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Does Some of Your Book Belong on the Cutting Room Floor?

Biff Barnes

I love newspapers, especially the Sunday editions, because you never know what interesting idea or insight you might come across. This weekend San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick La Salle responded to a reader’s question in an exchange in Sunday Chron:

Q: Why are so many movies so long these days?

A: Very few movies need to be longer than two hours. Directors should make movies, not take hostages.

Courtesy of Andrew Dobrow under Creative Commons

There’s an important lesson for writers in La Salle’s comment. Most first drafts have a lot in them that doesn’t need to be there.

When you begin to revise your draft there are four basic ways to improve it.

  • Add details to enhance clarity or heighten drama
  • Cut anything that’s not necessary to tell the story well
  • Move something from one point in the story to another where it works more effectively
  • Change the way you tell a part of the story to enhance clarity or heighten drama

Cutting is almost always the most difficult for writers. It’s hard to see that something you’ve written is unnecessary.

Kurt Vonnegut offered two pieces of advice that are particularly useful in deciding what to cut as you revise your draft. (If you haven’t seen the YouTube video of Vonnegut’s tips on writing short stories, I recommend it. It’s less than 90 seconds long) Here’s what he has to say:

Tip #4 Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

Tip #5 Start as close to the end as possible.

If you went through your draft asking, “Does this reveal character or advance the action?” I’ll bet you would find some passages that could be eliminated. Are your characters revealed by the ongoing events in the unfolding plot or is characterization inserted in passages of exposition? Suppose you were working on the draft of what you plan to be a series of mystery novels and wanted to make sure to include all of your private eye’s backstory. Many of those details might have little to do with the story’s forward momentum. In fact, including them might stop that momentum altogether. If the details of the character’s backstory are important to the action they will emerge naturally as you relate what happens. If they don’t, cut them out and use them in a subsequent book where they might be more relevant.

Similarly, a well written story is not usually a chronological chronicle of everything your characters does. For example, you’re book is a political thriller. Your protagonist is a congresswoman who has decided to introduce legislation that is strongly opposed by powerful business interests in her district. On this day:

  1. The congresswoman gets a cell phone call just as she is ready to leave her home for the office. Two major donors demand a meeting with her to discuss her legislation. She agrees to meet them late that afternoon. She expects them to threaten to oppose her in the next election if she doesn’t drop her legislation
  2. The congresswoman has a busy day. She goes to the office and meets with constituents including a visiting middle school class, attends a committee hearing unrelated to her bill, and goes to the floor to vote on another bill unrelated to her legislation.
  3. The congresswoman meets the donors in a K Street bar.

Point two slows down or stops the action. You would improve the story by cutting it. Take another lesson from movies. Use a quick cut from the phone call to the meeting thus maintaining the forward momentum of the story. If you are concerned that things are getting choppy a sentence or two of narrative summary to capture the congresswoman’s day would smooth things out. But make it brief. This allows you to follow Vonnegut’s advice and get to the dramatic moment where the congresswoman meets with the donors with a minimum of interruption.

Sometimes the best thing you can do to pick up your manuscript’s pace and hold the reader’s attention, difficult as it may be, is to tighten things up with some judicious cutting.