In my previous tip, I talked about how long certain novel categories should be and how to lengthen a story that is too short.
Today, let’s grab a scalpel and learn how to cut the fat from an overly long story.
When you evaluate your story, write down the major beats, that is, the events that your story must keep, such as the ordinary-world setup (Elmer is a truck-driver in San Antonio who delivers donuts to grocery stores), the crisis or inciting incident (Elmer’s truck gets hijacked by a mob of donut-eating jackrabbits), the major conflicts (Elmer’s battles with the rabbits), and the resolution (How Elmer wins or loses, whether or not he gets the truck back, and how he goes on to becoming a famous rabbit hunter).
Once you know the beats that you can’t do without, search for and eliminate unnecessary story elements. For example, if you write about Elmer’s date with a jackrabbit enthusiast, and no crucial information comes from it, and the relationship doesn’t add anything to the story, then eliminate it.
Regarding the beats you must keep:
How long is your setup? Do you dump back story information? If so, get rid of the info dump and include bits and pieces of the back story as the main story unfolds. If you provide the character’s qualities and do a bit of foreshadowing, you can move to the inciting incident without a lot of setup detail.
Is your inciting incident a single event, or is it a series of events? If it is a series, consider combining them into one event or two at the most.
Do you need every conflict in your series of conflict cycles? (See the following posts: http://www.theauthorschair.com/2015/11/09/the-conflict-cycle-part-one/ and http://www.theauthorschair.com/2015/11/16/the-conflict-cycle-part-two/)
Include only those conflicts that drive the story and the character forward to the goal externally and internally.
How long is the resolution? Make it as short as possible. As soon as you tie up the loose ends and reward your hero, then end the story. A longer resolution is acceptable in the last book in the series, since readers usually want to say good-bye to the characters in a meaningful way.
Do you have subplots that don’t add much to the main plot? If a subplot adds only minor elements to the main plot, consider finding a way to add those elements to the flow of the major plot. For example, if similar donut/jackrabbit hijacking incidents are occurring in other cities, you don’t need to show them in detail. Maybe Elmer can hear about one on the radio instead.
Do you have secondary characters who can be cut? Long novels often have too many characters. Consider combining characters’ duties and roles. For example, Elmer might have five allies: a donut baker, a college professor who specializes in jackrabbit studies, Elmer’s boss at the trucking company, a hunter who teaches Elmer how to use a bunny bazooka, and an ex-girlfriend from Elmer’s college days who provides the romantic interest. Keep the baker for obvious reasons, but make the girl the professor, and the boss can double as a hunting enthusiast.
Is a long journey part of the narrative? If so, cut unnecessary details and include summaries to get your characters to the place they’re going quicker. If Elmer has to drive to New York to appear in a TV report about the jackrabbit hijacking epidemic, just summarize the travel except for incidents along the way that are needed to drive the story forward, such as capturing a jackrabbit who provides crucial information.
In addition to these story issues, you can go through your story word by word and shorten your phrasing. You might be surprised at how quickly the word count decreases. For example, look for phrases that start with “It was” or “There were” and restate them in a shorter way.
You can change “There were hundreds of bodies lying on the ground” to “Bodies littered the battlefield” thereby deleting half of the words.
Look for prepositional phrases that can be pared. “The captain of the squadron of jackrabbits” can be “The jackrabbit’s squadron captain.”
I could go on and on with more examples, but the objective is always the same. When you’re trying to shorten, act like you’re on a search-and-destroy mission to find and eliminate unnecessary words. The words you toss out will add up in a hurry.
Categories: Writing Tips