Tuesday, December 20, 2011

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

This post originally went live on BRP on January 13, 2010. Having just finished a first major edit on a manuscript that challenged me on so many levels, I felt the need to bring this and part two back for a look-see. I hope you enjoy it and get something from it.

Every year, I edit a slew of manuscripts – short stories, flash fiction, novellas, novels, etc. The biggest book I had ever edited before this time was about 200,000 words, and that story was about 80,000 words too long. A lot of slash-and-burn occurred for that literary baby.

But in 2009, I met my biggest adversary: a book that was over 330,000 words. No, this was not a Twilight saga. No Harry Potter. No The Lord of the Rings. This was a contemporary novel, a blend of street, urban, and literary fiction.

It was, by far, one of the cleanest reads I have ever read. The writer is extraordinarily creative and talented.

Despite these glowing praises, the book was way too long. Typically, I would have helped the writer slash and burn the book down to a nice length, but it was difficult to do so with this project because everything in the book “seemed” to belong there. After reading the book once before editing, I realized that two problems hindered this VBB (very big book) from being a good size: characters and scenes.

In May 2009, I wrote a BRP piece titled “Eight Questions for Writers.” The very first question in the list is “Who is your main character?”

If you have a book that needs to be cut and cut BIG TIME, then you seriously should consider this question. In the book I edited, though the client told me who the main characters were, everyone was a main character. Every character had a backstory, nearly every character had a story arc, and there were so many characters that I needed to index them and take notes while I read so I could keep up with who did what when and how all the characters connected with one another. No reader will take that kind of time to read your book. They just won’t. We read, typically, to escape and to enjoy another place, another set of people. There’s nothing escapist or enjoyable with having a slew of main characters that we have to keep meticulous tabs on.

So, ask yourself, “Who is your main character?” Realize, there will be supporting, minor characters that help main characters, but all of these characters do not need full-blown stories of their own; that’s why they are minor and supporting. At least one read-through of your completed manuscript should be conducted to edit out any material that over-inflates a minor/supporting character’s role in a novel and to make sure your main characters are developed as necessary.

Part two will look at scenes and scope.

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'm looking forward to part two. I have a book I've put on the shelve because there are too many main characters and it makes my story drag.

  2. This is a very thought-provoking article, Shon. Sometimes, we writers are too close to our work to see where needed "trims" will benefit our stories. (Here's where a good editor comes in.) And as you note, a well-written but overweight piece makes that task particularly challenging. This is a good piece. Thanks for reposting it. :-)

  3. Good question that I will use whenI reattack my NANO script. Looking forward to part 2. Thanks for sharing.

  4. My husband was once reading at night in bed and suddenly got up to head into his office.

    "What are you doing?"

    "I can't keep the characters straight. I'm going to make a spreadsheet."

    I said, "Wow. Really?"

    He looked at me, replaced that book with a new one, and got back into bed.


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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