How to Cut a Story

Discovery drafts almost always run long.  That’s because they’re writer-based drafts, not intended for readers or publication, they’re just the writer getting it all down on paper or screen.  You’re supposed to write long on a discovery draft; it’s the writing equivalent of taking the back roads so that you see a lot of stuff.  Yes, you’ll get there faster if you take the freeway, but all you’ll see is freeway.

But once you’ve explored, the next time you take the trip, you go for fast-paced and focused: You take the truck draft out on the highway.  You cut like crazy.

As always, there are many roads to Oz and if the following doesn’t work for you, ignore it.  This is just how I do it.

I break the manuscript into narrative pieces that are each a story on their own.

First I break into acts, the four big chunks that make up the entire novel.  I’ve been working on the first act in here, but I have parts of the other acts done, too, because I don’t write in chronological order.  (Somewhere, Bob screams.)  For the purposes of this discussion, we’re just looking at the first act in discovery form.

So the first thing I did in the transition from discovery to truck draft was to break  it into units that had a relationship to each other–parallel scenes, scene sequences, etc.–and then make sure those pieces had a single narrative meaning::
Part 1: Two parallel scenes that propel the main plot protagonist and the subplot protagonist (who are also the love story) from the stable world into the unstable world in conflict.
Part 2: A scene sequence that shows the two meeting in conflict and the first move in their relationship that also establishes one of the major settings in the story and five of the main supporting characters.
Part 3*: A double scene sequence that shows each protagonist beginning to bond with her and his supporting characters, mini-teams, if you will, as they escalate the conflict.
Part 4: A transition scene to bring the protagonists back together again in conflict and begin their bond.
Part 5*: Double sequences of the two protagonists investigating both the mystery and each other separately, putting them in conflict with others and and escalating their frustrations.
Part 6: Parallel scenes of the subplot protagonist and his doppelganger to set up their subplot and escalate Nick’s emotional evolution.
Part 7: The last scene sequence to show how the protagonists begin to become a team under pressure, foreshadowing their love story and that they’ll bring their teams together for the rest of the book.

Most of these pieces were way too long, and the two starred* double-scene-sequence parts were all over the place as far as focus went.  But in order to know how much to cut, I had to go back to looking at Act One as a whole.

I figure out the word count benchmarks.  Cutting the fat in scenes is easy.  It’s when you get to down to muscle and bone that you need some parameters.  The entire act was at 41,000 words when I began to cut; my benchmark for a first act is about 33,000, give or take a couple of thousand words either way.  Dividing this Act into acts of its own, I knew I wanted four sections that were about 12,000/9,000/7,000/5,000, give or take a thousand or so in each section.  

Parts 1 and 2 work as the first mini-act in this Act: from Nita and Button in the car to Nita leaving the bar after the scupper is 12,000 words.  I can tighten that and will, but I won’t need to make major cuts.  This one ends in the soft turning point of Nita and Nick realizeing that neither of them is what he or she appears to be.
Parts 3 and 4 are the aftermath ending at breakfast where the first tentative relationship begins.  This second mini-act is at 11, 459 words, should be 8-10,000 words.  Since this part is that meandering double sequence, that’s the place most of those words are going to go, but the breakfast scene is also way too long by about a thousand words, so that’ll get the knife, too. It ends in a soft turning point: Nita and Nick leave breakfast as possible allies, still deeply suspicious about each other.
Parts 5, 6, and the first two scenes of 7 are Nita and Nick’s investigations which make them frustrated and angry, ending with opening the box at the hotel, which was originally part of Part 7 but that I now realize is a short transition scene.  That’s 14,333 words and it should be about, oh, 7000.  That double scene sequence?  Say good-bye to most of it. This act ends when Nita realizes the supernatural is real (Forcas’s head).
Part 7: Nita and Nick begin to understand who each other are and join forces at the climax/hard turning point where they decide to work together, and she tells him she’s in charge.  Should be about 5000 words, is 4044.  Excellent.

So time to cut.

I look at each piece to see redundancies, unnecessary chat, and extraneous side trails I’ve wander down, and I cut all of that.

As an example, look at the second sequence/second mini-act:
• Button takes Nita home and tells her about the Lieutenant; Nita shows that even drunk she’s a good cop when she gets Button to come across with her story: They’ve moved from strangers to co-workers who know things about each other.
• Nick talks to Dag and discovers he’s in love with Daphne and doesn’t want to go back to Hell.
• Nita tries to stop Button from doing anything rash; Button saves Nita’s life.
• Nick talks to Rab and discovers more about Nita while showing evidence that he’s changing.
• Nita takes the blame for the shooting, moving her partnership with Button into new focus.

