Editing With Scene Cards: Cutting Through Noise Right and Left

Editing sucks.

Wandering through the internet, you’ll hear most every author ever admit this before flowing into a huge diatribe about why it’s still the most important part of creating a novel, how it polishes the rough diamond of your work, etc, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t disagree with them­. On the contrary, I think they’re absolutely right.

We might be operating with some optimism, though.

I just don’t intend to spend six paragraphs trying to say “no seriously, you need to edit” to an audience that has probably grasped the concept by now.

Editing still sucks for those who have accepted its reality, but if you stick to the scene card method, it doesn’t have to be unbearable.

Keeping The Work To A Minimum

The first pass I made through my novel was a gentle edit as I read through my work and did a spell­-check/phrasing assessment. It took a week and was the least helpful thing I’ve done with my manuscript to date.

For the second pass, I used the shrunken manuscript technique. Determined to check my work for maximum conflict potential, sagging middles, and story development I printed out my massive novel and took highlighter to it to trace conflict patterns. This also took forever (1 month+) and while valuable, wasn’t that helpful at helping me trim my 450k+ word behemoth.


By this point, I was sick of my characters. I had a hard time not crossing out the second half of my book and scribbling, “And then everyone died in an unexpected nuclear holocaust. The End.”

That’s when I stumbled on scene cards.

These are far more effective for even the most rambling of narratives. It only took me about three weeks to prep in total, but once done, it took less than three days to spot what needed to be fixed.

So. Awesome.

But How Do We Do Such An Amazing Thing?

Glad you asked, internet stranger. Most author sites that I’ve found seem to really push this method for planning your rough draft which is fair since I used the same method and found it to be just generally helpful. Only a handful ever seem to mention this technique for revision though, which is a crying shame.

Now, while there are a few authors that use this method, which you can check out here and here, there are some limitations I’ve found with the current versions that go unaddressed.

Sit tight. I’ll break it down.

First and Foremost: Gather Your Weaponry

The first thing you’ll need is slideshow software. I prefer Google Slides, but PowerPoint or the Open Office equivalent will also work fine.

Now format it so that you have your title bar and two text boxes, like this:

And seriously, that’s all you need, beyond your completed manuscript. That, and maybe a few days or weeks of patience.

Structure Yourself Wisely

Your title bar should be the fastest part of your slide. All it needs to contain is a scene number, a timeline reference (i.e. Day 1, Thursday, March 22nd, etc), a title specific enough that you know it at a glance, and some sort of POV designation; your character’s initials will do.

Here’s my super fast example:

After that, you need to quickly skim the scene in question and fill in the first line of the box with the characters involved. Bear in mind you’ll want to keep an eye on your font size. Anything smaller than twelve point tends to be a pain once you print it out.

Once you’ve established the characters present in the scene, write the conflicts in play. Don’t try and attribute later drama to a current scene: the purpose is to make sure this scene can hold its own water. Take a look at my example:

So far, so good. Leave a nice big blank space at the bottom of this text box before you hop over to the next one. Don’t worry, we’ll be back.  Reformat your font to about 14 pt and throw up a numbered/bullet point list for yourself.

Now create a brief list of the events that occur in the scene without going into too much detail. It’s important to keep it so bare bones because this is one of the least important areas and will only serve as a fast reference. Don’t include jokes, funny parts, a really great description, that song you wrote for this scene, etc. None of that. Recount only what happened in such a way that you require the minimum amount of context to understand. For example, Adam got shot. Not, Adam got shot and as he fell to the ground he thought about his love for his­­–

Try to write like as though you’re five years old, lack imagination, and are enthusiastically telling someone about what you just read: and this happened, then this happened, then this happened….

See? Easy enough, it just took a little time.

Now run back to the other half of our slide for the money shot. Go ahead and reformat the space underneath the characters and conflict pairings to about 14­–18 pt font and throw some bullet points at this puppy.

Now’s the toughest part of the whole process, but also the most valuable: ­­ list, in the most concise way possible, what the scene has accomplished in terms of the story as a whole.

That’s it.

Often, this is the hardest part. My first spot of trouble was separating events from what the scene accomplished: often, the two were related enough to make me fuzzy. To be clearer, Adam getting shot is an event­­–it doesn’t belong in the accomplishments category unless his wound is critical to the story as a whole and not just the next few scenes.

Some good questions to ask yourself:

  • Did we introduce a new character?
  • Did we foreshadow a later event?
  • Is this scene the climax or the finale? Is it absolutely needed to get there?
  • Did we establish something that needs to be understood by the audience in order to understand something later?

And that’s the entire process.

Now Grind It Out

My suggestion is that while you can try small goals (complete five scenes a day), another method is to make it your goal to sit down a few times every day or so and crank out at two or three scene cards per sitting. This keeps it from dominating your day, while still opening your expectations up for days in which you can crank out ten or fifteen.

Depending on the length of your novel, this can be a doozy, but trust me when I tell you that you just need to persevere.

And Finally, The Payoff

Once you print this bad boy out, you’ll see it. All laid out in neat little rows, if you can be honest with yourself and kill your darlings, are the scenes dragging you down.

It’s like getting to breathe for the first time in a week.

What you’re looking for is in the accomplishments section: how many points are there and how valuable are they? With each and every bullet point, ask yourself, is this really important? Can I sneak that value (i.e. we now distrust character A instead of B) into a nearby scene without too many story problems?

My general rule is that unless this scene is necessary for story purposes (i.e. resolution scene, the climax, etc.), it should not have less than three bullet points. If it has less,­­ reassign them to a nearby scene before you drop the scene like it’s unemployed, sleeping on your couch, and won’t even consider night-school.

It can be hard to make a final call on certain scenes. If you’re struggling, you can consult with this handy little chart I whipped up.

If for some reason you just can’t delete a scene (POV issues, story pacing, relevancy, whatever) then you need to do some major work on that scene. As the attending surgeon, I assure you that you have three options.

Scene Surgery:

  1. The Graft: Smash another scene’s movable value into it and try to delete that one instead.
  2. The Face Lift: Infuse importance by adding new things to it to give it more story value and relevance to the larger plot. Be careful, this strategy is easy to abuse in order to save things that have no value but were validating to write.
  3. The Nip and Tuck: If it can’t add enough value to carry the story, don’t devote 2,000 words to it. Give it something reasonable like 500 words or less.

Once you’ve taken your scalpel to every scene, put it down and get a Diet Coke or whatever. Either pass it off someone else to judge or give yourself some time away from it to gain some perspective. Generally, I find that time away is more helpful because I forget what I was so attached to in the first place.

For the final time, go over it with a steely gaze and make sure every scene is carrying it’s own weight.

Then go eat another sandwich, this time with bacon. You’ve earned it.

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