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Cutting to the Heart of Your Story

27 October 2014

From Dave Farland:

Many times as an editor, I will look at a scene and ask myself: “Does this scene belong? Does it move the story along? Does it change the story in new and exciting ways?” Too often, the answer is, “No, it’s wasted text.”

I recently looked at a novel that had a fantastic opening. The problem was, that that great opening didn’t come until fifty pages into the book. Any editor would have rejected the manuscript long before that.

Every single page was well written. The characters were fleshed out, the character’s voices and dialog were convincing, the details of setting were great.

The problem was that those first fifty pages consisted of people talking, relating their backstories, and introducing themselves to the audience, and it just didn’t work.

. . . .

1) Do your characters do anything, or do they just think? Too often, I will see scenes where characters just sit and think about what has happened. “How did I get in this mess?” The chances are good that this kind of scene is garbage. You’re trying to lead up to the action when you do this. Instead, let characters think while they are in action.

. . . .

3) Two characters have a conversation—but nothing changes. Very often I see conversations that seem to be rather maid-and-butler, where one character says, “Gee, Bob, you know I think we have a major problem,” and the other says, “Yes, I agree.” That’s all a waste.

 

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22 Comments to “Cutting to the Heart of Your Story”

  1. Every scene should earn its place in the story, preferably in more ways than one.

    The best scenes perform double or triple duties; e.g., they might provide a key piece of information, raise a new story question, and show a new side of the POV character–all at the same time.

    A scene might not appear to serve any purpose when the reader first encounters it. The reader might think well that’s interesting but what does it have to do with the story? Then six chapters later the reader says ah, I understand now.

    If a scene doesn’t advance the story or set up a future event, it needs to go. When I thought I was finished with The Metaphor Deception it was 120K words. When I went through it a few more times, asking myself does this scene truly earn its place in the story, and cut the scenes that didn’t, the final manuscript ended up at 90K words.

  2. When I sent the book I’m currently working on to the beta readers they all expressed concern with the beginning. One said, “Once I got past the first six chapters, I couldn’t put it down!”

    Ouch. But I’d much rather hear it now than find out when the one star reviews start rolling in. And they were absolutely right. I knew there was something wrong but by that point I was lost in the trees, unable to see the forest, etc. and couldn’t identify it. Needless to say, much editorial slicing and dicing ensued.

  3. Call me Ishmael.

  4. The number one reason I will pass on a book (if the blurb or subject matter interested me enough to read a sample) is what I call “soulless reporting.” Characters pick things up, put them down, walk across rooms, open doors, say a few things, go through the motions and nothing is happening. Even if something IS happening, it’s so buried beneath mundane minutia it sounds boring. (I don’t know how masterful writers breathe life into the work, but they do and I can spot it right off the bat.)

    • My critique partner calls this stage direction and scolds me for it all the time. I’m horrible with interrupting things to mention that the waiter came and gave them napkins, or some such nonsense. Thank heavens I have her.

      As a reader I like a little of this to fill out my visual of the scene. Especially if it’s a character who is fidgety and nervous, and the constant picking up and putting down and straightening the silverware is part of who they are. But a little goes a long way.

      • Details like the waiter coming to give them napkins can be fun and can really make the scene feel more real, though. The key is to make those actions relevant to what’s going on between your characters. So if the dialog breaks off in a suspicious silence while the waiter gives them their napkins, that works.

        • You’re completely right. But in my drafts I have a habit of sticking those sorts of things in there not because they’re relevant, but just because the dialogue is going on too long and I instinctively break it up with something, even if the something is inane. Reeaaalllly long stretches of dialogue in general is one of my faults I have to stay on top of.

          In those cases cuts are usually the answer. But sometimes there’s an opportunity to replace the superfluous detail with one that serves a purpose. (Or sometimes the original detail I had in there serves a purpose that I don’t realize until later. Sometimes I just turn that waiter into an incognito demon with a vial of supernatural hell-poison that he just laced those napkins with, and it totally fixes something three chapters down the line.)

  5. That’s one of my bad habits. I got tired of my RWA chapter telling me my book actually starts on page 15, so I learned not to write pages 1-14. I’m a slow learner. It took me quite a while. Even so, I’ve cut straight into the conflict, or the violent event, or what have you, and still had readers report a slower-than-desired start.

  6. I still write the first dozen pages, but then I get rid of them and find only the things that have to be there, then find a way to make it into a few words or sentences somewhere else.

    Seems to work well!

  7. Oh man, I cannot count the number of traditionally published fantasy books I’ve read that really needed at least 50 pages chopped off the front.

    • The Hobbit. Started that book four times when I was a teenager. Just couldn’t continue. After threats 🙂 from high school friends I made it past the first several pages. Binge read the rest and TLOTR.

      Dan

      • Funny, I had more patience with it when I was a kid. I loved reading about the hobbit hole. Was completely fascinated. Now, I still like a fair amount of detail and especially when it comes to setting, but I also need a story to get moving at the beginning. If there’s not a white walker stabbing a Royce through the eye by page 10, I’m getting a little antsy.

      • I liked The Hobbit, but never got far into Lord Of The Rings. Of course, we were all playing the Hobbit computer game at the time, and you really had to read the book to figure out some of the puzzles in the game (I’m sure it was some filthy plot to make kids read, the scoundrels!).

  8. Most of the books I read these days could easily have 100 pages cut out. But it seems 300-400 pages is what has become expected.

    In reading reviews on Stephen King’s “A Good Marriage” a lot of negative reviews were given because it was repackaged and sold as a new story even though it had been previously published in the anthology “Full Dark, No Stars.” I can understand the complaint, but it was often referred to as “a short story.” It’s 253 pages. That’s a full-length novel, not a short story.

  9. A lot of the self-help books suffer from the same problem. There are so many involving book marketing and self-publishing that start out explaining the wonderful world of book marketing and self-publishing. Someone should have told the author that I already know about this wonderful world. I need you to tell me what you know about it that I don’t.

    I swear, as much as 30 percent of some of these books could be tossed before you get into the worthwhile information.

  10. *whispers*

    psssssst… wanna know how to plot a book flawlessly so that it moves at a cracking pace and gets directly to the character’s development practically from page one? Read The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Maybe the only worthwhile book on writing I’ve ever read.

    • Heard of that one, but never read it. I’ve often fought to find the real beginning of a story, but I think I’m doing it better now.

      I watched a video on Youtube a few weeks ago, following a link from a writing forum, where a screenwriter who was hired to write a Pixar movie went through all their earlier movies and deconstructed them until he worked out the formula they use to get their stories going. I don’t have a link, but it was pretty interesting, and probably also applicable to novels in many genres.

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