Free the Scene!

Here’s a revision tip for you. I’m currently working on the second draft of my second novel, and it just came in handy (again).

When reading your early drafts, keep an eye out for the potentially interesting scene that happens off-stage. Maybe you were in a hurry when you wrote that part. Maybe you didn’t see the possibilities. Maybe you did, but they were a little bit unsettling and you didn’t want to go there — yet.

Open the door. Let the scene out. Give it room to breathe. See what happens.

These things are little gifts from the Muses, or your subconscious, or wherever you think your writing comes from. They’re the treasures you find at the bottom of a heap at the thrift shop, or in your own closet.

Here’s one of mine. In draft #1, Shannon, one of the novel’s two viewpoint characters, gets a phone call. It goes like this:

Meanwhile, Shannon had had a call from some busybody on the conservation commission, whose members apparently cruised around looking for unsightly objects that detracted from what they called “the character of the town.” The busybody objected to the snow fencing Shannon and Ben [Shannon’s next-door neighbor] had put up to reinforce the post-and-rail fence in the back yard. Shannon explained about Wolfie [the dog she’s just rescued], and how the post-and-rail alone wouldn’t keep Wolfie in for a minute. The busybody was not impressed: the fence did not conform to the town’s fence bylaw and that was that.

This phone call had the makings of a fun scene, and I was ready for a little comic relief. What if the busybody showed up in person? What if she caught Shannon in the act of installing the fence?

snow fence 1Consulting the town’s zoning bylaws — the scene takes place in the town I live in — I discovered that the snow fencing didn’t violate any bylaws, but this wouldn’t stop some of the busybodies I’ve run into in my time. I also decided that she wasn’t actually on the conservation commission. She had appointed herself guardian of the character of a neighborhood she didn’t even live in.

This is what the phone call turned into this morning. Note that I’m still in early-draft mode. I strongly suspect that the scene will appear in the novel’s final draft, but I don’t know what it will look like. Will this woman appear again? No idea. It’s up to the Muses.

[Shannon] was halfway done when a white Honda Pilot passed on the road, heading toward the intersection with the Edgartown Road. She didn’t recognize it. Not that she knew every vehicle that lived between here and Sepiessa, but her mind half-consciously sorted them into familiar and unfamiliar and this one she’d never seen before.

Even more unusual, two minutes later it passed by again in the opposite direction. Shortly after that it rolled to a halt on the grassy shoulder opposite her driveway. Looking for directions?

The driver got out of the car, looked both ways, and crossed the road. She carried a cane but walked briskly, barely tapping it on the pavement. Her mostly gray hair was done up in a french twist and her garb said “country gentry”: heavy wool cardigan with leather elbow patches, an ample wool skirt that hung just below the knee, and sturdy walking shoes, all in autumnal browns and russets. She did not look lost. She caught Shannon’s eye briefly then rapped the top rail of the roadside fence with her cane.

Taking this as a summons, Shannon wiggled the stake she had just driven into the ground to make sure it was steady, laid mallet and zip ties on the ground, and walked up to greet the visitor.

The visitor wasted no time on introductions. “Do you have a permit for that fence?” she asked, in a clipped accent that sounded somewhat English but wasn’t.

Loaded for bear, thought Shannon, but with no bears in sight. “That fence has been there for over fifteen years,” she said pleasantly. “I don’t believe I need a permit.”

“That orange fence” — the woman pronounced the word with obvious distaste — “has not been there for fifteen years. You are just now putting it up.”

Caught red-handed, Shannon thought. “I don’t believe I need a permit for that either,” she said. “It’s temporary. I’m fostering a dog for a few days, and I don’t want him getting loose.” She resisted the temptation to tell the woman why she didn’t want Wolfie getting loose. Maybe the woman did know someone on the road. Maybe she kept chickens.

“It is unsightly,” said the woman. “It is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.” She rapped the railing with the head of her cane for emphasis.

snow fence 2

In Shannon’s fourth grade Sister Mary Clement had habitually rapped her eighteen-inch ruler on the desktop while fixing the latest class miscreant with a glare that promised trouble. Shannon hadn’t thought of her in twenty years. Her visitor wasn’t a nun but she was cast from the same mold.

Shannon conceded that the blaze-orange snow fencing was not especially attractive but noted that it was only visible from the road if you slowed down to about five miles an hour and stared out the passenger-side window. She did not ask the woman if she’d ever been down this road before, and if not, how she knew so much about the character of the neighborhood. The character of this neighborhood was more disturbed by big gray dogs running loose than by blaze-orange snow fencing in someone’s back yard.

“The town bylaws are quite clear what sorts of fence are allowed,” the woman said, “and this is not one of them.”

Shannon had no idea what the town bylaws said about fences, but Ben had once served on the zoning board. If he thought snow fencing might be a problem, he wouldn’t have suggested it. Besides, it was past the middle of October. No one who came down this road at this time of year would be bothered by snow fencing. Those with more delicate sensibilities had mostly gone home. “I’ll see what I can do,” said Shannon, turning back toward her interrupted labor.

“I intend to communicate this to the conservation commission,” the woman called after her.

“You do that,” Shannon muttered, not quite audibly. She heard the staccato whack whack whack of the woman’s cane on the asphalt. The car door opened and slammed shut. A moment later the engine rumbled. Shannon zip-tied the snow fencing to the new post and set about pounding the next one into the ground.


2 thoughts on “Free the Scene!

  1. What an engaging, lively excerpt! And I just concluded a scene in my wip, where the action is related to the pov character on the phone. I wondered as I wrote it if I should show the scene in real time instead. But, in this case, (in this first draft), I decided it was a little too similar to a preceding scene and was best dealt with summarily rather than in detail. Otherwise, it might feel repetitious. But your advice is good and one I need to keep in mind, as I too often skip by scenes that might be better more fully rendered.


    • Thanks! Oh yeah, I get it. I abridge some scenes, stuff some back in the closet, and deep-six some altogether, especially when I type my handwritten first draft into the computer so I can actually read it. This one, though, I knew needed room to grow. It does its bit to move the plot along and show character, it cracks me up — and last but not at all least it’s a free-standing scene that’s short enough to read in a group reading. I have a hard time finding scenes that I can read effectively in 10 or 12 minutes. This one will do quite nicely.


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