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Goodbye, Darling!: What to cut from your novel so that every word counts

I’m sure you’ve all heard the advice: kill your darlings, cut ruthlessly, make every word count. We all know that we’re supposed to eliminate anything in our novels that doesn’t move the plot forward or teach us something about a character, but it can be hard to know where to start. You’ve read it so many times and you’ve already cut pages worth of text. How can there possibly be more to cut? Only you can know whether something is vital to your story, but here are a few good places to look for flab you might be able excise.

Dialogue: Dialogue is vital to an engaging story, but in many books that I edit, I see dialogue that adds nothing to a scene. In an attempt to write dialogue that sounds “natural,” authors will write conversations that are just like the conversations we have every day. What’s wrong with that? In real life, we meander through conversations, we talk about things to pass the time, and we don’t worry much about whether the conversation is “important.” But in a novel, you can’t get away with such casualness. When a character speaks, it should provide something vital to the story. It should lead to action that moves the story forward or provide a character with something they need to know or establish a part of the speaker’s personality that affects the plot. If your characters are just exchanging their opinions on the best restaurant in town because that’s what real people do and you want your characters to seem real, cut that dialogue and find a different way to bring your characters to life.

Backstory and Info Dumps: Your protagonist flunked out of the University of Oregon. Or he worked for three years as a bartender. Or maybe he was a military kid that bounced around from state to state. Do readers need to know this? That depends on the story you are telling. If his failure as a Duck is what led him to create the start-up that is a major part of the story, then yes, absolutely, tell us about it. If he flunked out, quickly realized he needed to get himself together, and went back to school and graduated, barely affecting the trajectory of his life, then probably not. Authors frequently give readers more information then they need to know about their characters, so this is a good place to look for potential cuts. The same is true with world-building details. While it may be interesting that the residents of Earth circa 2500 use saltwater to fuel their flying cars, if it isn’t vital to the story, we don’t need a two-page description of how the engine works.

Scene Description: The setting of your novel impacts your story in numerous ways from determining how your character speaks (New England accent or Southern drawl?) to setting the mood (a dark and creepy castle versus a suburban tract home) to evoking emotion in your readers (a love story set in Poland during WWII versus a love story set in present-day North Carolina). Clearly, setting is important. But that doesn’t mean readers need an in-depth description of every location your protagonist finds himself in. If a setting is vital to the scene, then by all means, give us some details. But if it’s just acting as a backdrop, a rough idea of the location should suffice. Readers don’t need to know that there’s a white couch under the window, a sixty-inch TV in the corner, and orange shag carpet on the floor if this location doesn’t play an important role in the story and doesn’t tell us anything important about a character. (I mean, who is this guy with the orange shag carpet?)

Secondary Characters: Secondary characters play an important role in a novel. They can give readers insight into the protagonist or provide information about them. They can act in ways that move the plot forward. And they can add color or variety to a scene. But even when they are important to the story, we don’t need to know as much about them as we do the main characters. We might not need to learn much about their history or see things from their point of view. When looking for places to cut, deep dives into a secondary character’s life or psyche are good places to look. And if your secondary character doesn’t propel the plot forward or reveal anything about the main character? You might be able to cut them completely out of the book. Ouch, right? But unnecessary characters weigh your book down and distract readers from the really important characters. Give them a hug and then send them packing!

Removing text that you slaved over from your novel is hard. But if you want your story to be the best it can be, you have to be willing to cut deeply. When you think you’ve cut all you can, take one more look at the parts of your novel mentioned here and take out your scalpel.

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