Your story is too long.
Some authors can get away with novels longer than, say, a hundred and fifty thousand words. But those authors generally have a following. They usually don’t start out with such weighty tomes. They’ve usually proven that they can put together a compelling narrative, and folks are thus willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. If you’re one of those authors, hi! Thanks for stopping by. Send me an e-mail, I’d enjoy a chat. This list probably isn’t for you.
But you. You over there. Your story is too long. And you know this! You’ve gone through and tightened sentences, reworded paragraphs, dropped unnecessary adverbs . . . maybe you’ve shaved off a thousand words. Which is good, but you’re still ten or twenty thousand words overweight. Trimming individual words won’t get you there now. It’s time to cut something bigger.
It’s time to kill a darling.
But how do you decide what to cut? They’re your darlings after all. You put them in your story because you want them in your story. You would not have included that character, or that scene, or that detail, if you didn’t enjoy the idea of it.
So if you enjoy everything in your story, how do you determine what you should cut? Well, when it’s my turn with the editing cleaver, I ask myself questions like these:
Will this detail ever be mentioned again?
I don’t have a problem with extraneous details, all things being equal. They can color a scene, or give a character more depth, or populate a world. But if you’re trying to trim your work, extraneous details are precisely the things you should be considering cleave-worthy.
Did you spend fifty words on defining the precise shade of yellow that is flaking off of the old shed? Just call it “yellow”. Did you burn a hundred words raving about her famous pot-pie? Call it “delicious” and move on. Maybe throw an adverb in there for emphasis. If the detail doesn’t affect the story in a meaningful way, just chop it down and move along.
Can this detail be reasonably assumed?
When in doubt, assume that your reader isn’t an idiot. You don’t have to hold your reader’s hand through every little scene, stating things explicitly that can be assumed. Stuff like:
As writers, a primary goal is for the reader to understand what is happening. As readers, WE GET IT. We’re not idiots. Describe a white-knuckled grip on a knife, and we can reasonably assume anger. The above example is twenty-five words, and it’s easy to cut sixteen of them. That’s not just trimming a couple of words, that’s over sixty percent of the example cleaved.
Does this character deal with any problems?
Why did you include a given character? Is he just there to observe from afar? Is she just in one scene, having a “didst-thou-know” conversation? Does the character experience any growth, or drive any conflict? Or is the character basically just part of the scenery?
I like a lot of characters in my stories, which can get out of hand fairly quickly. One rule I have for my own writing is that a character doesn’t get a name unless he’s important to the story. This forces me to justify the importance of every character that I care about enough to name. If the character doesn’t have an appreciable effect on the story, then he gets the boot.
Can other characters solve this character’s problems?
Just because a character solves a problem, it doesn’t mean that somebody else can’t solve it just as well. For instance, say you have a squad of six soldiers, each with their own appearances, backstories, and motivations. Then let’s say that, a third of the way through your story, Mordecai O’Grumbles sneaks off during the night and kills an enemy officer in a nearby village. It’s really the only thing that O’Grumbles contributes to the narrative, but it is a pivotal part of your story.
So you need the scene. But that doesn’t mean you need O’Grumbles. You have six soldiers to choose from. Can’t one of the others do it? Jenny Van Ruthersfordblaggerton over there, she has an itchy trigger finger. Maybe you need to finagle her backstory a bit to give her Mordecai’s motivation to go sneaking off, but here’s the thing: you can totally do that. You’re the author. And afterwards, you can drop Private O’Grumbles, including all those words you spent establishing him as a character.
Can this problem be solved more simply?
One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is when Indiana Jones watches a swordsman do some intimidating sword stuff, and then just shoots the guy. It could have been a great big fight scene, which would probably be fun to watch. But in the end, that whole scene would boil down to “Indiana Jones kills a random, nameless bad guy.” The plot advances just as much with either a two-minute fight scene or a two-second gunshot.
So maybe you have something like that in your story. Five hundred words of an argument that can be twenty words of a slap to the face. A thousand words of trying to escape through rush-hour traffic that can be thirty words of fading away on the subway. Several books’ worth of a hero’s journey that can be a few pages of “just riding the eagles to Mordor.” (I kid, I kid.) Find your smaller problems and resolve them with smaller solutions.
Does this scene advance the story?
An example of a good scene is when a character dwells upon prior suffering, comes to terms with it, and finds resolve. An example of a bad scene is when a character dwells upon prior suffering, and then the scene ends. The difference, of course, is that one scene matters to the plot, and the other scene is nothing but aimless angst.
Conversations that are amusing but don’t reveal anything new to anybody. Activities that can be wholly assumed, like brushing the teeth and washing the face before going to bed. An argument where nobody is swayed and no subsequent decisions are made. These are all examples of scenes that may be well written and fun to read, but offer nothing to the greater narrative and can be safely removed.
Are all of the characters in this scene necessary?
Words have to be expended upon every character in a scene. Every character has to be put somewhere, has to be doing something, and has to react to the other characters. Add another character in the room, and your word count will increase substantially, especially with respect to the reactions.
Let’s say you have a scene where Todd tells Niccolo to shut up. You’ll be describing Todd’s anger at Niccolo and Niccolo’s resentment of Todd. So two reactions. Now add Justine to the scene. Along with the first two reactions, you now have Todd’s indifference that Justine is there, Niccolo’s embarrassment in front of Justine, Justine’s surprise at Todd’s outburst, and Justine’s sympathy for Niccolo’s plight. That’s a total of six reactions. (Add a fourth person, you’re up to twelve possible reactions, and so on. n*(n-1), and that’s if the characters aren’t introspective.)
But does Justine need to be there? Maybe she can just hear about it later. Or maybe she doesn’t need to know about it at all. Cut her out, you cut a lot of words with her.
Are the characters talking about something that the reader already knows?
Let’s say you have a big scene, full of dramatic reveals, where Detective Kate finally interrogates Pete the Burglemaster:
The casual use of vaguely offensive language was the last straw. Pete’s defenses crumbled. “Okay, okay, fine! I broke the vase and cut myself while I was stealing the jewels. But I didn’t shoot the chimney-sweep! I didn’t even know she was there!”
Then, to advance the story, you need another scene where Kate relates what she learns to Chief Jo:
“He finally confessed,” Kate said. She shook her head. “Poor bastard. Anyway, he says he broke the vase and cut himself while he was stealing the jewels. But, according to him, he didn’t shoot the chimney-sweep. Apparently, he didn’t even know that she was there.”
“I knew I could count on you,” Jo said. “You, and mildly inappropriate language.”
Both scenes are necessary to the story. But the reader already knows the information being imparted in the second scene, which makes most of it just a tedious rehash. If you instead try something like:
Kate told the chief what she had learned.
“I knew I could count on you,” Jo said. “You, and mildly inappropriate language.”
Nothing is lost, the plot advances all the same, and the reader won’t skim over needless repetition. And you’ve just saved yourself a bunch of words.
It’s hard to cut content. It can be harder to cut it than it was to come up with it in the first place. You want it in the story, otherwise you wouldn’t have added it, right? But sometimes, the question changes from “Do I need to cut anything?” to “What do I need to cut?” Being able to discriminate between what should stay and what can go is and important part of that endeavor.