Identify the one thing the scene is about. In this example, the scene is about the author, and it is set during her physical transition from post-World War II-era Germany to the United States. This is a major milestone (placed at the correct point to be the inciting incident). Given this, everything in the scene must reflect her thoughts and actions.
Condense or delete information that detracts from what the scene is about. We need to know that the stewardess (the correct term for the era) speaks, because this signals the end of the flight, but we don’t need to know exactly what she said.
We need to know that the author prayed, because that shows us her worldview and character, but we don’t need to know the exact words she used.
Move information that is important but irrelevant to this scene to the appropriate scene. We need the reference to the author’s mother protecting her children during the war, because that highlights the contrast between the author’s old and new worlds, and her own role as a new mother, but this is not the best place to mention her request to carry on the name Samuel. That is important, but belongs in a scene that shows the author and her family under immediate threat of being taken to concentration camps.
We need to know that the birth was difficult, but that belongs in a scene related directly to the birth.
Contrast the original text, below, with one possible revision that takes the reader more directly to the heart of the scene.
Original (527 words)
It was May 19, 1963. The voice of the stewardess on the intercom woke me up from a light doze. I could only understand a few words of what she was saying in English, and my heart pounded with mixed emotions. Her language changed to French, which I partially understood, and then she spoke German, my native tongue.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching New York International Airport, the United States of America. Please refrain from smoking, fasten your seatbelts, and place your seats in the upright position. Upon disembarking from the aircraft, please go into the passport inspection station and proceed through customs. Please have your passports ready as you enter the inspection station. After that, you may continue to your next destination. We hope you enjoyed your flight with Trans World Airlines today.”
I glanced at my sweet son, Samuel, next to me in the baby carrier. Her strands of brown hair and fair skin made her look like a porcelain doll. He was finally sleeping after a long and restless flight. I stroked his forehead feeling thankful and blessed to be the mother of this precious child. His birth had been difficult and I still had not recovered fully. I promised to love and protect him with my life, trusting that Samuel would have a better life, compared to my childhood. I prayed, “Lord, if something should happen to me, please watch over Samuel. I request your blessings to protect him from the ravages of life. Grant him a life of dignity and freedom in America, a country I have loved and cherished since I was a child.”
Samuel opened his eyes as if he were confirming my thoughts. After months of anticipation and preparation, the suspense would soon be over. We would be a happy family, with my beloved husband, the father to our child, and live together in Chicago. This would be the very first time that Roger would see his son, our Samuel, as he had returned to his duty station before Samuel’s birth. I looked forward to holding my beloved husband in my arms again.
My dear mother deserved the credit for my courage and faith; I had observed her profound courage, how she managed to maintain her optimistic attitude even under the most trying of circumstances. She was determined to make the best of every situation, and so would I. I remembered her request that if any of us ever had a baby boy, to name her after her Uncle Samuel. She wanted the name of the man who saved us from being sent to one of Hitler’s concentration camps to live on.
I remembered how loving and protective she had been as she huddled over us children during the terror of World War II; now it was my turn to be a good mother.
My heart pounded faster—finally my childhood dream was coming true! As we disembarked from the airplane, I was experiencing joy, fear, and anticipation, all at the same time. Soon I would set foot on what I had felt for my twenty-six years of life must be holy ground, the United States of America.
One Possible Revision (221 words)
May 19, 1963. The voice of the stewardess welcoming us to New York International Airport woke me from a light slumber. Looking out the window as the horizon drew closer, I saw the Statue of Liberty. I cried tears of awe and wonder as she majestically welcomed Samuel and me to our new home.
We landed, but I did not get up. I wanted to relish this moment between two worlds. As the others gathered their belongings and disembarked, I stroked Samuel’s brown hair and fair cheeks as he slept in his baby carrier. In a few hours, we would be in Chicago, and Roger could hold his baby boy for the first time. I vowed to do all I could to make Samuel’s life in America better than my life had been in Germany, and to be a good wife to Roger. I prayed for guidance. I remembered Mama’s strength as she huddled over us children, shielding us as much as she could from the terror of World War II.
Now it was my turn to be a loving mother. Samuel opened his eyes, as if confirming my thoughts. I wiped my eyes, picked him up, and got our things. I stood up straight and took my first step onto what must be holy ground: the United States of America.
—Ann Kellett, Ph.D.
Ann Kellett Editing