Three Dirty Birds Talk About Scenes

WE’RE BACK!!!! At least until Christmas derails us. Then we lose Zoe-bird for a couple of weeks, but we’ll be back in the New Year to finish off James Scott Bell and squabble about what book we’ll read next.

Any suggestions? We’d like something a little more focused, something that will help us with our mushy middles.


Three Dirty Birds are talking about scenes, and more specifically, the chapter on scenes in James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, 2e.

Kate: This was a long chapter.

Ana: He made quite a scene of it. (I cannot resist a bad pun.)

Kate: Punny girl.

Zoe: This might have been the most useful quick run-down of scenes I’ve seen yet.

Kate: He has a nice way of explaining things, and a dry sense of humour that gets me every time. I liked how he broke down the ‘action scene’ vs the ‘reaction scene’.

Zoe: Me too. Much less dense/more streamlined than Dwight Swain’s scenes/sequels. Pretty easy to grasp. I think I’ll spend less time panicking over the whole issue now.

Ana: I wasn’t bored out of my mind while reading this section, which speaks for it.

Kate: No, there was lots of good stuff in it. Hard to talk about anything that really stood out, but it was a good solid chapter and easy to access.

Zoe: I liked the spice part—it was a good reminder that, while everything needs to serve the story, it doesn’t have to just serve the story. There can be stuff in there that breathes extra life in. (And now I want to see The Godfather again.)

Kate: Haha, me too! My sticky note on that page says, “Spice is hard. 🙁 “

Ana: I need to keep that in mind during the revision process. I might sometimes cut too much. (And I couldn’t get through The Godfather the first time.)

Zoe: At the moment I don’t feel like I’m doing any spice in my book. Everything’s on point about the story. (The movie? I’ve also read the book. When I was, like, ten. So it was gripping and fun. I tried rereading it later…)

Ana: The movie. I haven’t tried the book. But what you say sums up my experience with the LotR books.

Kate: I was never able to get into the LotR books. (I’ll show myself out of the fantasy genre now…)

Zoe: I loved The Hobbit when I was a kid, and Fellowship scared the crap out of me. When I was eleven. Now it all puts me to sleep.

Ana: Right? Sometimes I want to be a kid again. I could read anything.

Zoe: Yes! And be so affected by it! Even books I only half understood creeped me out like crazy.

Kate: I thought he made a good point about tension, because uncertainty, worry, and doubt are big tension-builders in romance. Okay, in any genre, but I find we use them a LOT in romance, even over little things.

Zoe: I liked that he included what tension and conflict in a scene could encompass, instead of just saying they needed to be there.

Kate: Yeah, that was a nice take on it. I wasn’t crazy about his scene patterns section, if only because I didn’t really have a problem with his first example, and the second one didn’t draw me in, which was the opposite of what he was trying for, I think.

Zoe:I think he’s getting down a level where you feel your way out in it more than…learn how to do it. But I suppose for some writers, it actually needs to be said that order can be rearranged.

Ana: It’s something that I read and nodded while reading, while at the same time I know I’m never going to think about it while writing.

Kate: I didn’t find the HIP section terribly useful, but that might be because I’ve moved past having to have that spelled out for me. Although the bit about the hook, and the prompt, did get me to make a note to look more closely at them when I do revisions.

Zoe: I thought it was definitely a good reminder for revisions. The stuff you don’t necessarily have on your mind when you’re getting that first draft down, but when you go back and look through and make sure your scenes open with hooks and end with prompts, you wind up with a story that pulls the reader through better.

Ana: It’s definitely something to look at. I remember to look at my scene endings, but scene openings, not so much.

Kate: I think scene endings come more naturally, because they’re the thing you really notice when you’re reading someone else’s work. It’s the thing that makes you go “One more chapter…”, so you pay more attention. Openers are more subtle, though the whole “first line of your novel” thing is pretty well-known and thus is more noticeable.

Zoe: The “intensity” part of HIP seemed like just a rehash of “scenes must have tension.” I thought the section on “moving around” was good—about how you don’t need to park two people in a room (or on a couch, or at a restaurant table) to have them talk. People talk on the go in real life. (Doing this, I think, might also cut down on the mundane beats of “She picked up her glass.” “He shifted in his chair.”)

Ana: My alpha reader once made me rewrite a scene I’d set in an office. She didn’t know this at the time, and neither did I, but I guess it comes back to the not-moving-around thing. It was boring. She said “not dramatic enough”

Kate: They used the ‘walk and talk’ to great effect in The West Wing. It added a lot of excitement and feeling of movement to the show, even if the dialogue wasn’t, in and of itself, high tension.

Zoe: Now you have me thinking of Sons of Anarchy (when am I not thinking about Sons of Anarchy this week?). I used to get so antsy during all the big “talk” scenes—and thinking back on them, they were really static. Jax and [fill in the blank] sitting, talking. (On and on and on.) It could have used some more on-the-go.

Kate: Kurt obviously didn’t watch any West Wing.

It was nice to see a book tackle flashbacks in a clear and concise manner. It tallied with all the research I did so I could pull off my one flashback ever written. 🙂

Zoe: I have a flashback in the one I’m working on now, broken into two parts. There wasn’t any way around it. And I agree—it was a good take on flashbacks in this chapter. The reality is that sometimes you can’t work around them, so it’s good to have some pointers on how to make them work.

Ana: I was a bit anxious reading this part because the novella I just finished… well, flashbacks are an important part of it as the characters deal with a lot of memories between them,so I was reading this section hoping he wouldn’t point out something vital that I forgot. (Because I’d already submitted the novella.) It looks like I’m good though. I hope.

Kate: I hate that rule of ‘don’t do flashbacks’, because sometimes the only way to get around a flashback is to write a scene with a whole pile of fill. Who wants to read that? Better to hone your skills in flashbacks and use them, than to add a lot of unnecessary stuff to the story.

Zoe: New rule: Don’t do flashbacks badly.

Ana: The ones I have in my story don’t run longer than a few lines each. And I don’t want to cut any of them. -sharpens nails-

Zoe:The one in mine is long, playing out as two scenes. I couldn’t cut it because it’s critical to the story, and I couldn’t play it out in real time because it happens two years prior—it would be the only scene from two years ago in the entire book, and I don’t think it would have the same impact, actually, presented as a regular scene.

Kate: If you wrote it in chronological, you’d have a prologue. Damned if you do…

Zoe: I think it would make a terrible prologue. You need to be curious about the character and his motivations and what happened to him, what he’s after, before you find out those answers.

Ana: I considered doing a prologue for my novella, but it would have been awfully clunky. I think I like the flashbacks better. Actually. I’m reading a book by Joe Hill now that has pretty long flashbacks. I think some of that could have been cut.

Zoe: (The long flashback in Horns bogged the story for me.) (But didn’t stop me from loving the book overall.)

Kate: Overall, I prefer flashbacks to prologues, and seeding the info through the story to either of them. But sometimes you just have to get the whole bit of information out in one go, or it loses its impact.

Zoe: Yes! In my WIP, I could just say the character feels responsible for his sister’s death, but that doesn’t impact the reader nearly as much as seeing it unfold and feeling helpless right alongside him.

I think this book should come with index cards with all the chapter key points. (Because I find them useful, but also: I’m lazy.)

Kate: You should have Knuckles take notes for you.

Zoe: He is lazier than I am. I haven’t been able to get him to get up out of his chair for a week.

About the author: Kate Lowell

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