Monday, April 30, 2012

Trimming the Fat

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.

Multiple POV.
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. :)


LM Preston said...

I love flashbacks instead of prologues or information dumps.

Stina said...

If a flashback is due well, I like them. I had to add some in my ms at my CP and beta readers' request. They were right. The flashbacks were necessary to enhance the emotions of the story, which is partly about the mc's dead brother. Without "seeing" her interact with him, some of the emotional impact of the story was missing. But I only sparely used them and I kept them short.

Brent Stratford said...

Thank you Tabitha. This is awesome. I completely agree with every point.

One of the things I do is actually write the critical scenes in the back story but I don't include them in the book. This lets me get the desire to write them out of my system and really helps me know and understand the characters better. More often than not I can show the results of the backstory in current events without needing to actually include a flashback.

I also wanted to make a comment on POV changes/head hopping. I just finished reading The Girl in the Steel Corset and it head hops like no ones business. The end result is that you feel like there are several main characters and you don't care about them as much. It would have been much more intriguing to leave some of that mystery there and have a single character struggle to learn it.

Love the recommendations and will be passing the link on to several folks in my writer's group who struggle with this.

Catherine Stine said...

I tend to overwrite in my first drafts and I always trim a LOT after that. The more you trim, the more the true story has the "breathing room" to emerge.

Kelly Hashway said...

I'm not a fan of extra info that serves no purpose. I nail my editing clients on it all the time. Awesome post!

Tabitha said...

LM - they are definitely more effective, that's for sure. :) I guess it depends on the story...though I can't think of any situation where an infodump is okay. :)

Stina - same here. I read a story recently that utilizes the spirit of flashbacks very well, except it's more of a flashforward: Vesper and Havoc by Jeff Sampson. There are two stories going on, the one being told is in the past, and there are snippets of what's happened in the future. Not much, but enough to show us there's so much more going on. It's really cool.

Brent - I'm so with you on head-hopping. It drives me crazy. 99% of the time it's not necessary, either. And YES it's so much more effective when you have one MC, who you follow through the story and try to figure things out with them. Too often, the reader learns stuff before the MC, and then we sit around waiting for them to catch up. I'd rather be on the edge of my seat. :)

Catherine - so true! I think most writers overwrite in their first drafts. I'm the opposite, and I end up with a skeleton. I use subsequent drafts to put some meat on the bones. :)

Kelly - thanks! I think it's a very common mistake. BTW, did you see who won last month's giveaway?? You should check it out... :)

Natalie Aguirre said...

I so had to learn this the hard way. My first manuscript was 30,000 words too long for a middle grade novel. It took many revisions and cutting out some of the unnecessary details and scenes to get it right. Now I'm trying to be more conscious of the fat as I go. Thanks for your tips.

Tabitha said...

Yep, I think most writers learn this the hard way. I did, too. My very first novel just kept going and going and going because I didn't know that everything needed a purpose. :)