Years and years (and years) ago, the very first time I sat down to write a story, I couldn’t wait to tell the reader everything. I love complicated plots, and I wanted to show my reader everything that my main character didn’t know: events behind the scenes, the thought process of other characters and the bad guy(s), an overview of events happening in the present, how certain things worked, etc. Literally, everything that happened in the story, as well as a fair bit of research, was included. You can imagine the big mess I ended up with. :)
Eventually, I learned the importance of streamlining a story. In other words, if it’s going to be in the story, it has to drive it forward. If my characters go on a tangent that doesn’t impact the story, my reader is going to wonder why-are-we-here-and-can-we-get-on-with-it-already. So, after you’ve got your first draft down, it’s good to go through everything and streamline as best you can. Anything that doesn’t move the story forward is padding—a.k.a. story fat. You don’t need it, and it can actually work against you.
Here are some common areas that are often story fat:
This is often information that the author needs in order to mentally round out the story, but the reader doesn’t always need it. Often, the spirit of the flashback can be conveyed in the storytelling itself. I think a necessary flashback is extremely uncommon, so if you’ve got one then you might want to take a good, hard look as to whether or not it’s necessary.
This can manifest in many ways. Sometimes it’s a handful of characters, sometimes it’s akin to omniscience, sometimes it’s just a quick perspective from another character who’s not a main character. This can work, but it’s often not necessary. And, it’s really, really easy to go overboard with it. Use with care.
Certain aspects of the main character.
If my main character broke her toe in middle school but it doesn’t affect anything in her current story, then the reader doesn’t need to know. In fact, he doesn’t want to know. The only thing we, as readers, need to know is what affects her right here, right now. If that broken toe kept her from running to push her best friend out of the way of a speeding car, then we’ll need to know. Otherwise, keep it in your list of ‘fun facts.’
Certain events around the main character.
We don’t care if the main character was the last kid to lose his first tooth in grade school. Unless, of course, it led to a ridiculous nickname, which he hates. Then we might want to know…maybe. We also don’t care if he was born in Cincinnati but grew up in San Diego. Unless something happened to him or his family in Cincinnati that is still affecting them in San Diego, it doesn’t matter. The only things that matter are what’s affecting him here and now.
I think many writers, in their excitement to tell their story, end up telling too much of it. In this case, less is often more—but it takes time, practice, and a healthy serving of objectivity to see it. A good critique partner (or group) can speed this up some. :) Disclaimer: don’t worry about trimming any fat in the first draft. Your first draft is basically a brain dump of your story, and you don’t need to worry about what’s important and what’s not. That’s what revision is for. :)