“Use three senses to make a scene come alive”

Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert

One bit of writing lore I’ve heard many times, and always attributed to Gustave Flaubert:

“Use three senses to make a scene come alive.”

I’ve written before on my skepticism of writing lore. It often follows a pattern: Some nugget of keen insight for writers to follow closely, attributed to a big-name writer to burnish the saying with a little authority. Certainly this pattern is being followed with the “three senses” quote.

In this case, though, my skepticism is firmly tucked away. This is one bit of writing advice that’s well worth following (and not because Flaubert supposedly said it).

“She had learned from Flaubert”

Let’s start with that “supposedly” qualifier. I’ve been unable to locate a direct quote of Flaubert making the three-senses pronouncement in any variation. All roads in my search lead to an essay by Flannery O’Connor titled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”:

A lady who writes, and whom I admire very much, wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.

Already the lore around the three-senses maxim is being chipped away. It’s not make a scene come alive, it’s make an object real. The three senses are described here as “three activated sensuous strokes,” an odd phrasing. It could be construed as indicating the object’s three sensory details do not have to originate from different senses. (For example, an old beat-up table might be described with three different sights: the paint color, the length of its legs, and the shape of its surface.) And notice how the unnamed writer “believes” the three sensuous strokes are connected to the five senses—in other words, she is reading into Flaubert’s maxim rather than paraphrasing it.

If he uttered the maxim, of course. A Google search for Flaubert and the original “three sensuous strokes” phrase always leads back to this passage by O’Connor. As mentioned, searching for Flaubert and other variations of the quote, including the most famous version above, don’t pan out either.

What’s more, O’Connor’s unnamed writer friend “learned from Flaubert” this bit of wisdom. There’s some ambiguity here. It could be read as saying the writer had discovered this technique by studying Flaubert’s work, rather than receiving it directly from him via an interview or essay.

And that’s probably what happened here. The unnamed writer is most likely Caroline Gordon, a Southern novelist and critic who tutored Flannery O’Connor. Gordon’s How to Read a Novel returns repeatedly to Flaubert and his techniques for making a novel come alive, which she calls “Flaubertian three-dimensionalism”:

Flaubert never told you what a flower, for instance, was like. Instead, he tried to give you the illusion, by the use of sensory details, that you could not only look at the flower he was presenting for your admiration but could smell it and feel the texture of its petals.

Caroline Gordon

She continues with effusive admiration for Flaubert’s techniques, particularly his use of narrative distancing: One passage away from his characters to observe their situation, then moving in close for intimate details, and then moving into their interior to plumb feelings and thoughts. Gordon plainly admired Flaubert’s writing. It makes sense she would have passed on the “three sensuous strokes” observation to O’Connor.

In other words, the advice “Use three senses to make a scene come alive” may not have sprung from Flaubert or O’Connor, but Caroline Gordon. What’s more, she was discussing objects and not scenes, although I think the generalization is forgivable.

As much as I believe in the three-senses maxim, this is why writing lore—and lore in general—deserves questioning.

Why it works

Provenance aside, I’ve taken the accepted maxim to heart in my own writing. Unlike other writing lore I’ve come to question, the three-senses maxim has served me well, both in making scenes come alive, and in making objects seem real.

I first heard it over twenty years ago—attributed to Flaubert, naturally—during a writers conference at Foothill College. Those years have given me time to take advantage of this advice and ponder why it works so well. Why three? Why not two, or four, or all five senses?

If a story limits itself to two senses, it will likely focus on sight (the most dominant of the human senses) and sound (because sound—dialogue—is our primary means of communication).

A novel of nothing but sight and sound may be compelling in subject matter, but readers will feel locked out of the book’s world. (“You almost aren’t present.”) Scenes will play out as heads talking to each other. Objects will be nothing but photographs displayed from afar for the reader to observe. A very short story may be able to sustain this, but it takes a special kind of novel to keep this up.

By employing three senses, the dream-vision of the story becomes less boxed-in and more nonlinear (“Flaubertian three-dimensionalism”). The other senses—taste, smell, and touch—have less communicative power, but are evocative to the reader. They’re not as cerebral and more bodily.

