Home » Writing Advice » How to know what to cut from a novel

How to know what to cut from a novel

5 November 2019

From Nathan Bransford:

“Kill your darlings” is one of the most repeated bits of writing advice out there, but how do you know which darlings to murder? You need to decide what to cut from a novel, but it can be tricky.

Word counts matter. They don’t matter endlessly, but an overly long novel will adversely impact your odds of finding traditional publication, especially for a debut.

And even if you’re self-publishing, no one wants to slog through a novel from an author who never once pressed the “delete” button in the course of writing a 7,000 page tome.

If you are starting with a more average word count it’s still helpful to tighten things up as much as possible, so this post is for you too.

. . . .

Scenes that merely exist to “introduce” characters or a setting

Often writers make the mistake of padding their openings with scenes whose sole purpose is to establish a particular character or a setting and don’t otherwise advance the story. These chapters usually end up feeling unnecessary and a bit confusing because nothing at all important is happening.

Instead: Introduce characters and settings in the course of telling the actual story.

We don’t need an entire scene where nothing substantive happens just to get to know a character or provide exhaustive exposition. Just pick up where the story actually begins and trust that you can fill in the other details as you go along.

It’s much better to get to know a character in the course of the story unfolding than in an otherwise meaningless scene.

. . . .

Unfocused conversations

I see so, so many conversations in novels that are an almost endless series of meaningless false starts and misunderstandings.

Things like:

“My gods, what if the thingamabob were to fall into the wrong hands?”

“The what?”

“The thingamabob.”

“Yes. The thingamabob. I thought that’s what you said.”

“Did I stutter?”

“No.”

“Then why did you ask me to repeat myself?”

“I intentionally misheard you so you could repeat thingamabob for emphasis.”

“For what?”

“For emphasis.”

“I thought that’s what you–”

“Said. Yes. I also like finishing your sentences to show we are quite–“

“Mentally aligned. Ha ha ha. We just added four more lines of unrealistic banter where one could have done just fine.”

“Now I’m going to introduce a nonsequitur that makes no sense so you can introduce some exposition.”

“You already know this information as well as I do so there is no logical reason for me to be telling you this out loud, but I have some information the reader needs to know, which I will reveal in the most awkward expository dialogue possible. You see, a thingamabob is a–“

“Allow me to interrupt you in a misguided attempt to create a dramatic effect.”

“How dare you interrupt me! Now I’m mad, so you know this is quite important! A thingamabob is a–“

“One more interruption to make sure the reader is as annoyed as possible before they find out this information that is actually quite unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”

“Now I am furious! I am shaking! You see, a thingamabob is a [insert two pages of longwinded description only interrupted by Character B making meaningless comments so it doesn’t look like one single block of text].”

Needless to say: don’t do this.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Writing Advice

One Comments to “How to know what to cut from a novel”

  1. For an alternative POV, read JR Tomlin’s comment following.

Leave a Reply