Editing Tip: Fix That Boring Scene With the Sandbox Technique

Having my opening pages critiqued by a literary agent showed me where my work was landing flat. This literary agent thought the dialogue wasn’t punchy enough to make my main character stand out on the page in all her rainbow freak flag glory.

Since that critique I’ve been working on writing better dialogue, one line at a time.

When I learned a new editing tip to reboot a boring scene, I decided to give it a try on my character’s coming-out scene and got amazing results on my first rewrite.

Here’s the background for the scene I edited. If you’re impatient, skip ahead to the editing tip.

I knew this scene was important to the book, not because it reveals the main character’s bisexuality (this is something we know since page one, although she can’t vocalize it then).

When my MC recounts her first kiss with a woman, she’s going deep within to that core of shame she feels over being different. In telling her truth, she lets go of the stigma she’s attached to being bisexual. This is the scene where she moves out of hiding and shame and into a space of feeling out and proud of her identity. Bisexual pride is super important in a world that continually seeks to erase bi existence, and we just don’t see enough media representation of this. As an LGBTQ writer, I’m always thinking about how to expand representation of LGBTQ folks for us – and also for the queer allies who want to support us but don’t always know how.

So. The conversation was a pivotal moment for my main character. There was no way I could cut it. But when I reread it with the literary agent’s feedback in mind, it felt boring.

It was summarized. All telling, no showing. Here’s the editing tip that helped me rewrite that scene.

The Sandbox Technique for Fixing Scenes

This might make you nervous (I know I was!) but read over your original scene.

Then open a new document. On the blank page, write out the scene from memory.

You won’t remember everything. But you will remember what’s most important.

The way a character guesses something she didn’t know, or catches a friend in a lie. How she struggles to hide it by turning away or retouching her hair. How she thinks twice about calling him out on it, then says, “You know what? It doesn’t matter” when that’s not at all what she means.

In recapturing the essentials, you’ll strip away the clutter. You’ll wind up cutting a lot of the telling, so what is left shows the reader the essential truth. Flat descriptions will fall away, and your characters will reveal what’s important and necessary.

You know you’re on the right track when the writing feels surprising.

Once you’ve got the new scene, polish it up and put it in the novel. You might need to tweak some details or set the scene with descriptive writing. Surrounded by fresh dialogue, the new scene will bring momentum to that critical moment and help you get out of a stuck place.

Why it Works

Are you the type of writer who needs to know why it works before you give it a try?

The sandbox technique works for a few reasons:

  • It gives you a blank canvas to re-envision boring dialogue
  • It turns off the editing brain and turns on the writing brain
  • It makes writing fun again (helpful when you are stuck on a scene)
  • It forces you to focus on the essentials – just the conversation, and not the scene-level detail surrounding it
  • This forces you to focus on the information the reader most needs to know

Is Your Scene Flat?

The editing tip is great for scenes you know aren’t working….but sometimes you’re too close to the work to tell when it’s time to revise.

These signs of a flat scene will help you understand which scenes to rewrite using the sandbox technique.

Are your characters:

  • Saying obvious things, like “I’m really mad at you right now” ? – This tells us nothing interesting about their POV

  • Using dialogue to get across back story? – You may have an info dump

  • Talking just like you would to a friend, complete with all the boring details? – Readers don’t want to read hyper-realistic dialog, complete with “ums” and “you knows”

  • Exclaiming in dialogue tags rather than using their words to get across tone and motivation? – Ditch the “she grunted” and “he yelled” and shine your dialogue so it conveys emotion for you

Are you bored or skimming as you reread? Are you skipping ahead for the payoff or big reveal? If you are bored, there’s a lack of tension on the page.

If you’re not sure whether this is right for you, give it a try – then read both scenes and see which one best embodies the spirit of what you’re trying to get across. I was reluctant to test this one out, but I did and now I’m a convert to the technique.

Thanks to Gabriela Pereira of diyMFA for her inspiring revisions talk at the Writer’s Digest Conference – she shared this editing tip and others. 

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