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You can change a scene without overhauling it

April 21, 2014

Back in the 80s, when I was still in diapers (ha!), the people who ran Magnum, PI had a problem. They were expecting the show’s seventh season to be its last. And so, in the last episode of the year, Magnum got shot and was last seen wandering off to heaven.

And then the show got renewed for an eighth season. That’s a problem when the star and lead character seemingly died. At the time, Dallas was still infamous for the season where Bobby Ewing had died, only to have him wind up in the shower because the entire season was a dream.

Surprise! You just wasted a year of TV watching.

So the mantra in dealing with Magnum’s required resurrection was No showers.

How would you deal with this issue, knowing that the episode had been shot and the die had been cast?

The show runners added one scene to the season finale–of a silhouetted man in a doorway.


The way the story went, the man in the doorway was a threat to Magnum’s wife Michelle–a big enough threat that he came back from the dead to take care of him. Sure, it sounds hokey, but it was better than a shower scene and it got us all 12 more episodes.

The point is, the writers had to deal with a major shift and do it in a way that didn’t disrupt everything.

Flash forward to your work–to that one piece you had nailed down. Until, of course, that one piece of criticism that turns your whole piece on its head.

You can’t fix it without making major changes.

Or can you?

As much as I liked Magnum, PI, it’s not high art. There are way fewer moving pieces there than in a novel or even a complex short story. And it’s possible that you have to do major renovations to get your work up to code. But it’s also possible that you can add some shadowing here and there that will result in the changes you need.

Case in point–there were some problems with my entry to the FWA Collection that my writing partner found. Overall, the piece was good, but the changes were significant. Maybe you just can’t do everything I wanted in 1200 words. So I did the following things:

  1. Nothing. I read over my story and thought about her comments. And didn’t do a thing for a week or so. I let the idea simmer.
  2. Read it over again. It turned out, she was right and I needed to make the changes. But I also had some ideas in mind.  So I tweaked this and that and found I needed to cut about 200 words, which I did. (It turns out my story wasn’t quite as tight as I thought.)
  3. Nothing. I let it sit for a while.
  4. Read it over again. It turned out, I didn’t get everything the first time around, so I made some more changes.
  5. Sent it back. This time, it worked.

The point is, you can shade a character a little differently and make it carry a lot of weight. In my current work in progress, my second protagonist is a woman in media. She’s not young, but she’s still hot–mostly because she works her ass of at it. And she carries that burden with increasing disdain as she ages.

What hadn’t fully occurred to me was the type of vile hate mail an attractive woman in a public position would get if she said something controversial. So I made a few changes–not structural, but hopefully they pack the emotional bite I want–and I hope they did the trick.

You might have to tear down and start over. But you might not.

  1. L. Dean Murphy permalink
    April 21, 2014 8:31 am

    Wasted a year watching TV because of the Dallas shower scene? Though that shower scene fiasco was scarier than Janet Leigh’s in Psycho, those who watched the next season also wasted a year watching TV—as they will this year, without Dallas. The lesson learned? If you’ve written yourself into a corner, remodel the house to add doors in each corner.

  2. Alicia permalink
    April 21, 2014 9:43 am

    One day someone on the blog will reference a book, instead of a TV show. It is a shame that some writers aren’t reading or aren’t reading much anymore. I have to say, their lack of reading shows in much of the self-published stuff available on Amazon. If you’re a writer and literary references don’t come to mind easily, then you’re not reading enough.

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      April 21, 2014 9:39 pm

      I appreciate where you’re coming from, but a lot of what I read has a more limited audience. I read a lot of series mystery and books written by published friends. If you read the book, you have an idea what I’m talking about. If you didn’t…not so much. In the last two references I made, specific instances of specific shows brought out points I’ve stumbled across in my own writing. It was a specific point about making a minor change in a story with big effect. If I were aware of an equally accessible way to make the same point with a book, I would have done it.

      I’m not the only blogger to use video-based content as a jumping off point for discussions about craft and techniques. In many cases, the content, a simple clip from YouTube, can be more accessible and more quickly digested than paragraphs of prose.

      With all respect, I’ve also used song lyrics, too.

      • Alicia permalink
        April 22, 2014 9:39 am

        “I’m not the only blogger to use video-based content as a jumping off point for discussions about craft and techniques. In many cases, the content, a simple clip from YouTube, can be more accessible and more quickly digested than paragraphs of prose.”

        That’s exactly the problem! People who can’t digest or access prose! Yikes.

        (And sorry, but the “everyone is doing it” is lame.) One doesn’t need “paragraphs of prose” to make a literary reference. And anyone who has a problem digesting “paragraphs of prose” isn’t reading widely enough and shouldn’t be writing either. Stephen King says if you don’t have time for reading, you don’t have time for writing. I say: garbage in, garbage out.

        Personally, I am going to focus my writer-advice reading on those bloggers who can actually reference books. Good books.

    • Cynthia permalink
      April 22, 2014 7:25 am

      My thoughts exactly, Alicia. The excuse is always the same as excuses given for not correcting grammatical errors—no one knows the rules anymore, so why bother? Perhaps, however, editing for proper grammar and literary references might elevate standards and encourage better reading as well as writing. Acquiesence to mediocrity and ignorance breeds more of the same.

      • Alicia permalink
        April 22, 2014 10:18 am

        Yes, Cynthia. It seems like everyone is writing and publishing a book these days. While I can celebrate the democratization of publishing without gatekeepers, it does mean that there is a lot of mediocre (to be kind) stuff published. And we’ve got a bunch of mediocre writers supporting each other’s mediocre standards. These are often people who look at writing as a business rather than an art and their output is to literature what paint by numbers is to art. I find this degeneration of writing and publishing very sad.

      • Cynthia permalink
        April 22, 2014 11:04 am

        I find it frightening. Your comment to Chris today re: digesting pages of prose was so good. Makes reading sound like a chore, an insufferable burden. All we need is video clips, sound bites, everything quick and easy. Why write to communicate at all? We can just use pictures and film and let our minds atrophy to the point, which perhaps the majority have reached already, that we are on a level with our pets who simply watch movement and color for mindless entertainment. From there, we degenerate to using sign language, and finally, grunting and pointing, coming back full circle to the good old days before man invented an alphabet. The centuries of evolving a language as rich, intricate and majestic as English were apparently for naught. The only adjectives left are “awesome” and “great.”

        Digesting pages of prose? I used to salivate at the sight of pages of literary prose. I gulped it down. But these days, I am starving to death.

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