Sunday, April 17, 2016

CUT IT OUT: Trimming the fat from your story.

A reader asked a great question last month.

"What's the best way to trim the 'fat' in a story to make it more concise?"

Often authors are urged to cut.   Cut scenes, cut action, cut dialogue, cut characters; this is the fire-sale school of revision.  Everything must go.

The general rule of thumb there is to assess everything within the first draft.  If you can remove something and the reader can still cobble together a dim approximation of the story, then bam!   That thing is unnecessary and must be gutted mercilessly.

“In writing, you must kill your darlings.” --William Faulkner

Orthodox Cutters will apply this Faulkner quote as a universal imperative.  They have faith that their ensuing masochistic literary sacrifices will, somehow, purify and elevate their work, on sheer principle.

Is this approach right?

If something can be distilled into a chant, it's rarely flexible enough to be a versatile tool.

Often an emasculated, skeletal narrative just isn't fun to read.  It might possess the minimalist bones, yet lack the crucial alchemy that brings a story to life.  Vindictive cutting is not a guaranteed road to improvement.

However, the opposite extreme is a legitimate risk.

Cram anything you want into a story, indulge every whim, and the result will be a bloated, meandering mess.    Readers will struggle to wrap their arms around it, flipping page after page trying to figure out what the point of all this content is- only to realize there isn't a point.   Just loose ends, flapping off into oblivion.

So we're back to the original question.   If the overzealous 'CUT EVERYTHING' crowd is misguided, how can we trim the fat from a narrative to keep it lean, functional, compelling- but still full of fun?

There's a simple trick to it.  (Difficult, but simple.)

An author most know two things with total clarity.   They are:

*What their story is about- the point.
*What the appeal is to readers- what the story does for its audience.

A deep understanding of these elements will clarify when something contributes to your story, and when it's detracting clutter.

This example will serve better than vague discussion:

On twitter in the #ComicTalk hashtag a few months back, the topic of erotic content cropped up, and how it could be a needless distraction from plot.   Authors jumped to pontificate on why characterization and plot must always supersede tawdry sexual content in every story, and it was agreed that sexiness without a concrete plot purpose was verboten.

Then lo and behold, a reader spoke.

He mentioned that one genre he enjoys is- shocker- erotica.  And the advice being agreed upon by all the authors was detrimental.  Injecting an erotic comic with brooding backstory, irrelevant plot, and non-sequitur characterization didn't make for a double-plus better erotic comic:  All it did was kill the heat.

That's why it's critical to understand what your story is about, and what readers are getting out of it.  Because if you don't know, you might be cutting the appeal right out of your manuscript.

When you know dead-to-rights what your story is about, you'll have crystal clarity about whether something is relevant or not.

Deep understanding- simple, but not easy.   I'll close by tossing out two more tools for seeking and cutting story fat, in the hopes that one or both of them come in handy.

*Motive.   Most stories are driven by character- and characters are driven by motive.  If your character does something random that is never explained, and never relevant in any way- then what are they doing?  Anything that breaks character, and has no driving motive behind it, probably needs to be cut.

*Redundancy.  Your readers are smart- don't repeat yourself pointlessly.  If a character has established an important trait, then sure, keep that character consistent- but don't add more scenes that serve no other purpose than to establish that same trait again.  You already conveyed that information to your readers.   They get it.   Because you already conveyed that information to your readers.  And if they get it, there's no entertainment value when you convey that information to your readers again.  

I hope this quick guide was helpful!  For more writing tips, check out our resources page at

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