Change It Up!
This article comes out of a conversation I had with a writer who couldn’t decide what should go into two related scenes:
Dor: I’ve got two scenes fighting with each other. So not nice!
Bev: What’s the key point in each scene? How can you differentiate the scenes to accentuate the point?
Dor: It’s a sequence of two scenes as a big storm is about to hit. So I’m mostly combing for timeline consistency. Two characters, one makes a suggestion and the other resists. Then in the second scene (a few beats later in the time line) the other character takes the bait and goes overboard with the suggestion.
Bev: That’s not what I meant. That’s what the scenes are. I want to know what they’re about. Why are they necessary? What is the reason for each one? How do they each move the plot forward, or change the MC? And how does cause-and-effect play into them?
What causes the characters to behave the way they do? Flaws, Strengths, Beliefs, Prejudices, Wounds?
What changes in each scene?
Dor: I see what you’re saying. Good lens for a read-through. Definitely both are acting out their characters.
Bev: If you can define the essential change that happens in each scene, you can focus on making that clearer.
Dor: Excellent thinking, this is so helpful.
Bev: The reason for the scene is the change that happens within it.
Bev: So always keep asking, “What changes and why.”
The reason for the scene is the change that happens within it
The key here is the line, “The reason for the scene is the change that happens within it.”
I touched on the topic of change in a recent post, in which I said, “Change has a number of different meanings but basically, it describes a difference from one state to another.”
Changes happen in all kinds of colours, flavours and sizes. Some are big ones. Some, small ones. Some changes have huge impact, while some go completely unnoticed — we don’t even recognize them until much later when their fallout becomes apparent, having far-reaching, unanticipated results.
(Adapted from ScribblersGuild.com/think-big-but-write-small)
What’s needed isn’t always conflict. What’s needed is change.
A simple change in direction, new information, a realization, the introduction of another character, or new thought or memory can bring about a whole new scenario.
Change can come in many guises — information, description that adds to reader comprehension, character development, conflict, revelation, new goals/desires/wants, sudden insights, recollections, pivotal conversations, discoveries, introduction of new characters or surprise twists. Anything which creates a change in the character’s circumstances can be used to further the plot.
The possibilities are endless. Their only consistent requirement is that they change the story trajectory in some way and the events of the scene either move the character forward towards his goal or away from it.
We need to learn to ask the right questions — the ones that will get us to the best answers:
What kinds of changes have the most impact?
What tiny incident happens that changes everything?
- You change your breakfast cereal and discover that you’re slowly putting on extra pounds, which could lead to a life-long battle with weight loss.
- You’ve discovered something about someone that shows you they’re not who you thought they were, and you’re forced to change your mind about them.
- You changed channels and discovered a whole new programme you love, and that leads you to change your career so you can be involved in that industry.
- You switched to a new type of laundry soap, only to discover you’re allergic.
- You’ve changed jobs, homes, your latest “look”, circle of friends, even your underwear, with unexpected consequences.
We need to understand that taking action, even if it’s a tiny action, changes things. It changes the timing of our subsequent actions, determining where we’ll be at any given moment. Like the child who decides to stop and tie a shoelace, seconds before a car crashes into a tree, right where he’d have been if he hadn’t stopped, or a woman who goes into a store right after a person infected with Covid-19 and subsequently ends up in hospital. If she had found her shopping bags a couple of seconds sooner or hadn’t stopped to chat with a friend, she’d have been fine.
Our lives hinge on these coincidences
- Change determines character, stakes, point of view, cause and effect, and story trajectory.
- The actions a character takes determine what happens next and the outcome of those decisions has an effect on subsequent events.
- The stakes can be amplified, based on those choices he makes.
- Repercussions both good and bad result from the changes he made by his choice.
- Subsequent scenes may have to be shown from a different point of view, depending on how his choice affected other characters and their relation to both their personal stakes and the overall story stakes.
- Every time something changes, logic and the chain of cause and effect present a whole new realm of possibility: actions, understanding, beliefs, choices, decisions, events and outcomes that might follow from that change.
- The story trajectory as a whole is determined by the changes that each character makes. The whole story may hinge on one single choice.
Types of Change
Go over your current manuscript and comb through it, looking for change. Determine the essential change in each scene.
Here are just a few types of changes:
- Character development
- New goals/desires/wants
- Decision or choice
- Realization, new understanding
- Change in opinion or belief
- Different emotional, mental or physical state
- Acceptance or surrender
- New thought
- Recollection or memory
- Action or series of actions
- New character
- New information
- Clue, hint or foreshadowing
- Misdirection, misinformation or red herring
- Different point of view
- New or amplified conflict
- Description that adds comprehension
- Revelations or discoveries
- Pivotal conversations
- Surprise twists
And here are some questions to ask during your rewrite:
- What is the purpose of the scene?
- If there is no change, why is this scene necessary?
- What is the scene’s significant change?
- Does this change move the story forward?
- What does the PoV character want — what are they trying to do?
- What is the opposition?
- Where is the conflict?
- What type of conflict would have the most impact?
- What is the significance of this change?
- To the current scene?
- To future scenes?
- How does it affect the stakes?
- For the characters?
- For the story?
- How does this change affect the character’s state of mind, choices, behaviour and actions?
- How does this change relate to and affect the overall story trajectory?
- Are there other changes in the scene?
- Are they necessary?
- Do other changes in the scene contribute to the arc of change over the entire story trajectory?
- What’s altered as a result of this change?
- Specifically and immediately? (In this scene)
- Larger picture? (Overall story)
Making sure there is significant change in every scene is one of the most effective steps you can take in your rewriting. It’s the changes that create your narrative drive and narrative drive helps keep your readers immersed in your story. Get this right, and you’ll be well on the way to having a story that readers can’t put down.