Naming a paper bag of popcorn identifies the object. Allowing the reader to smell the yeasty aroma, or taste the melted butter, or feel the heat of the kernels through the paper like small coals: These details inflate a flat object into a tangible thing. Imagine the possibilities of foiling expectations with sensory details: The popcorn smells of cigarettes, for example, or tastes soapy for some reason.

Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O’Connor

This is why I think the three-senses rule works: It almost always forces the writer to break away from sight and sound, which dominate the story’s telling, and activate the other senses. The story evokes an experience rather than catalogs a series of events.

While I don’t think four or five senses in a scene is necessarily too much, doing so consistently will over-inflate the story with picayune details. I’ve tried it on occasion, only to cut much of it later as excess fat weighing down the scene. Three senses seems to be the sweet spot.

Flannery O’Connor saw all these problems when she wrote “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”. After mentioning Gordon’s lesson on Flaubert, she cautions,

Now of course this is something that some people learn only to abuse. This is one reason that strict naturalism is a dead end in fiction. In a strictly naturalistic work the detail is there because it is natural to life, not because it is natural to the work. In a work of art we can be extremely literal, without being in the least naturalistic. Art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement. [Emphasis mine]

Keeping the number to three helps limit the writer to selecting only the most essential details, rather than flooding the reader with a surplus to create a sensory shotgun effect. It’s “the essential that creates movement.”

And, yes, there are exceptions to all of the above I’ve discussed. Fiction writers who seek hard rules to follow militarily will soon discover surprises and disappointments. Familiarity with proven techniques, and knowing when to deviate from them, is what separates art from assembly-line manufacturing.

O’Connor’s caution also reminds that the purpose of sensory detail is to invite the reader into the story rather than have them observe it. Sensory details are not the story itself. They are subordinate to the characters, their motivations, and their decisions. Use three senses to make the characters’ world come alive, but only alive enough.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

Previously: What Makes Sammy Run?

Here’s where I cheat a little on my rules for determining the greatest Hollywood novel of all time. Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is marginally a Hollywood novel, in that almost every central character came to Los Angeles to enter the film industry. All are unsuccessful at it—or, more accurately, they’re still waiting for success to saunter their way. Desperate and in the throes of the Great Depression, they turn to dance marathons as a way to make money until the next studio cattle call.

The novel’s narrator is Robert Syverten, a young man who has come to Hollywood to become a director. Down and out, he meets Gloria Beatty after both have failed to pick up work as film extras. Gloria tells him, “If I’m not a better actress than most of those dames I’ll eat your hat—Let’s go sit and hate a bunch of people…” Robert remarks:

Unless you are registered by Central Castings Bureau you didn’t have much of a chance. The big studios call up Central and say they want four Swedes or six Greeks or two Bohemian peasant types or six Grand Duchesses and Central takes care of it. I could see why Gloria didn’t get registered by Central. She was too blonde and too small and looked too old.

Robert and Gloria are from the middle of the country, and the reader immediately senses they have no chance of making it in Hollywood. They are more in line with Nathanael West’s people who came to California to die than the in-crowd Sammy Glick and Al Manheim run around with in What Makes Sammy Run?

The pair (it’s not really true they are a “couple”) agree to enter a dance marathon. “Free food and free bed as long as you last and a thousand dollars if you win,” Gloria explains. “A lot of producers and directors go to those marathon dances. There’s always the chance they might pick you out and give you a part in a picture.”

Dance marathon contestants, April 20, 1923.

The dance marathon organizers run the contestants ragged twenty-four hours for weeks—weeks—on end. The contestants must keep moving day and night and are only allowed ten-minute breaks every two hours. They learn to eat while shaving, eat while using the toilet, and reading the newspaper while slow-dancing. Good dancers get local sponsors who supply them with free clothes, extra food, even new dance shoes. Entrants fall out of the contest due to sheer exhaustion, collapsing on the dance floor and carried off like an anonymous corpse. Some contestants are professionals who travel the country to enter dance marathons. Most are unemployed, down-on-their-luck young people who enter for the food, the cot, the music, and the company.

