumulating, you find that that big picture wasn't so accurate or that you're in a tussle to try to make the little things tow the line and keep to the outline.

By all means, use outlines as tools. I do. But after you've had your panoramic glimpse of the big picture, may I suggest using scene profiles and cut-to's before you start rewriting in order to keep the big and little things from creating an epic battle that will threaten your sanity and eat up extra time as you try over and over again to make them agree with each other.

What are scene profiles and cut-to's? How do you use them?
A cut-to is an overview of a scene, like a close-up glance, or play by play of the action.
A scene profile is where you've gathered your pertinent information on the scene and the characters in it.

Together the scene profile and the cut-to list makes rewriting your scenes easy and efficient. They'll help you spot inconsistencies, plot-holes, will help you decide if you need minor tweaks or an overhaul, or let you know if a scene needs to be dropped because it has no purpose. While these sound like extra effort and work, they actually save you a lot of time and effort in the long run.

Here's an example of what I do:
1. Create a list of scenes that are in the novel or that I know need to be in the novel.
2. Working one scene at a time, plug in the information about the scene (whether directly from my first draft or the outline or both) into the scene profile.
3. Create the cut-to list for each scene.

I have a template I build off of for each scene:
Scene name or number: I'm a big proponent of naming scenes because it encapsulates the purpose of the scene and makes it easier to keep them straight rather than using numbers.
1. Date: This refers to the date in your story. Is this scene during Day 45 or on the 27th of March. It seems like a little, unimportant thing, but it's not. Knowing the date helps set your chronology and makes you step back and think about how realistic your time frames are in the narrative.
2. Time of Day: This affects your characters and your setting. What if your main character is a morning person and this scene takes place in the evening? They are more apt to be tired and cranky. Didn't think of that the first time you wrote this scene did you? Or what if it's night time and your characters are at a university? What are they doing there at night? Little details like this enhance your narrative and pique reader curiosity.
3. Weather: Yes, what is the weather like during this scene? Did your first draft read like a perpetual summer's day? How might knowing the weather affect your characters, the setting, or the plot?
4. Setting: This is where you plug in the details of your setting. And I do stress details. You should write it all down in a separate file, envision it. And then be prepared to pull what you need from it and let the rest go, or bring out some details in this scene and other details later on when revisiting this same place. Make a note here of the details you've chosen to reveal.
5. Objects: Good novels have objects. Memorable characters are associated with objects, like Snow White and the apple or the Beast and his enchanted castle. Objects are symbolic of what is happening in the plot or to the characters. What objects are noticed, sought after, obtained, or lost in this scene?
6. Characters: Write down which characters are actively in this scene. This is also the place to mention if there is something new, off, or otherwise different about any of the characters. If you're introducing or exiting a character, you can make a note of that as well.
7. Scene cut-to's: A list of play-by-play action that goes on in the scene. This is where you very briefly and succinctly write the scene before actually writing it with fleshed out details. For example: 
     i. Main character walks into the room with a book.
     ii. Side characters B & C stop talking about Main character and look guilty.
     iii. Main character asks them what is going on.
     iv. Character C pulls out a letter from their coat pocket and hands it to MC
     v. MC opens the letter and starts to read.
     vi. Character B makes an excuse to leave the room.
     vii. Character C tells B they can't go yet.
     viii. MC reads that their teenage child has run away from boarding school.
     ix. Character C tells MC that they aren't surprised, launches into a tirade about MC neglecting their child.
     x. MC slams the book down on a table.
     xi. Character B makes a hasty exit through an outside door.
     xii. MC laughs and Character C is shocked.
     xiii. MC tells C that they helped their teenager escape.
     xiv. Character C reaches for their phone.
     xv. MC twists C's arm behind their back.
     xvi. Character C drops the phone in the pool.
    xvii. MC whispers in C's ear that they know C was the reason the teen was sent to the boarding school to begin with.
    xviii. Character C asks what the MC intends to do.
    xix. MC lets C go and walks toward the door.
    xx. C repeats the question with greater agitation.
    xxi. MC tells C that they won't hear from MC or their teen again.
8. Flashbacks or backstory reveals: Here's where you plug in your backstory material that has any relevancy to what is happening in this scene. It can be pages long or a quick sentence. Not all scenes should have flashbacks or backstory reveals, but you as a writer need to know where these things are simmering in the subtext.
9. Foreshadowing: This is the place where you have your big picture outlook come down to manageable size. Not all scenes have foreshadowing, but good ones do. It may be a simple remark a character makes, an event, an object, or a decision that will have big consequences later. Stop and think about this scene and your book at large and make this scene stronger by adding an element of foreshadowing.
10. Notes: Here is where you jot down any additional notes you have, like psychological development of the characters, things to watch out for, research data that you've collected that will have a bearing on this particular scene, etc.

See what I mean about writing the rewrite before actually writing it? By putting together this information you get to know your scene, its purpose and place in the novel without expending the time and sweat writing it. And it's much easier to tweak, change, or discard as you build your other scene profiles than going back and rewriting pages of prose.

Once you've made up all of your scene profiles and cut-to's and everything is fitting into place and all your insights, twists, and details match up as they should, then comes the fun part - rewriting your novel. And the best part is that it will be quick because you have everything thought out and jotted down, everything.

Give it a try and tell me what you think. I know I've avoided repeating details too much, found plot-holes, and developed stronger subtext by employing this method. I've also been able to chuck scenes that don't really do anything for the story. Sentimentality is avoided when working in a scene profile and with cut-to's. And usually, a writer's sentimentality is the biggest stumbling block of all to overcome.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, so I have a question. Do you use outlines when you write your first draft? Or do you just dump everything that's in your brain, and then make the outline and the scene profiles? I like the idea of scene profiles. It sounds like it helps you have a close-up view of the story as well as a broad-range view.

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