So, you’ve written a book. Now it’s time to edit and revise it–and a lot of that revision, you’ll find, consists of taking things away. Chopping out scenes, dialog, and maybe even characters that don’t work, or don’t fit. When it comes to editing, the objective is to make the story as lean, clean, and tight as possible. You don’t want any chunks of unnecessary fat left over that will clog up the flow. When it comes to writing, there’s a difference between ‘juicy’ and ‘bulky.’ Juicy stuff livens up the story without slowing down the plot, while bulk makes the story stumble and drag.
How do you know what to cut away and what to keep, though?
Fiction and real life are very different in one big, important way: in a story, everything fits, makes sense, and comes together to create a meaningful resolution. When was the last time any drama or struggle in your life resolved itself in a clean and efficient way with all the loose ends neatly tied up? Life also isn’t full of connections and meaning. For example, sometimes you go out to dinner just because you’re hungry and want to get out of the house. But in a story, if your characters go to dinner, something important better happen at that dinner. Likewise, in real life sometimes you lose your keys or the cat barfs on the rug. That’s just life. In a story, these details are written to make you feel you have something in common with, or elicit sympathy for a character. Sometimes the lost keys or sick cat are a plot device, too.
How do you know what to cut out? Ask yourself these questions:
- Does it move the plot along? Every single scene has to be part of the plot, no matter what–if you want to show people washing the dishes, they need to be having an important conversation while they do the dishes, or they need to be thinking about how to resolve something. If a scene doesn’t have a connection to the plot, no matter how much you love it, it has to go. Bulk weighs a story down. If someone is pumping gas, the gas station better get robbed while they’re there.
- Is it important to the plot? If your character plays the piano, but nothing in the entire story has anything to do with a piano, then it’s just bulk to have a scene of your character playing the piano. Your detective wouldn’t stop in the middle of solving a murder to play the piano (unless playing the piano helps them work out cases in their head, then it’s a plot device). It’s fine to give characters traits and abilities to make them more real–that’s juicy–but if the piano has nothing to do with the story, then just have them mention their talent to someone.
- What purpose does it serve? Does this thing move the plot forward, create a distraction (to throw your characters off course), create conflict, cause a roadblock, solve a problem, or add information? If not, get rid of it.
- Will it change the story if you take it out? If the answer is no, cut cut cut!
All writers find themselves, at some point, having to cut precious words because they just don’t belong. If you don’t do it now, and you get picked up for publication, your editor will do it for you. Life doesn’t make sense, but a story has to. Maybe that’s why humans love fiction–for once, the chaos of life has meaning and order. Always make sure your stories have meaning, and take out the parts that just increase the chaos.