The novel’s grueling depiction of the entrants’ taxing tortures while fox-trotting and jitterbugging throughout an upbeat dance marathon is a model of Hollywood-in-miniature: The artifice of the organizer’s demanding smiles, coiffed hair, and freshened make-up for the audience while the entrants suffer from exhaustion and dehydration, underpaid and underfed. Even the gabby, overly-familiar emcee who attempts to bring sparkle to the competition’s grueling realities is familiar to any viewer of game shows. To drive up interest, the organizers stage a dance wedding for the audience, although the competing couple have no matrimonial intentions—echoes of today’s reality TV, which is not as real as we’re led to believe.

The novel is spare and earthy, and the language is sparse and brisk. McCoy was often compared to James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), a comparison McCoy detested. The book is interrupted throughout by the disembodied voice of a judge rendering sentencing, an effective way to open a novel (if somewhat Hollywoodish), but a device that grows into a gimmick as the novel proceeds. Fortunately these flashes are only brief reminders, like a voice from the sky, rather than dwelled upon.

The novel’s conclusion comes crashing down in a matter of a few pages. I’m not sure I buy the narrator’s final decision, but Robert’s and Gloria’s bleak despair is palpable. Gloria’s nihilism is so pure and unyielding, it’s a miracle McCoy can maintain our interest in her for the length of the book. Robert’s naivete is almost as strong, sometimes veering into hayseed territory. Economics, greed, and detachment have left these young people clinging to a life raft leaking air, and they barely realize they’re sinking.

As mentioned, Hollywood’s presence in They Shoot Horses is slim, more like a faint church bell chime in the distance reminding the reader of the glamour and wealth not far from the seaside dance hall the marathon takes place in. McCoy’s classic is a Hollywood novel because of Tinseltown’s absence, not presence, in the story—a character everyone is talking about but is never seen by the reader.

Next: The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler

What Makes Sammy Run? – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg

Previously: The Day of the Locust

Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? may not be as fatalistic or absurd as The Day of the Locust, but it’s ten times as incendiary in its depiction of the movie industry—or, perhaps, of the types of personalities it attracts.

The book is an all-American rags-to-riches Hollywood novel, with its Horatio Alger character climbing the Tinseltown ladder one backstab at a time. Like Yossarian and Holden Caulfield, the titular Sammy Glick’s name became synonymous with a particular American phenotype. In 1940s lingo, Glick was a rat, a world-class heel—today, we would call him an asshole. Sammy is relentless—he’s always sniffing out the inside track, and he will steamroll over anyone in his way up. Insults bounce of him like bullets off Superman’s chest. Sammy sets the pace. Sammy takes care of Number One. Sammy runs, and with each rung of the ladder he ascends, his footwear improves.

The novel is narrated by Al Manheim, a New York drama critic who moves to Hollywood to make a go at writing scripts for the silver screen. Manheim is an all-American personality himself. A hard drinker who can crack wise with the best of them, Mainheim thinks he’s smarter than the average bear, and from the outset he’s convinced only he sees through Sammy’s brown-nosing and incessant self-promotion. For every Sammy in America, there’s ten Manheims.

World-weariness and disenchantment aside, Manheim is subliminally servile to Sammy Glick, a youngster who demonstrates unending hustle and self-motivation. Manheim detests Sammy’s very presence, yet goes out of his way to attend his birthday party at The Algonquin—only for Sammy to use Manheim as a stepping stone to ingratiate himself with a big-shot playwright. Manheim seeks out Sammy as soon as he’s arrived in Los Angeles, and accepts all the spec work Sammy throws his way. (One has the sense Manheim unconsciously trailed Sammy to Hollywood.) Again and again, Manheim winds up in Sammy’s company or debt, and Manheim can always gin up excuses for how it came to be.

Budd Schulberg
Budd Schulberg

A narrator less invested in Sammy would not sustain a novel’s length without some stock contrivance, such as a biographer or journalist dispatched to recount Sammy’s rise in Hollywood. A narrator more invested in Sammy would be too toady to sustain a reader’s interest. (Besides, Sammy would toss aside a sycophant as soon as his utility was exhausted.) In Manheim—an overlooked talent and depressed alcoholic—Schulberg crafted a character who sees through Sammy yet is drawn to him as a polestar. What Makes Sammy Run? is sometimes derided as a lesser, Hollywoodized Gatsby, but I view them as different beasts. Manheim is an omnipresent and active narrator, nowhere near as invisible or ineffectual as Nick Carraway. What Makes Sammy Run? also doesn’t carry Gatsby‘s odor of tragedy about it. There’s a shrug of the shoulders when it comes to Sammy Glick, a sense Schulberg is saying, This is the way the world works, folks.

