Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Cutting the story flab

I've talked about major reconstruction of story lines before (here) but this one's a little different. I was revising a short story recently and had the feeling that it was longer than it really needed to be. It was clocking in at just over 9k -- which is a hard sell in the market, too -- and writing it had been kinda fraught with insecurities for various reasons.

Being a world-builder, I'm always itching to do it. My gut kept insisting that the gender politics needed more explaining... but this is just a short story. You don't have to explain everything. (You don't have to explain everything in a novel, either, but that's a different post.)

It's been a while since I've used my revision avatar.
Anyhow, I singled out one scene that could definitely be cut. Why? Because it's mostly me caving in to the world-building itch. My MC is being shown around and explained to, rather than doing/realizing/progressing. Onto the chopping block the scene went.

But: that's not to say there was no useful information at all. I didn't want to make a hole or leave readers confused.

What to keep
Before cutting the scene, I looked through it for:
  • new characters met
  • first descriptions of people or places -- a subset of world-building, true
  • character arc moments -- questions raised, answered, realizations made
  • plot developments -- usually the scene's being cut for a lack of these, but check for them anyway
  • essential world-building -- see below
In my case, there were some detailed first descriptions and some minor character moments that needed to be salvaged. Then I tossed hundreds of words of tension-less world-building (read: infodumping.)

None of it was essential? Correct, because this is a short story. I was only introducing things that would be seen later, in my case. Were this a novel, that could be given a little leeway. This is a short story that's already on the too-big side, though. The reader can meet these details as they happen during a plot-relevant moment. Anything that doesn't happen during a plot-relevant moment isn't strictly necessary.

What to do with them
So I had a handful of scraps that I needed to work into someplace else. I went looking for:
  • relevant conversations, or ones that can be steered toward the topic
  • descriptions at more relevant moments that could be expanded a bit
  • if there'd been new characters to meet, a better place or possibly drop the character entirely
Overall, I cut 1500 words and worked about 300 back in. Net savings: 1200 words. It's still big for a short story, but we'll see if there's any use for it.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I imagine it's more difficult with a short story as there is so little space in which to work. Every word has to count.

Liz A. said...

I once read a "short story" that was 3/4ths world building. While the world building was fascinating, and if there had been a novel in that world, I would have been interested to read it, most of that info was completely unneeded for the story.

It was a great object lesson.

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