Chasing the Scene

It starts with an image, fading in from black. I see a character standing there. A girl. She has disheveled hair and stained clothes. Her troubled eyes hide dark memories. Her shoulders slump and her chest heaves; she is out of breath. I know how her eyes became so troubled, because I wrote the troubles she lived through. I know that the stains on her clothes are blood, because I wrote the creature that tried to kill her. I know why she is out of breath, because I wrote her fighting for her life.

The image zooms out, and I see the beasts on the ground. The mutated corpses of hell hounds lie on the dirt before the girl. The door to the cabin is broken, and splinters of wood still jut from one hound’s jaws. The second hound lays further back, its body riddled with bullet holes. A second girl stands beyond it, still holding a rifle.

I hear the voices of the characters in my mind. I see them start to move. I know it’s time for the next scene. I look back, and remember where I had left off:

She stared at it for a moment, wondering what kind of animal it was. The torn, mangled flesh was hard to identify. It almost looked like a basset hound, but they were normally so gentle . . .

She shook her head and turned towards the building. She had to climb over the wreckage of the destroyed door to get in. Inside, she found Gabby, looking like hell. Her clothes were torn and muddy, her hair tangled, her skin marred with dirt. She looked like she hadn’t bathed in months. On top of all that, blood was dripping from her nose and ears.

My mind fills with these images, and it’s time to continue. I have the scene in my mind, and writing it down becomes a race to record everything I see before it disappears. I watch the characters flee for the safety of the jeep, and try to describe it faster than they can run, so that the words are on the page before they escape the danger. It’s hard to keep up. I rush to describe the monster before it catches them. I capture every detail I can, from its gleaming fangs to its bulging, mutated muscles. My fingers slip on the keys. For a moment, I fear the delay will cost the characters their freedom and their lives. Another beast rushes in, closing in on the girls. I have to write the beast falling behind, just so I can catch up.

I don’t pay attention to the time that passes me by in the real world while I write like this. All I see is the moment in the scene, pulling away, while I try to catch up to it. Minutes become hours while I labor over every detail. My writing time is almost up, and they haven’t even gotten the jeep moving yet.

Eventually, I write them escaping, and I breathe a sigh of relief that it’s all over. Hours become days as I leave the scene to rest, catching its breath before I come back to it. Then I pick the scene up again, study it, and try to see what I missed. I always write the initial scene in that mad rush, stopping only long enough to pick out the right word here or cut down a run-on sentence there. During revision, though, there’s no more rushing, no more trying to outrun the beast. I’m able to look over every leg of the chase and nitpick every step the characters took. I rewind to the key moment when the nightmare was mutating on the ground before it rose up and became the monster that pursued them. I look over the scene and ask if the details I wrote captured the image in my mind. I ask if it took too long for the characters to start running. I ask if the emotions feel real. I shuffle things around, cut here, add there, and try to polish up what I wrote into something presentable.

The revision experience is much calmer. More analytical. There’s no need to race. I can stop and catch my breath this time. I sit still and reread each line, considering where it fits into the whole, or if it fits at all. I’m not a samurai, chopping up my prose in broad sweeps with the revising blade; instead I’m a surgeon, selecting my cuts with care and precision. If I see something rambling or meandering, I cut it up and rearrange the pieces into something healthier. If I see something that threatens to bring the whole piece down, I cut a chunk off the tail and let it die. The head can live on.

The overall experience is like watching a film from beginning to end, then going back later to analyze everything frame by frame. The scene doesn’t enter my mind in a single dump of information; instead, it plays out in a rapid sequence like a movie on the screen. I try to record that rush of images onto the page. The more I see playing out in the scene, the faster I have to work to keep up with it. Usually I don’t know what the plot will be or how it will end until the scene plays out. The chase continues, and I find myself on the edge of my seat watching to see how it ends so I can capture that moment.

Then, once it’s been captured, it remains in my possession. I can build my connection with the scene by adding details I missed the first time. I pick up on things I didn’t focus on when the chase first played out before me. I can pause it, zoom in, and try to describe that certain look on the girl’s face, the particular sound of the beast’s growl, the scent of blood in the air. Details that were always there, but which I didn’t capture or express fully until revision. Nothing new gets created; instead I shine a new light on what is already there. The characters still escape the beast at the end, but with each revision, I hope to better express how close the beast came to catching them. I let it get a little closer to them, now that I know I won’t stumble and fall.

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