Monday, December 26, 2011

Using Characters and Scenes to Trim the Fat from Your Story: Part Two

This post originally went live on BRP on January 14, 2010. It followed a part one. Having just finished a first major editing on a manuscript that challenged me on so many levels, I felt the need to bring this piece back for a look-see. I hope you enjoy it and get something from it.

In addition to examining the characters in your story to trim unnecessary material, you can also look at your scene development.

As I edited the VBB, I saw a major need for the client to edit scenes. Back in 2008, I wrote a short piece titled “Developing Scenes” that’s worth a check out. It’s important to remember that scenes don’t have to start at the beginning. Now, what does this mean? Let’s say you wanted to write a scene in which your main character’s conflict was revealed. You plan to do this by having the conflict blurted out during an argument between the main character and her boyfriend. In your scene, you start with allowing us to see the main character driving home, then she walks into her apartment, then she checks her mail and phone messages, then she takes off her clothes and puts on something comfortable, and then after all of that the boyfriend comes home, and there’s a lot of conversation about nothing before we even get to the argument. This would be considered a very slow-reading scene. As a reader, I would be waiting impatiently for something to happen. You would be amazed, if you went back and read through your manuscript paying close attention to scene development, at how many words go into revealing nothing important about the story and characters.

With this issue, it’s important to ask yourself, “Where’s the best place to start a scene and end a scene?” You don’t want to start too early and slow the read, and you don’t want to drag a scene on.

In my piece “Developing Scenes,” I write, “Typically, we are ‘placed’ somewhere (setting). People are revealed to us (characters). Some idea, point, purpose, situation is presented to us (beginning). There is interaction amongst the characters (middle), and the scene concludes in a way that propels the story forward and makes us want to know what happens next (ending).” As you edit through your manuscript, you want to make sure that these elements are in your scenes and that each scene does what it needs to do to make your story sing, not lag.

To those writers who tend to write epics when a particular book doesn’t necessarily call to be epic-size, place this word on a Post-it near your computer: SCOPE.

I know there are a lot of pantsers out there, those who just sit and let fingers fly across keys until a story is done. However, to help limit scope, it might be a good idea to actually outline books before writing them. An outline can give you a sense of how big a book will be. If it looks like your book will hit the scale at 125k or more, then you can work to revise an outline instead of revising a whole novel. And as you do so, you can ask yourself what is the overall purpose of this story, what characters are absolutely necessary to tell this specific story, and what tension, development is necessary in order to tell that specific story.
Shon Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, writing, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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  1. I've always subscribed to the following when developing a scene: "Start late and leave early." Like ol' Joe Friday, just give 'em the facts.

  2. Right on, Shon! It's often amazing how much can be trimmed from a story without affecting it at all. In fact, the trim almost always improves flow and enhances reader involvement.

    Case in point: I love to read, but I have never read Gone with the Wind. I've started it, but the details bogged the story down so much that I let Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh tell me what happened. Why? It needed a trim - actually a full-blown cut.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing it again. :-)

  3. Great points and well worth repeating. Unnecessary details can really bog down a story. I like Christoper's suggestion to start late and leave early. I call this the fish-cleaning method of revising - cut the head and tail off scenes, paragraphs and sometimes even sentences. Quick example "She hung up the phone." If the reader already knows the character was talking on the phone,no need to write more than "She hung up."


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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