We writers love words. While that’s all good, sometimes we love them a little too much. My experience as an editor has taught me that what most books need is a liberal application of the DELETE button. Today, I want to help you learn how to cut down on some of those unneeded words so that the truly important ones can shine through.
Cut the Prologue
The easiest way to cut unnecessary bulk from your manuscript is to cut that prologue. Prologues are just the fluff before the story. They’re interesting to you, but your readers don’t care. They want to read the story you promised them, not an introduction to it. If you waste their time on a prologue, there are a couple of things that could happen. They could get frustrated and bored. That could lead to them putting your book down before they ever reach the first chapter. Or, they could really like the story and characters they find in the prologue, only to be disappointed when they realize those characters will never be back for the rest of the book.
I know, I know, the prologue contains essential information that your readers have to understand if they’re going to get the story. There’s no way you can just cut it out. If that’s how you feel, I have some news for you: you’re wrong. There’s about a 90% chance your readers don’t need to know what you think your prologue is revealing. Sure, it might be fascinating information about your characters or setting, but they don’t need to know it. If something in your prologue falls into that 10% of things that do need to be shared, you can find a better way to reveal it.
Here’s an example. In my latest novel, The Other Side of Hope, I originally had a prologue. It’s an alternate history story and I thought it was important to show people just what was different about the history of the world they were about to jump into. Then I realized I was setting up an entirely different story (that story is currently being made available to my email list subscribers!) by going into the past to explain things that could be more naturally revealed through the course of the story. So I ditched the prologue. Readers get plunged straight into the alternate world of my novel with no explanation for why things are the way they are. Hints are dropped as the plot progresses, but there’s never a history lesson. Care to guess how many readers have complained that they didn’t understand what was going on because there was no prologue?
Dump the Backstory
The most common place I see an over-use of words is by far character backstory. If I’m working on a book for a client and find long explanations of a character’s history, it’s the first thing I insist on cutting. If I’m reading a book for pleasure and come across the same thing, I stop reading immediately. So if you’ve got character backstory filling up pages of your manuscript, get rid of it. Now.
The caveat with this piece of advice is that character histories are important. Very important. I have pages and pages of character profiles for every project I work on. But all that detail is for you, not your readers. Having that information in your head allows you to bring the characters to life in a natural way. Spilling it out onto your manuscript just slows the story down and makes your readers bored. If you find yourself starting to explain why a character is doing something, or launching into a lengthy flashback, stop and ask yourself what vital information you’re trying to communicate to your readers. Then look for a better way to get that point across.
Another example. One character from The Other Side of Hope has a complicated history with his father. Instead of spelling that out in a flashback or internal monologue, it just gets referenced in a handful of conversations and passing thoughts. Readers never get the full story because they don’t need it. What they do get is enough to understand some of what drives that character. And that’s all that matters.
Erase the Explanation
Another common waste of words I see is over explaining the plot. We want our readers to understand what’s happening, so we go out of our way to make sure they get it. The result however, is condescending at best, and insulting at worst.
This is where the old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” comes in handy. Your readers are smart, you don’t have to explain everything to them. Let them guess, let them make connections for themselves, leave room for them to fill in some blanks. They’re reading your story because they want to use their imaginations. So let them do it.
In The Other Side of Hope there’s a major plot point that I never explain at all. The subtlest of hints gets dropped when the causal portion takes place (even my editor didn’t notice it) and when the consequences hit home, the reader is left to fill in what happened. Not a single reader has complained about missing something or being confused. Fair warning: if you do this poorly, you run the risk of creating (or at least being accused of creating) plot holes. If you do it right, however, you will create a story that draws readers in and keeps them wanting more.
Don’t Waste Words
Words are your tools and your treasure, so use them sparingly. Don’t waste them. Cut that prologue, keep the backstories in your notes where they belong, and allow your readers the space to stretch their imaginations (and their intellects).
R.F. Dunham writes with one purpose: to take you places you’ve never been before. That might be a distant fantasy land, the far reaches of space, the future of earth, or simply to an idea you’ve never encountered. A student of language and culture, Dunham’s stories will pull you into complex worlds that challenge your perception of your own surroundings.
R.F. lives in the foothills of Central Virginia with his wife, two cats, and a Newfoundland dog. If he’s not writing, he’s probably brushing that dog. Any remaining time is spent playing jazz trumpet, teaching music at a local high school, and hiking in the Virginia countryside.
You can subscribe to receive free serialized stories from R.F. Dunham and learn more at his website, DunhamWriter.com.”
Youo can also catch him espousing book reviews and writing wisdom on his podcast at WramblingWriters.
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