Monday, August 8, 2011

The Art of Revising: Micro Revision

Micro revision is all about the scene. Is the scene—the building block of my novel—working? Is it carrying its weight? Has it earned its place in the story? This is also where I check for dropped plot threads or un-fleshed out characters.

However, you only do this once you've hammered out the story, otherwise the focus of the scene might shift.

The first thing to check is that you have indeed written in scenes and not in one long, every minute accounted for stretch from beginning to end. You only need to show the parts that impact the story. It is okay to have some stuff (the boring stuff) happen off the page and either recap it or relay it in a quick transition or conversation.



Every scene should move the plot forward in some way. However, moving the plot forward can be subtle. But there needs to be some reason for the scene to be there. Note: The reason it’s there can often be very, very hidden.

Ideally, each scene should perform a variety of functions. Shoot for three:
Move plot forward
develop characters
reveal backstory (in tiny bits and pieces)
foreshadow upcoming events,
raise dramatic questions the reader wants answer to

Does the scene have some source of conflict or dramatic tension? This doesn’t have to be head to head conflict. It can be in the form of a dramatic question that is raised. Or a ticking clock. Or things left unsaid, swirling about the room. Foreshadowing can also work.

Look for a way to add tension on every single page.

If you can’t heighten the tension, ask yourself if the character is fully reacting to the events around him. Is he fully engaged by the events of the story?

Do I start the scene as late as possible and still make sense? In first books especially there can be a lot of deadwood. Writers feel they must account for every minute of their hero’s time, not realizing they get to pick and choose the dramatic moments they show, and simply account for the rest in transitions.

Consider eliminating the character getting from one place to another unless it has a dramatic rather than logistical reason for being there. For example, in Beastologist, I had to find ways to imbue some of the travel with tension, because it was Nate’s first trip—an exciting milestone in his life and something he should experience “on screen,” yet not necessarily a huge thing in and of itself.

For weak scenes, try listing all the reasons the scene is there. If the list is mostly because the character needs to know something, can you find a way to incorporate that same information in another scene?

Are there any places you start to skim as you’re re-reading the mss? Better look at those closely.

Have you dropped any subplots or plot threads along the way? This is where my handy-dandy spreadsheets come in. (Which I will be talking about next week, as per Laurel’s request.) Sometimes when I juggle as many plot threads as I do it is easy to lose someone.

Check for smooth transitions. If you start a scene with a chunk of action that isn’t dramatic action, or a few days have gone by, you can easily fill that part in with an effective transition.


Does the scene address the internal character arc as well as the external action of the story?

Have you gone deep enough into the character’s POV? Are you really living, breathing, feeling things through his filters?

Do the varying POV characters thoughts and actions flow smoothly? Is there a sense of continuity from one scene of theirs to the next?

Have I lost anyone? Dropped any secondary characters or forgotten about them?

Building On Theme

By now you should have a good idea as to what your theme is. Do your scenes explore this theme? Do your scenes wrestle with both sides of the question you raised? If your theme is about gaining forgiveness, do some of your scenes show the promise of forgiveness while others show the threat of eternal penance or punishment? Perhaps you can pull a little of this into your weaker scenes.

Is there an opportunity to build subtext into the scenes in some way, create a layer of something unspoken between the characters, or even something the character is hiding from himself?

Look for physical items that might make good concrete objects.


Keep an eye out for backstory or info dump; they can slow down your story. Flashbacks, too, can bring a story to a screeching halt.

Have you established a sense of time and place that the scene is occurring in. Would a change of location make the scene more fraught with meaning?

Look at your descriptions; do they illuminate something about the character as well as what they’re describing? The best descriptions are so deep in the character’s viewpoint that they tell us a lot about their worldview or current emotional state.

Have you pulled the senses into the scene?

What is it you want the reader to know by the end of this scene? What questions do you want her to be asking?

Do you give the same information more than once? If so, be sure to add something each time, some new revelation, some new nuance, otherwise say it only once.

If the book builds on clues or research or revelations, do those happen in an ordered sequence that actually lead to the proper revelation? Often I will cut and paste all the “clue” scenes into a single document and be sure they actually build on each other and don’t leave anything important out.

If you’re using more than one POV character, this can also be a handy trick for being sure the character’s thought build on each other—cutting and pasting all their POV scenes and reading them all at once to check for logistical flow and consistency.

Are there any vestigial tails in your scenes? Bits and pieces left over from something you had originally then removed?

Check for continuity of time.


liz michalski said...

Thanks for this checklist, Robin. It's so thorough -- I now have a depressing amount of work to think about. : )

Hope your summer is going well!

Anonymous said...

Oooh another good one...although I'm not sure whether I'm currently micro or macro-ing. I had to cut out a character and do some re-writes for that (that felt macro) but now I've been adding a flashback and strengthening some plot threads. I would have thought of that as macro as well...hmmm.

So, if all this "is my scene doing enough" is micro revision, what do you call it when a writer goes through and addresses the language? (what is smaller than micro? Nano revision? ha!) You know, moving a phrase to the front of a sentence, making sure there's not too much duplication of sentence structure or wording...that sort of stuff.

Obviously what you call it doesn't matter--this is a great checklist and very very helpful to me where I am right now. Thanks!

R.L. LaFevers said...

Sorry if I depressed you, Liz! And my summer is going swimmingly, thank you for asking!

Melissa, I call that stage Polishing. That's where I check for word choice, eliminate echoes, delete any wordiness, etc.

So glad the checklist is helpful!

Adele Richards said...

I would never be so gauche as to ask how much you weigh....but you're worth whatever it is in gold! THANK YOU for another amazingly helpful post.

Any chance you could talk me through your top tips for transitions?

Thanks again.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I think this part is really fun, usually. But I definitely need to keep working on the discipline to cut the occasional scenes that just don't need to be there no matter how much I might really love them!

R.L. LaFevers said...

Ha ha ha, Adele! Good think you wouldn't ask because I will take that number to the grave with me! And yes, I'd happy to do a post on transitions! Great idea because those are HARD. It'll be a week or two because I have some houseguests right now, but I will put that in the queue.

Anne, that is one of the hardest things--eliminating those parts we love! I usually see if there's a way to 1) identify what the core thing about the scene is that I love, then 2) find a way to fold that core part into another scene. It sometimes works as a great way to make a scene that needs to be there even stronger...