Book Length Issues – Part 2 (Making your story shorter)

cutting-bookIn 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: and

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.



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16 replies

  1. Writing down the major beats is exactly what I did on two instances where I had a story that was just fattening up out of control. The excess had actually gotten so bad that I just jotted down a list of the scenes I really liked, jettisoned the rest, and brainstormed up new ideas. I think I scrapped about 50,000 words for one story. I didn’t scrap quite that much for the other story, being it was still mostly in outline form, but for that one I also pushed several scenes and a character’s subplot to the sequel. Actually, several times I ended up dividing a story into two when it got too big. One trilogy I worked on was originally just one story.

    • Interesting. I have heard from others who have divided stories into multiple novels.

      • It’s happened to me either when the last third of a story heads to a new location and introduces too many characters that were not present in the earlier scenes, or when the story was getting so thick it could be almost neatly split at the halfway mark.

        In the case of a story that ended up being the first in the series, I ended up without a climax since I split off the rest of the story into its own book and had to plug the ending with something. I had to fish out something from an earlier draft, rework it, and stick it in. It worked out in the end, but I’m still not totally happy with it. Just one of those things…

  2. I wish this had come about four months sooner! I had to shorten a 30k novella to 20k in order to fit into a contest limit. (That was HARD.) These are awesome tips, though. Some of them I discovered the hard way during that cutting process. 🙂 Subplots and adjectives and even a couple characters were sacrificed for a leaner word count.

    Along the lines of Jason’s comment, my fantasy WIP series started out as a planned trilogy, until I realized how gargantuan book 3 would be. I’m now planning on a fourth novel to give the final battle enough room to happen.

    By the way, Mr. D, your example story about Elmer and the donut-eating jackrabbits cracks me up!

  3. This will be really helpful, since I recently completed a draft of my novel and I’ll need to start editing soon.

    Also, this isn’t exactly related to story shortening, but I was wondering, is it common to have multiple books in the same universe but different genres? For example, if I create my own fantasy world and write an adventure trilogy that takes place in it, could I also write a mystery or suspense/thriller set in the same world? I can’t recall ever seeing this before, so I was curious if it’s something that is allowed.

  4. I wish some authors I know took this advice. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey and Allegiant by Veronica Roth are way too long. The pacing is not good at all.


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