How a Scene Evolves from First Draft to Last

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Rewriting a scene is where the magic happens. First drafts are usually crap (although sometimes they have nuggets of brilliance). Many writing teachers will tell you this, but it’s something that every writer needs to learn for themselves.

Here’s a scene that I wrote three years ago. It’s quite short and rough, but it captures, for my own needs, the essence of what I want to express - that the character Janet is growing in confidence, and that she sees another character, Michelle, as a role model.

Janet had a new mantra, What Would Michelle Do? Michelle’s a tough old bitch. What would she do if she thought her guides were dicking her around? Janet wasn’t certain, but in her mind it involved a gun. The problem was what to do after that. Once you’d turned it into an openly antagonistic relationship, then you couldn’t sleep. Ever. Not if you were the only person on your side.

What would Michelle do anyway?

The guides were proving to be useless and possibly disingenuous. These guides had been raised by the Slerc or by their proxies, the Angels. Could they really be trusted?

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Perhaps that’s what they were doing, keeping her closer. But did she win anything by dismissing them? Would she be best served by letting these men, who knew a lot about her operations, run free? Perhaps she needed to keep her enemies closer too. (156 Words)

There are many problems with that scene, not least of which is how short it is. Other problems include the language used (bitch, dicking around) and that generally, it’s not a scene that advances the story.

I’ve sat on that scene, knowing that it needed an overhaul, but not sure what to do with it, until this week. Then I woke up in the middle of the night and re-wrote it as this:

Janet had a new mantra: What Would Michelle Do? She hoped it would serve her well, this mantra.

The twenty-third day of Janet’s search was dawning. What would Michelle do? Michelle would keep going. The previous morning’s sun had shown a ridge on the near horizon, but when sunset came, they weren’t there yet. Michelle would reserve her strength for the long haul. So Janet had let them make camp despite her frustration at the slow pace.

First thing Janet did every morning was take a picture of the distant mountain peaks. She then overlaid the image on the previous day’s to help judge how far they’d travelled. This day she estimated the distance was only seven kilometres. She didn’t need to graph it to know what it would show. They were covering less and less distance each day.

These men, the hardy guides she’d recruited to lead her to the mountains, were turning out to be more of a liability than an asset. So far none had lived up to their promises except the interpreter Aduviri.

As the men started packing tents, burying the previous night’s fire pit, and generally grumbling among themselves, a discomforting realization hit Janet. The guides were slowing down, intentionally.

Whatever awe her guides had felt about her, assuming her to be an Angel from the big city, was fading. She worried that her skin wasn’t pale enough to pass for an Angel, and besides, who’d ever seen a woman from San Piaz?

They were getting bolder, treating her less as an authority and more as a novelty. One had even tried to follow her when she went off to pee. Aduviri had come along and chased him away before she’d decided how best to respond.

She thanked Aduviri later at camp, but he’d brushed off her words. Even he seemed to feel contempt for her and her quest. She couldn’t put it all down to the inherent sexism of their culture. Had the guides been raised by the Slerc or by their proxies, the Angels? Aduviri certainly had lived among the Angles for many years, learning their language and culture. Could he be poisoning the others against her?

What would Michelle do? What would she do if she thought her guides were intentionally hindering her? Janet wasn’t certain, but in her mind it involved a gun. Or maybe that was just a comforting thought, separate of Michelle’s imaginary wisdom. The problem was what to do after you drew a gun. Once you’d turned it into an openly antagonistic relationship, then you couldn’t sleep. Ever. Not if you were the only person on your side.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. That might not be what Michelle would do, but maybe it was what her guides were doing - keeping her closer. But did she win anything by dismissing them? Would she be best served by letting these men, who knew a lot about her operations, location and directions run free? Perhaps she needed to keep her enemies closer too. For now, at least.

She vowed to get up earlier, press on harder, force them to move at her pace, not allow them to dictate her movements or speed. That’s what Michelle would do. (531 Words)

Not only does this version tell a better story, it advances the plot in more ways (Aduviri’s character arc is just beginning). It also lessens the coarseness of the original piece, and reaffirms, although subtly, that Janet is not white.

The text still isn’t perfect. I even did two edits to it as I was re-reading it for this blog entry. The line “She hoped it would serve her well, this mantra.” is still clunky. I haven’t decided if “She hoped it would serve her well.” is better than “She hoped this mantra would serve her well.”

Is this important? Individually, the small things like which version of the sentence is better aren’t important, but in the big picture of building a well-crafted story, yes, these little decisions add up - to either a good or bad reader experience.