Which Do You Choose?

When, for whatever reason, you have to make large cuts in a manuscript, the question is: what goes and what stays? I will immediately dismiss the idea that you can lop off a sentence here and there to get to your target. You need entire scenes. How do you tell which scenes are more important than others?

A useful overall guideline is: how much does a scene affect the main character? If you want to be a good editor of your work, you should learn to choose a prism that governs your attack. For me, the first and foremost prism is viewed through the protagonist. In this case, what is the role the hero plays in each scene?

You may be surprised when you make judgments based on that standard. I’ll use a historical novel as a model, since so many are sprawling. If your subject is the Tennessee campaign in the fall of 1864, you are probably covering a variety of hardships suffered by the Confederate army. How many of those hardships affect the lead character in any substantial way? How many of the arguments about poor grub does the hero take part in? What you’ll find, when you look carefully, is that your lead is basically a bystander in a number of scenes. So they may be the first to go. 

The second fertile area is trickier, but not by much. Using the same prism, ask: how important is the scene to the protagonist’s ultimate goals? Using the same example, if your hero is a soldier who unexpectedly is gobsmacked by a bitter hill-country belle, to the point that he will go back to look for her after the Battle of Nashville, that should govern your thinking about scenes outside that plot line. Are all those scenes of General John Bell Hood madly cursing his fate really needed? Does the 100-page sequence covering the Battle of Franklin really have to include all of the nuances? 

Finally, consider what the payoff is for each scene. That is, it should be a building block leading to some larger aim. If you have three scenes of soldiers hunting squirrels because they are starving, you should realize you get shock value out of a topic only once. So pick the best of the three and cut the other two. If you have five scenes of generals discussing battle tactics, pick two, or three, that actually have an effect on the protagonist in the field. You should be aware that planning meetings are the most boring in any novel. Focus on the grunt, and you’ll probably be okay.

Exercise: On the converse side, if you created a minor romance that doesn’t end up going anywhere, that should be first in line. What you want most of all are cuts of an entire character. Look at your subplots. Could one be excised from this book and become a plot line in your next one?

"Drama is life with the dull bits cut out."  —Alfred Hitchcock

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.