In my last post, I talked about why it’s important to keep a manuscript to less than 100,000 words. Today I’m going to give you some idea not only of how to cut back your word count but also of how to make sure that you have nothing extraneous in your book regardless of word count.
I’m not going to talk about cutting unnecessary adverbs and adjectives today or about cutting back a paragraph of description into one sentence. The cutting I’m talking about here happens before we get to that stage. These self-editing tips are general guides to what should and shouldn’t go into your manuscript.
All scenes must move the story forward
Ignore this golden rule of writing at your peril. More than anything, readers want to know what happens next in the story, so if your scenes go off in another direction, or add extraneous information, your reader will get frustrated and may give up on your book.
Somewhere during the process of writing my first book, I realised that I’d written scenes that although they showed important aspects of my characters, they didn’t move the main plot line forward. They didn’t contribute directly to adding to or solving the problems that drove the story. Character development on its own is not enough of a reason to include a scene.
So go through your book scene by scene and ask: Does this move the story forward?
Only tell the reader what they need to know
Once you’ve identified scenes that don’t move the story forward, ask yourself if anything in these ‘not strictly necessary’ scenes is important for the reader to know. If there is information in there that is really important, then see if you can hint at the action and relationships that occurred in the redundant scene in another more active scene. Hinting – usually through outer or inner dialogue – can be more interesting than showing the whole scene.
You may find that you’ve already shown certain character qualities sufficiently in other scenes or you could strengthen your emphasis on them elsewhere in the book. So you don’t have to lose the important elements in the scene even though you cut the scene itself.
Often there isn’t anything in these extraneous scenes that the reader really needs to know. We might think they need to know it, but generally readers don’t need to know nearly as much as beginning authors think they do. Sometimes we write down everything we know about a character, forgetting that if it’s not relevant to the events in the story, it’s not relevant at all. We do need to leave something up to the reader’s imagination; stories are more engaging that way.
Beginning authors often include far too much back story. The reader does not need to know where someone was born, what school they went to, how well they did, what their favourite colour was, who their friends were and how they felt about the moon landing, unless this information is directly relevant to the story. Information that is needed in order to understand the character’s present motivations can be popped in in a single sentence at a relevant place. It doesn’t have to have several paragraphs given over to a detailed background picture.
Description is another area where it’s easy for authors to over do it, especially if we think that we’ve written the most wonderfully poetic description of something. Though some fantasy styles indulge in long descriptive passages and it seems to be acceptable within that genre, it is also one of the reasons many readers avoid that style of fantasy. Pages and pages of description in any other genre is likely to make your readers skip ahead to see what happens next. A good guideline is not to write anything more than one paragraph as a description of any single object.
What is not spoken is as important in dialogue as what is spoken
In my first drafts of my early books, my main characters tended to say everything openly, honestly and fully, but in life, most people don’t speak so openly, and they certainly don’t explain themselves to others – unless pressed. For most characters, saying everything they think and being completely open with others about their motivations isn’t realistic, and characters are more interesting when they’re hiding something.
Rather than laying it all out there, words can hint at something unspoken that makes the reader wonder.
Dialogue that exposes everything a character is thinking about is artificial and gives the sense that the character’s purpose in talking is to tell the reader something, rather than to have a conversation with another character.
So look at your dialogue and cut any extraneous chit chat – apart from what you need to make the dialogue seem natural. Chit chat is anything that doesn’t pertain to the purpose of the conversation in regards to how it moved the story forward.
Watch for pages and pages of a character’s thoughts. Thinking is not action. What makes a story is action, and what drives the action are character’s reactions to other actions based on their beliefs, thoughts and motivation. So inner monologue should be restricted to why a character acts as they do in response to the events in the story.
It’s not just about word count
Many of the authors of books that I’ve begun to read and put down after only a couple of chapters have left in what they should have cut out. Unnecessary scenes and too much information (including descriptions, back-story and inner monologues) not only made the stories slow, but also made them wander all over the place so I didn’t know what the story actually was or where it was supposed to be going. So it’s not just about word count, it’s because extraneous material is a recipe for a tedious book.
This is part of a series of blog posts on how to write a novel. It doesn’t just cover the technical details, but also the emotional journey we take and the personal challenges we meet on the road from potential author to author. Join the journey now, and don’t miss a post, sign up to my Novel Revision Checklist and I’ll send the articles to your inbox.
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