Swallowing a Loss

From the grand mishmash of story threads that weave through a writer’s mind while writing a novel emerges a structure that channels these different impulses. While not every piece needs to correspond to the whole, the author needs to be wary of any tangent of significant length. That happens for various reasons, and a common one is: what is left over from a previous draft.

For the purpose of illustration, perhaps the thread metaphor should be colorized. I do that with plot charts during editing. Each major character is assigned a color so that, at a glance, I can tell when one of them has been neglected for a long time. You can also assign a color to certain character pairings: the protagonist-antagonist, protagonist-friend 1, protagonist-friend 2, etc. That way you can track how relationships build.

With such a tool in hand, you can better judge how pieces from an old draft have survived. Seeing the forest for the trees is important in this regard. If you decided after reading over a draft that you needed to add more scenes with a bereaved widow, you need to judge how episodic the new additions are. If she appears only after 40-, 60-, or 80-page gaps at a time, you know the reader isn’t going to care much about her grief. It hardly ever shows up in the book. That raises a knock-on question: what scenes still fill those blocks of text in between her appearances? 

The reason I am pointing this out is that, in my experience, authors are more willing to add new material than they are to cut existing stuff. Both are required if you’re trying to make a shift in a plot or character direction. Let’s say that the original judgment was: the story spends too much time on the widow’s life before her husband’s death. The scenes set in the past are too much of a drag on the present-day story. 

The new scenes of grief are written to push the book forward into the future. Yet if you make only faint-hearted attempts to pare down those past-marriage scenes, that remaining growth is choking out your new shoots. You have to clear more of the ground.

If you assign colors, you will see that very clearly. If the scenes with both wife and husband are red, how many of them still appear in your chart? The new scenes might be purple: the wife post-death with her daughter, say. Let’s add another decision you made: what happens between them will determine whether the wife kills herself in the ending. How well have you, the author, moved on?

Exercise: Vividness in storytelling counts. A full scene in the present contains dialogue, thoughts in the moment, etc. You can truncate those scenes you want to cut down by eliminating almost all dialogue and thoughts. Summarize them instead. Your scenes will be shorter, and they will have a more distant narrative tone.

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” —Colette

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.