In Sammy Glick, Schulberg introduced a character never before seen in American literature, and yet within a few paragraphs of Sammy’s introduction he’s instantly recognizable to any reader then or now. Literature referred to as “psychologically realistic” is often considered quiet and thoughtful. What Makes Sammy Run? is boisterous, breezy, and infuriating, yet the psychology of Sammy Glick seems as vivid and credible as any “serious” character. Sammy Glick is one of the the most arresting depictions I’ve ever encountered. That spark of recognition is part of what makes him so realistic.

The realism doesn’t come from a thorough plumbing of Sammy’s interior psyche. It’s the exact opposite: Manheim is left guessing what makes Sammy tick. Part of the novel’s depth is toying with the reader’s humanist quality of feeling there must be something more to Sammy. Schulberg suggests: Maybe there’s not. There is some teasing out of Sammy’s background to humanize him, but the details don’t add up to the final result the way that two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen combine to produce water.

Sammy is an exploitative social chameleon, but it’s just as revealing what others think they’re getting from him in return. In a less materialistic, less image-oriented culture, Sammy would be treading water at best. He ascends the Hollywood ladder because those around him keep offering him a boost. Like all great Hollywood novels, the industry is a stand-in for America’s “success-driven culture,” as Schulberg put it.

Published in 1941, in an age of hard-boiled writers whose bread-and-butter were loners like Manheim, in a time when authors like Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos were recording the failures of America for posterity, they all managed to overlook the ladder-climbers, the ass-kissers, the backstabbers—Schulberg got Sammy Glick down on paper first, and that alone is remarkable.

Schulberg noted Sammy represented “a way of life that was paying dividends in the first half of the twentieth century. … It will survive as long as money and prestige and power are ends in themselves, running wild, unharnessed from usefulness.” By every metric I can locate, this way of life is still paying dividends in the first half of the twenty-first century.

A common saw in storytelling is that comedies end with a wedding and tragedies end with a funeral. Without spoiling the book, What Makes Sammy Run? is a comedy. The ending won’t make you laugh, though.

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Movie poster for the Schulberg-penned On The Waterfront. In the film, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) testifies against mob influence over the dockworkers union. The episode is often compared to Schulberg’s congressional testimony against the Hollywood Ten and others.

What Makes Sammy Run? has been criticized as anti-Semitic and anti-industry. I can’t speak to the former, but as to the latter, it seems self-evident Schulberg wasn’t interested in buffing up Tinseltown’s less-than-stellar reputation. Unlike every other book on my list of greatest Hollywood novels ever, What Makes Sammy Run? has never been adapted to a motion picture. Before his death in 2009, Schulberg quoted Steven Spielberg as telling him the book was “anti-Hollywood and should never be filmed.”

Schulberg’s father was a movie mogul himself, a Paramount Pictures executive and the second half of a now-forgotten studio he founded with Louis B. Mayer. He once boasted to Mayer his son was “the only novelist who ever came from Hollywood.” Yet he moaned the book’s publication slammed the door on his son’s nascent Hollywood career.

Not exactly—Schulberg wrote several screenplays of note, including On The Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. Schulberg was a Communist Party stalwart until the party pressured him to make What Makes Sammy Run? more proletarian. His friendly, name-naming testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities did not endear him in certain Hollywood circles. (The Los Angeles Times has one version of the story; the Fourth International sees things a bit differently.)

Born a Tinseltown blue blood, a child who grew up with movie stars at his birthday parties and running around studio backlots while movies like Ben Hur were being filmed, Schulberg has an intricate and complicated history with Hollywood. Reading his obituary, he seems to have met (or tangled with) just about every big name in Hollywood’s Golden Age. If no one will film What Makes Sammy Run?, perhaps someone can produce a biopic of Schulberg’s remarkable, if controversial, life.

