Step-by-step guide to a major structural edit. Step 1: create a scene map.
Updated: Sep 24, 2022
I’ve written a book: the premise is great, the story is great, but nothing works. Opal Tears is sitting at 105,000 words, nearly finished. I’ve stopped writing because the story isn’t working. The plot is all over the place, the character arcs stop-and-start, there are huge issues with continuity. Basically, it’s a dog’s breakfast. It needs a major structural edit with a view to rewriting significant sections of it.
How do you go about such a massive task without losing everything – your motivation, your vision, your faith in yourself as a writer, the story itself?
My answer is to break it down into achievable chunks. Looking at an edit this big is too daunting. I can’t do it. It’s too much.
There are some things I can do, so I’ll start with those.
Step 1. Create a scene map.
I use file cards for scene maps. I use the small sized cards because they force me to focus on what’s important. I don’t have space to write all the extraneous interesting tit-bits that grab my attention. You can use the back of the card if you need to but try not to. This isn’t an outline of the story. The focus is on only the necessary aspects of the scene. I also sometimes tack the cards up on the wall so I can see the flow of the story in a bigger picture.
Rule #1: Absolutely no editing will happen during this process. Don’t change one word in the MS. Not even a spelling error.
Rule #2: One card per scene. Never double up scenes onto one card, regardless of space. Some scenes won’t be staying long.
I structure the cards like this:
Top left corner – Chapter number, scene number. The scene numbers are continuous throughout the book. Don’t start new scene numbering with the next chapter.
Top right corner – setting. Note location, time of day, weather, special conditions. For example, if you have characters jumping over puddles in a scene, make sure the previous scene has rain, or some other reason for there to be puddles to jump.
Next line, left. POV character. There are a couple of reasons I note the POV character. I like to do one POV per scene. Keeping that character’s name in my head will help me recognise when I’ve slipped into another’s POV and have to edit it.
Entry. This is the hook that begins the scene. Every scene has to have a hook of some kind to keep the reader reading. The hook doesn’t have to be strong or dramatic like it does at the beginning of the book or even the beginning of a chapter, but it still has to be there. Note the action, not how it fits with the plot arc or character arc.
Content. One or two sentences on what happens in the scene. Keep it clear and succinct. You don’t have space for any description; leave that for your outline.
Exit. How does the scene end? What’s the crisis or anticipatory set that will keep the reader reading?
Notes. This is where you make notes on what’s glaringly obviously wrong with the scene. What needs to be fixed? Any ideas on how that might happen? Is this scene needed? Can it be condensed or combined with another scene? Would it work better in a different POV. Notes only – don’t start editing.
That’s all of step 1. Doing the scene map for Opal Tears took me two months. I didn’t work on it every day because my head was still saying the job was too big. By the time I reached the half-way point, I could see the beginnings of solutions for most scenes I’d mapped so I started getting excited about the rest of it. Mapping the second half happened very quickly – less than a fortnight – but I probably should have slept more during that time.
Next time we’ll look at Step 2: mapping the scene map to a structure.