Seriously. I have been tearing my hear out on this YA project, working on it off and on for years. First it was going to be an adult book, then my brilliant agent said I should try it as a YA. Back and forth I went for months—years—trying to settle on which it would be. Well, about six months ago I finally decided on YA, and I’ve been plugging away ever since. I’ve been making steady progress, but something was missing from a number of scenes in the middle. They had to be there, and stuff happened, but it didn’t feel like it was clear enough or significant enough. In a word, the scenes were limp.
So I added more words, trying to make it clearer, and then they just got swollen and soggy and bloated. Blerg.
Part of the problem is that in addition to juggling about four old drafts, I’m also juggling the historical plot (which is based on true situations, so I am compelled to get it somewhat right) the political backdrop against which my story takes place, the main historical and political figures and what they are doing within the scope of the story, THEN my heroine and how she moves within that framework. Clearly, it’s pretty easy for her to get lost in all that.
So I did what I always do when I get stuck—pulled out my craft books. This time I picked up Donald Maass’s THE FIRE IN FICTION, which I’ve talked about before. I remembered that he had said something about scene turning points, and I went back to read about those and ended up re-reading half the book this morning.
I ended up finding just what I needed to help focus and shape the scenes. In fact, what I ultimately did was create a personal checklist for my scenes. Now, I say checklist, but what I really mean is more of an exercise that helps me really get into the skin and heart of my character as I write the scene. I thought I’d share it with you here. If you like what you see, you should definitely go buy Maass’s book!
Scene Focus Sheet
What is the purpose of this scene? (Why is it in the book? From an author standpoint, what do I need to happen here?)
What does the POV character want?
What is the exact moment that things change for your character during the scene?
In that moment that the change occurs, how does the POV character change? What does that change feel like to her?
At the moment things change for your character, note two or three visible or audible details that she experiences in that moment.
Reminder: Everything else in the scene either contributes to or leads away from those changes.
Create three hints that the protagonist will get what she wants.
What are three reasons to believe that she won’t?
What are five details of the scene setting? Quality of light, temperature, smells, sounds, texture, prominent objects. Ideally, these should be external, observable details that only your character would find of particular interest or notice.
And that is the key that’s unlocked a number of scenes for me this weekend, to anchor me in that one moment of time that the character was feeling, and feel her internal shifts as well as the play of light against her face and the solid wooden table under her hand.
Color me happy!