The first fix is easy: That should be three scenes:

• Button takes Nita home and tells her about the Lieutenant.
• Nick talks to Dag and Rab and discovers they both want to stay on Earth, making him try to relate to them as human being, moving them from boss and employees to mentor and students.
• Button saves Nita and Nita takes the blame, moving them from co-workers to the beginning o a real partnership.  

Because Nick’s scene is going to interrupt Nita’s scenes at a high point, it has to be really short, not just a good parts version but an essential parts version.  So this is the part where . . .

I look at each scene in this narrative piece as a unit of its own.  We’ve talked about scene structure here, so I’ll just say I do the basics: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, escalating beats, climax.   Those two Nick scenes wander and repeat, and putting them together really shows that.  But it also shows that there was no there there: there’s no focus to that stitched together scene.  So I have to step back and say, “What the hell is this scene about and why should people read it when Nita’s getting shot at over in the other sequence?”  

The answer is in the larger chunk that this scene is part of: This narrative piece is about the beginning of teams and the beginning of the protagonists’ change.  Pick one, Jenny.  It’s about the protagonists change which leads them to actions that form teams as a way of showing that change.  MUCH better.

Example: Cutting Part Two

So Nita’s two scenes are now about Nita being honest with Button and questioning her for the truth and on the basis of that taking a risk for her that she wouldn’t have at the beginning.

And Nick’s newly combined scene has to be the parallel to that: Nick being honest with Dag and getting the truth from him, and on the basis of that shifting his by-the-book approach to his mission, something he wouldn’t have done at the beginning.

For Nita, that just means cutting the last double scene to emphasize that.  For Nick, it means a massive cut and rewrite.  Which is where I look at scene benchmarks: If a scene gets much over 2500 words, I’m not happy.  

The first scene in Button’s PoV is 2070 words.  That’s easily benchmark territory, so I can just sharpen it as I do the paper edit.

The next scene is Nick’s two combined rambling scenes.  They clock in at 3949 words.  They should be less than half that, so that’s a major cut based on the focus of the scene.  Any important info that goes I can put somewhere else.

The third scene is Nita’s two combined scenes.  They add up to 1910 words, which again is benchmark.  I can tighten them still because I’ll find redundancies, but that’s still benchmark.

The fourth scene is the transition/breakfast scene.  It’s 3,524 words.  I’m actually okay with this one being longer than the preceding three because it’s not part of that scene sequence, but 4000 words is about 1500 too many.  So major cuts to focus this one.  

That means I did a quick read-through of the first scene, hacked the living hell out of the second one, tightened the third one, and then went in with a scalpel on the fourth breakfast scene.  Knowing the word counts tells me where to cut, not because it’s an arbitrary number but because it tells me where I went on too long on one story beat.  

So that’s what I’ve been doing.  Where am I now?

The first part is 2092 words, which is ten words more than the previous draft.  In other words, it’s the same, and within my benchmarks.

The second part is 2300 words.  I need to cut about another 500 words on the paper edit, to make it shorter than the previous scene, but hey, better than the original 3949.

The third part is at 1792, so still well within the benchmark.  I’m good.

The fourth part is now at 2560, instead of 3524.  It’s still too long, but much better.

And the good news is, I always find more to cut on a paper edit.  It’s the Paper Cut.  

So how do you cut a novel?

  1. Divide the entire novel into acts and establish diminishing word count benchmarks for each act.
  2. Divide each act into structural units–parallel scenes, scene sequences, transitions, etc.–and determine what the focus for each unit is, then cut to emphasize that focus.
  3. Combine the structural units into mini-acts and establish diminishing word count benchmarks for each act.
  4. Look at each scene within the mini-acts and cut to focus, using scene word counts as benchmarks.
  5. Put the whole thing back together and do a paper edit, cutting every extraneous paragraph, sentence, and word.  
  6. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Or as the best book about writing ever published put it:

17. Omit needless words.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

That’s how I cut a story.

9 thoughts on “How to Cut a Story

  1. My last read-through of anything I write for other eyes is “Omit needless words.” From you, I’ve learned the ways, layers and structure of tightening. Thank you, and .

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  2. We have been slowly organizing our books (we are still moving in 3 years after we started) and I believe we have found 5 copies of that book.

    Are you doing this with the whole book now or just Act 1?

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    1. Our whole household is in mourning. He could establish a character in one sentence, and take the piss out of anyone in under four minutes. Pure genius. RIP.

      And also, I learn so much from these posts. Thank you for sharing the process.

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    2. Thank you for lightening my day with that wonderful piece! I can see that my day will now be spent going down the youtube rabbit hole of his comedy…

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  3. Thanks to you, I’ve learned to cut and kill my darlings even in academic writing. Muchos gracias.

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  4. This is interesting and inspiring. As is my favorite S&W quote: “Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

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  5. For someone who wasn’t writing this book, you sure are writing the hell out of it. I love these posts – always helpful to review the bones. Thank you!

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