What Are Bones

As an editor, I make a living from cutting text. So I know better than most that an attempt to strip away fat risks cutting into the bone. The problem is, how do you tell one from the other? While some decisions are subjective, depending on a person’s taste, I overcome this problem to a large extent by making a few value judgments.

The first is the dramatic weight of each character. You probably know your top five characters, but what about the ones that fall outside that top tier? You can run an easy test to determine each character’s value to the book. Go through the manuscript and make a rough count of the pages in which the characters actively make a difference in the story line. Exclude mere mentions or scenes in which they are part of the background. Once you see the totals, you can make a sensible decision about which ones could be pared back or excised altogether. Cutting out the minor scuffling can save a ton of pages.

A harder decision involves characters that interact with the book’s protagonist. In general, you want to keep all of your hero’s scenes. Yet you can use the same measuring stick with the characters interacting with him. How much of a difference does a scene make in the book? Those scenes that have less impact on the main plot—such as phone calls home to mom, written to show the main character’s personal side—might be mostly changed from full dialogue-driven scenes into narrative summaries, taking up a paragraph. Scenes with colorful cameos, such as drunken college friend Claire, might be dropped altogether. Maybe you can develop Claire into a major character for your next book.

A third option is a main character’s minor plot lines. You know where she’s going in general, but what about the side trips along the way? If she’s trying to solve who killed her sister, for instance, how much time are you spending on her visits to the police station to hear the indifferent detective report the same lack of progress? One scene of no progress is plenty; summarize the rest in a paragraph apiece. Or, does she continue to probe a suspect when the plot developments have clearly moved beyond that initial logic? You should cut back those later scenes to the essentials. Finally, how much space is being devoted to background information about characters whose importance is tangential? Are all of those background stories, even the ones involving the heroine, really providing that much illumination?

Exercise: Judging according to a character’s plot function sounds mechanical, but what your characters do for your story line constitutes the book’s bones. If Aunt Mathilda is merely cute and funny, adding local color, she isn’t a big loss. If Aunt Mathilda keeps doing things that make her vital, then you’d better hold back.

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
—Scott Adams

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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