Next: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

The Day of the Locust – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Previously: Introduction

When I ask other writers to name the greatest Hollywood novel of all time, the more well-informed usually reply The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West.

The Day of the Locust‘s reputation as greatest of all time is earned. The opening chapter may be the finest three pages ever written on the contradictions of Southern California. With disgust (and a little glee) West holds up for display Hollywood’s winners as well as the legions of desperate outsiders shut out of Hollywood’s dream factory—those “who came to California to die.” There is plenty of foreshadowing of the novel’s conclusion, yet when the finale arrives it still surprises and shocks without coming off as a twist ending. In between the first and last chapters is not so much a novel about Hollywood, but a novel about those standing on their tiptoes looking over the fence to steal a peek of Hollywood.

West was a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles, and his alien status is confirmed on every page. Los Angeles architecture is almost always described in quotes. A house is “Spanish” or “New England” or “Moorish.” Hollywood debauchery is not so much of the Playboy Mansion variety, or even Roman bacchanalia, it’s just cheap and pathetic. The airing of a French farce in a Sunset Boulevard cathouse may be the least erotic description of porn on record. Simulacrums of decadence are mistaken for actual decadence, such as a horse hooves-up at the bottom of a swimming pool. (No fear, it’s a rubber prop.) California’s artifice, inauthenticity, and halfhearted stabs at opulence are the brick-and-mortar of Locust‘s plot. The first chapter ends noting “Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous,” which may as well be the novel’s thesis statement.

Scene after scene, West lays down an unsparing case damning Hollywood’s emptiness the way a district attorney builds a point-by-point case for the death penalty—but where is the Lot character who escapes the city’s inevitable downfall? West’s ship of fools are uniformly impotent and ineffective. As with West’s other gem, Miss Lonelyhearts, there is little to root for here.

Nathanael West
Nathanael West

W. H. Auden identified “West’s Disease” as “a disease of consciousness which renders it incapable of converting wishes into desires.” In Auden’s formulation, wishes are whimsical and ethereal (“I wish I was a movie star”). Actual desire motivates the individual into action: “I’m going to enroll in acting classes and practice three hours a day.”

Hollywood’s success as a dream factory is predicated on knowing our wishes and actualizing them on the silver screen. That’s why Hollywood appears a tantalizing cure for West’s Disease. Its siren song drew the characters to California from the humdrum Midwest and the frosty East Coast. Even if West’s misfits could muster up the energy and exert the effort to make it big, Hollywood’s antibodies would swarm to keep these ineffectuals a far distance from the beautiful, powerful, and well-connected. Besides, Hollywood only creates desires, it never actually fulfills them. There’s more than a few reasons West’s original title was The Cheated.

The Day of the Locust movie poster
The Day of the Locust‘s Hollywood adaptation’s garish movie poster

This inability to generate true desire makes the characters of Locust torpid and submissive. It’s why the book’s finale is so shocking: The characters finally shake off their doldrums, convert whimsical wishes to primal desires—and they act on them. The energy of the final chapter is all the more pronounced when compared to the impotence of the preceding chapters.

(The movie adaptation of Locust has been called a horror film in disguise. West’s grotesque, helpless characters, each a mere audience to their slide into destruction, and their suppressed violence released orgasmically in the finale, lines up with many horror film tropes.)

Much of The Day of the Locust is based on Nathanael West’s experiences in Los Angeles churning out film noir and adventure screenplays for Republic Productions (known as “Repulsive Productions” among Hollywood insiders; biographer Marion Meade refers to the studio as “Cheapsville.”) His produced scripts were marginally successful. His novels fared considerably less well, at least, in his lifetime.

West’s fortune seemed to be turning around right before he and his new bride were killed in an auto accident. West wasn’t exactly martyrized, but his writer associates did see to it to spread word of his genius, including Budd Schulberg, who declared The Day of the Locust captured how “the orgiastic crowd, loving you this moment, destroying you the next, is the very essence of Hollywood—as Hollywood may be the essence of our success-driven culture.”

