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

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, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically, and her debut solo novel, Death at the Double Inkwell, will be released June 2010; you can read an excerpt here. 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 screenplays, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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  1. Very good post, Shon. It makes me wonder if the writer your edited perhaps had three or four books in one, with several minor characters vying for their own tale to be told.

    Straight From Hel

  2. Excellent advice. I recently sliced 10K words from my draft when I realized I was overdeveloping the relationship between two characters who had major roles in the story, but still didn't require that much attention.

  3. I have the opposite problem. I have trouble getting my word count up.

    Morgan Mandel

  4. Wow, that really is a long book. I've edited books that were too long but the culprit was filler rather than characters and story line.

    Great blog.


  5. See, now I'm the geek that would like that book with all its density and richness. I sure wish there was a way we could publish books today that are more like War & Peace or A Suitable Boy...

    But I agree with the probable impossibility of getting it published in today's climate, and I like Helen's suggestion of telling a couple different versions of the tale.

  6. Very helpful post, Shon. And what should be an inspiration to all the writers who read the blog is your bio. Certainly there must be at least three or four of you to accomplish all that you are doing. I stand in awe. LOL

  7. Helen, that was one of the things I mentioned to the client after reading the book and before getting into edits. And that almost seemed like a viable idea until I learned there was a SEQUEL to the book! I haven't read it, but I think it would have to be read to discern how you could go about possibly breaking up the story in order to make several books from it.

  8. Morgan, here's something weird. Before I pursued my MFA, I wrote books that easily hit 90k. Since receiving my MFA, I have to work like crazy to try to get maybe 75k. Learned a lot about trimming the fat, and once I get to the 75k stage, I feel like the story I want to tell is DONE.

    To try to make the works bigger, I start asking myself what issues am I not covering of the main character might be useful in the book. What could happen to the MC to create even more conflict, tension.

  9. Watery Tart, the minute I knew the genre of the book, I said, "This book is WAY too long." There are some genres where we might expect a nice weight to the book, but with this book's genre - a blend of street/urban and literary - not so much.

    I flip-flop a lot. Some days, I want a quickie to read, and other days, I want that nice, big, juicy book that causes my tendinitis to flare just from having to hold the book as I read, LOL

  10. Aw, thanks, Maryann. :-) I appreciate that.

    And thanks for checking out the entry, everyone!

  11. I'm looking forward to the rest of this! Thanks!

  12. Great post!
    With every book I write, I seem to trim the secondary characters even more. You're right - no one is going to take notes while they read just to keep up with the story!

  13. When minor characters take over one of the ways to solve the problem is to identify what traits of theirs are important and/or what they are adding to the story. Some of that can be given to the main characters; sometimes, though, you discover that some minor characters might be amazing, but they add nothing to the story and they really don't belong there.

  14. What a great post - I've never thought of approaching it that way :)

  15. As a writer, I tend to be rather succinct (I think). I can tell a story in 70,000 words or less, usually. I've written only one story that is (barely) over 100,000 words.

    As a reader, however, I love the big sagas. I love almost everything Michner ever wrote. "The Thorn Birds" was one of my favorite novels and I read every word of "The Ladies of the Club" twice (both required boxes of tissues). I have devoured all of Jean Auel's Earth's Children stories (even though she jumped the shark at "The Mammoth Hunters") and I'm eagerly awaiting the next in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.

    I like to lose myself in the world of a "really big book". I hope there is still a place for those stories in publishing. I don't think I want to write them, but I sure love to read them.

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  17. I liked the article. My second last novel could have been much longer, but realizing what Shon has pointed out and using techniques similar to hearwritenow's, I kept it trimmed.

  18. Like the tartlett, I like a nice long juicy tale sometimes. I just finised Wolf Hall - 700 pages or so and now I'm reading an earlier Hilary Mantel about the French revolution - just as long. She puts in all these character lists at the beginning and I get worried but it is no problem - it is good - good enough for a historical novel to win the Booker. that's good. And I'm thinking Dickens - man, hard to keep track of all his 'main' characters. Using your metaphor - sometimes you get a small fat Pekinese - trim that fat! But sometimes you get an elephant or a whale -not overweight - just big. Having said all that, I'm mostly the type that needs to fatten up my manuscripts...

  19. Thanks for this. I have way too many words and have cut and cut, but wasn't sure what else to do. I hate to take out ANYTHING at this point, but if I do, it might make my queries more successful.

    I haven't read my book in a while so I guess I'll have a fresh eye now.


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