Part 2 — How to Cut Your Manuscript by 20% or More

In Part we learned that our scenes are the primary repositories of fat in our stories, and the first place we should look to do a little literary liposuction.

Perhaps, though, I’m putting this little pony ahead of the cart I’m asking it to pull.  I’ve heard from some writers that while the concept of a scene may be clear to our screenwriting brethren, it isn’t always an intuitive concept for novelists.

But it needs to be.  Writing effective scenes is one of the six core competencies of successful storytelling.

Because your story, at its core, is nothing other than a sequence of scenes.  Sure, there may be bridging blocks of narrative glue that add tremendous expositional value, but it’s easy to lay it on too thick.

Too much glue makes anything sticky and unpleasant to the touch.

Scenes are the embodiment of the show-don’t-tell aesthetic of good fiction. 

You could tell us that two people destined to fall in love met one day on a train, or you could show us the scene of that happening.  If that meeting is a critical moment in your story, you absolutely should do the latter.

A scene is a unit of dramatic action that delivers a single piece of pertinent information.  Something happens within a scene.  When you write a scene in context to whatever that something is – a surprise, a twist, a new clue, a meeting, a mistake… any critical stepping stone in the story, even if it seems subtle at the time – with nothing delaying or distracting from it, this is the essence of mission-driven scene writing.

Can you stuff two missions into one scene?  Hey, it’s your story… you can court two lovers if you want, too.  But watch out, things get confusing and often dangerous when you do.

Short scenes are the expectation publishing these days.  Better to have 95 brisk scenes in your novel than 32 of longer lengths. 

Whether you call them scenes or chapters is your call.  A chapter can be composed of two to four scenes, provided they are separated by line breaks – skipped lines denoting a new scene is about to unfold.

But wait, what about characterization?  Isn’t that a mission for a scene?

Well, to be precise… yes and no.  A scene that exists solely for the purpose of showing characterization, with no clear forward motion in the unfolding plot, is always a bad idea.  Because it stops the story stops dead in its tracks, and if it occurs in the opening sequence, it waters down the hook.

Every scene should demonstrate characterization.  Which makes it an essential component rather than the mission.

How to cut the fat from your scenes.

Take out those two cutting tools from the last post – 1) driving toward a single mission in each scene, and 2) entering the scene at the last possible moment – and make sure they are razor sharp and ready to draw blood.

Now look at each scene you’ve written.  Determine what the mission of that scene is, or should be.  Be ruthless.  What is here that the reader and character need to know from a plot exposition perspective? 

Can’t tell?  Then you have a problem.  Every scene should have such a mission.  At least you’ve found something you can and should cut.  Or if not, then rewrite.

Oh, there it is… right at the end, after a bunch of asides and witty banter.  Time to draw that blood.  Because all that fat’s gotta go.

When you ask this question objectively and critically of each scene in your novel, you’ll easily see where you’ve padded the path toward that golden nugget of story with chit-chat, too much description and quick little side trips that, while perhaps intended to be fun, aren’t necessary to the mission.

As your brain goes hey Storyfixer, back off, I happen to like that little side trip… remember, your goal here isn’t to fall back in love with your work, your goal is to cut your manuscript down.   You can’t lose 20 pounds and still eat that tray of brownies just because you like them. 

Life’s hard sometimes.  Something’s gotta go.

Idle banter is the enemy.  Setting up scenes with banter that doesn’t pertain to the mission of the scene – even if it characterizes – is precisely what needs to end up on the cutting room floor. 

Remember, the goal is to enter your scenes at the last possible moment, not after your characters have hugged and said hello and poured coffee and reminisced about their school days prior to getting down to the business of the scene.

Readers skim chit-chat.  Make it easy for them to find the meat of the scene – be honest, you’ve done it, too – by eliminating the blah blah blah from your story.

Don’t shoot the messenger here.

You’ll resist this initially.  You wrote it that way for a reason, a good one (at least in your mind), and at first you’ll want to hang onto something in the name of characterization.

William Goldman – the Oscar-winning screenwriter credited with advising us to enter our scenes at the last possible moment – also said (and I paraphrase):  in writing we are forced to kill our babies.  Which means, we must give up things we love in sacrifice to good storytelling. 

This applies to novels every bit as much, and as validly.

Fat, slowly-paced scenes are among the most common downfalls of unpublished writers.  Trust me on this.  Don’t make this mistake.  Even if you see it done in stories you admire.  Established writers have different rules than unpublished writers, and believing otherwise – writing otherwise – can be a fatal mistake.

You don’t need to rush characterization.  Let it unfold.  Always make it in context to plot-related exposition.  Readers don’t need to get the characters – their backstory and their quirks and their inner demons – all in the first scene in which they appear. 

Warning: sports metaphor ahead.

You’re at a tryout for a spot on a pro football roster.  A tough thing to accomplish in any case, and very much like selling a manuscript to a publisher… the odds are about the same.  They suck.  But in your heart you know you’re ready, so here you are, helmet and manuscript in hand.

The coach is looking for speed and agility.  Not just a great athlete, but a great football player.  Someone with skills.  Who knows how to play the game.

Your story runs out onto the field, it looks good at first glance… and then… it just walks around.  Slowly.  Doesn’t touch the ball much.  Appears lost.  Coaches think, does this player really know this game?  They’re watching, hoping… but damn, this kid isn’t running, and we’re here today looking for quickness.

The kid is just too damn fat.

Good athletes (translation: good writers who create beautiful sentences) are everywhere, but good football players (translation: good storytellers who have stripped the fat from their stories) are rare. 

Maybe the coaches (translation: agents and editors) will stick around and see what the kid can do in this story, maybe they won’t.  Lots of other athletes in the pile, waiting to be read.

Don’t be that kid.  Go in lean and mean.  Go in ready to play the game the way the professionals expect it to be played.

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4 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

4 Responses to Part 2 — How to Cut Your Manuscript by 20% or More

  1. Great post as usual. Oh, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve nominated you for the Kreativ Blogger award! http://kaitnolan.com/2009/08/20/kreativ-award/ Keep up the great work!

  2. Mary E. Ulrich

    Larry, I have the opposite problem. An editor told me my story was too short and though she loved it, she suggested I triple the word count so it would be more in the 70-90,000 range for a good romance. Hope you do a post on that sometime. Thanks. Mary

  3. Sarah

    Thank you! This is a great post, and I can already see a lot of jiggly, wiggly fat that needs to be cut from the first scene of my WIP. Fantastic.
    Also- the concept of writing a bunch of shorter scenes, say 1K-1.5K, is very appealing and revelatory to me. Keep up the excellent work!

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