Next: What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg

What’s the greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

Hollywood sign
Photo by Thomas Wolf (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Let’s lay down the ground rules. A Hollywood novel is

  1. a book-length single work of fiction,
  2. regards the American film or TV industry, and
  3. is set in or around Los Angeles, California.

The Hollywood novel should not be confused with the Los Angeles novel, which may be set in similar locations but is not primarily concerned with the film industry. This includes almost all of John Fante’s work (Ask the Dust).

Also eliminated are autobiographies like Robert Towne’s The Kid Stays in the Picture and Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again, both entirely about the Hollywood film industry and both reportedly nonfiction.

And, sadly, my first rule eliminates Fitzgerald’s superb The Pat Hobby Stories as it’s a story collection, not a novel. (Otherwise, these are some of the finest, and funniest, stories ever produced about Hollywood.)

Wikipedia offers a rather lengthy list of Hollywood novels. Obviously I’ve not read them all, and so the list that follows is not the hands-down decision on the Greatest of All Time, but is a healthy representation of the form.

The list (links added as entries are published):

On its way: STRANGER SON, Book Three of the Bridge Daughter Cycle

Usually I’m reticent to pre-announce, but I’ve been getting emails, so…

Stranger Son by Jim Nelson

Today I sent the third book of the Bridge Daughter Cycle, Stranger Son, off to the copyeditor. I’m getting covers and other material assembled as I write this.

Stranger Son picks up sixteen years after the conclusion of Hagar’s Mother. I don’t want to spoil too much, but will say it takes place in a near-future California after a bout of political turmoil.

If you’ve not read Bridge Daughter or Hagar’s Mother yet, you can dive in now and (fingers crossed) be caught up in time for the third book’s release.

No release date at the moment. Watch this space for more news.

How Marcia Lucas (and smart editing) saved Star Wars

Marcia Lucas
Marcia Lucas

Among fiction writers, the editing process is notoriously dreaded as drudge work, but revision is where the magic happens. It’s where a struggling, plodding story is shaped into the author’s vision.

Recently I discovered “How Star Wars was saved in the edit”, an impressive and succinct video on the high art of film editing. It demonstrates revision so well, it should be required viewing in creative writing courses everywhere.

That’s right: Creative writing. Even though it regards film editing, almost all the techniques described have application in revising fiction.

To clarify, I’m not talking about the Star Wars story line. The formula behind Star Wars has been so imitated and overdone over the past forty years, there are few morsels left to claim as one’s own. Narratological analyses of George Lucas’ little sci-fi flick are bountiful, as are the reminders how he borrowed much of his structure from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. All of this is well-trod ground and not what concerns me here.

What “Saved in the edit” highlights is a criminally unknown aspect of Star Wars‘ mega-success: The role of Lucas’ then-wife Marcia in sculpting the movie’s rough cut into a blockbuster. If Marcia Lucas had applied her formidable editing talents solely to the movie’s heart-pounding conclusion (the rebel attack on the Death Star), she would have deserved the Oscar for editing she eventually received. Her contributions went far deeper, it turns out.

Ordering scenes

I’m most interested in two of the video’s sections. The first is the explanation of intercutting (or cross-cutting), starting at 6m50s in the video. Intercutting is a film term referring to a specific editing technique. For fiction, a more general (and blander) term would be scene ordering.

Marcia Lucas and her fellow editors crispened the first act by reordering scenes to better establish the story and get the audience involved. Since viewers are able to fill in blanks on their own, the reordering allowed for the removal of entire scenes, keeping the story line brisk and taut.

Revising scene order is the author at her most godlike. She is rearranging the events of her dreamworld like a child building up and tearing down sand castle turrets. Scene reordering requires bold moves and wide peripheral vision. It’s not about word choice and tightening dialogue, it’s asking if each scene is in the right place at the right time—or even if it should be included at all.

(Another visual medium that uses visual cuts effectively is comics, a topic I’ve explored before.)

My latest (and, as of today, unpublished) novel offers a personal example of scene reordering in my editing process. My early chapters were a mess. The main character was traveling quite literally in circles. An early reader (and good friend) pointed out the wasted time and lack of energy in the first act.

Although I like to make a rough outline when I write a novel, I don’t organize down to the scene, or even the chapter. After hearing my friend’s criticism, I went through the draft and produced a rough table of contents with each chapter listed in order with a brief one- or two-sentence summary of its major points. (A writing notebook, even a digital one, is a good tool for this task.)

Thinking of his complaints, and referring to my makeshift table of contents as a guide, I “re-cut” the opening chapters and produced a sleeker first act. Sections of one chapter were lifted and dropped into another chapter. Events were shuffled to tighten the story, sharpen focus, and get the story on its legs. Thousands of words wound up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. It was worth it.

Marcia Lucas and George Lucas
Marcia and George Lucas

Ordering beats

My other interest in “Saved in the edit” regards the first meeting between Luke and Obi-wan (11m50s in the video):

Originally the scene started with Luke and Obi-wan watching the princess’ message, then they play with lightsabers, and then they consider to go help her.

The editors realized how “heartless” this scene played out due to the lag between hearing Leia’s holographic plea and discussing whether or not to help her. They reordered the scene by opening in medias res to make it seem the two have been talking about Luke’s father for some time. From there,

  1. Obi-wan shows Luke the lightsaber,
  2. they watch Leia’s message,
  3. and then they argue about flying off to help her.

It’s a simple change, which is kind of the point: Sometimes vital edits are not complex or massive, but surgical and subtle. What’s more, notice how this edit did not require re-shooting the scene. All the elements were in place, the problem was their presentation.

The new ordering creates an emotional cone. The tension starts low with exposition (Luke’s supposedly-dead father, a forgotten religion that tapped into a mysterious cosmic “force”). The stakes rise in pitch as they watch Leia’s plea. A tension point is reached when the old man in the desert tells Luke he must drop everything and travel across the galaxy to save a princess.

If you find a scene you’re working on meandering or feeling aimless, consider how the tension rises within it. Is it building, or is it wandering around?

In play-writing, the basic unit of drama is called a beat. A beat consists of action, conflict, and event. Marcia Lucas improved the scene with Luke and Obi-wan by unifying a beat that had been split apart with the lightsaber business:

  1. Action: Obi-wan wants Luke to learn the Force and save the princess;
  2. Conflict: Luke has to stay and help his uncle with the farm;
  3. Event: Luke refuses Obi-wan’s call and goes back to the farm.

Not all edits are rearranging action/conflict/event. If you think of a scene as a collection of little beats, sometimes revision is moving the beats around, much as scenes can be reordered.

One sin I’m guilty of is opening a chapter with the character in the middle of action or a conversation, then dropping to flashback to explain how the character wound up in this situation, then returning to the scene. It’s a false and inauthentic way to start chapters in medias res.

How to correct this? Sometimes by moving the flashback to the start of the chapter and rewriting it in summary. Often I drop the flashback and assume the reader will catch up on their own (as Marcia Lucas did by opening the Obi-wan scene in the middle of the conversation). Each edit is situational and requires a film editor’s mindset. Simplifying scenes is the core of powerful revision.

These editing skills really should be the stock-and-trade of every novelist and playwright. Yet I’ve never seen a book on writing fiction explain these points as ably as “Saved in the edit”. It’s unfortunate it takes a YouTube video on the making of Star Wars to lay out the power of editing in such a lucid and compelling way.

Writing a book is like being an all-in-one film crew. The author is director, screenwriter, editor, and casting agent. The author plays the roles of all the actors. The directing and writing and acting is the fun part, or at least it can be. But editing is where a manuscript goes from a draft to a novel.

Further reading

For more on Marcia Lucas, I suggest starting with her biography at The Secret History of Star Wars. It details the shameful way she was written out of the history of the movie after divorcing George Lucas.

“Marcia Lucas: The Heart of Star Wars is another fine YouTube video, focusing more on her career and her role with other 1970s films you’ll recognize, such as Taxi Driver and The Candidate. It also does a nice dive into Marcia Lucas editing American Graffiti into the phenomena it would become.

Marcia Lucas’ influence on Hollywood and film editing is still felt today. The Beat‘s “5 Editors That Broke the Hollywood System” are all women, including Marcia Lucas, even though the article is not specifically about women in film history.