Wednesday, May 12, 2010

You Can Cut Anything, But Should You?

We've all heard about query letters. And, one of the paragraphs in a standard query letter is a plot synopsis--your book condensed into a hundred words or less. It introduces your characters, the conflict, the main plot points, and the ending. In other words, it tells your entire story in a very focused and very efficient way.

But, is it as fun to read?

Often on the internet, and among my own (fantastic) writer's group, we'll stumble upon a problem sentence or scene. And, in the midst of trying to edit that scene, the writer will eventually say, "You know what? I can cut this entire thing and it doesn't hurt the story at all." I always cringe when I hear that, but up until now, I never really understood why I had such a problem with it.

Then it struck me. Each time we make a decision to cut out a problem instead of fixing it some other way, we bring our story closer to that one-paragraph plot synopsis in our query letter. Which, may seem fine, right? Short and concise is fine...right?

Well, if that's the case, why don't we just publish our plot synopses? Every story really can be reduced down to the bare bones, the focused story with no bells and whistles. But, should it be?

In other news, did I tell you all that I got a puppy? Except, it's not exactly a puppy so much as a praying mantis that climbed onto my herb garden when I put it out to sun a last week. Last night, Manty shed its skin and came out twice as big as it was before. I'm so proud! Tonight, I'm going to try and glue some fur on it.


  1. You bring up a good point, Davin. When cutting scenes (something I tend to do less of since I started planning each one), one should consider not only whether the cut hurts the story or not, but also whether the scene adds any dimensions to the story that are otherwise missing.

  2. I always try to argue with myself about writing a scene that's a little slow with the pace, or cutting one of the same. I usually tell myself that action/ purpose doesn't have to be on the surface, and if the scene is showing us something about the characters that we otherwise wouldn't know and need to know, it's okay. In that case, I also usually try to cram several of these tidbits into one scene (as naturally as possible) so the reader doesn't have to work super hard to get them. I do this in reaction scenes, also, so it gives the reader a break from action/ tension/ heavy emotion.

    I have no idea if I have a valid point with myself or not but I argue it every time. I'm not typically inclined to cut scenes because I tend to write only the bare bones of the story as it is.

  3. That's a very astute remark. Sometimes it's the small and possibly irrelevant details that bring charm to a piece of writing, as your (not) puppy story illustrates.

  4. Matthew, Dimension is a great word for what I was trying to say. I think I want my stories to have several dimensions, especially those dimensions that aren't necessarily understood on the first read. I like my stories to be like praying mantises, shedding layer after layer of skin.

    L.T., I often have a similar dialog in my head. Especially since my early drafts tend to be very spontaneous, I often ask myself before cutting why a certain scene or sentence popped into my head at the moment. It may only be there due to some association with the actual story, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily invalid.

    Jane, Manty doesn't make very man astute remarks itself, so I have to work harder to make them for the both of us.

  5. Congrats on the puppy. I have a golden who has never outgrown his puppyhood. He's now ten. He still tears up the garden and digs up the yard when the mood strikes. SOmetimes even all the discipline in the world can't change that behavior. *sigh* We still love him though!!!

  6. You can box train a mantis, you know.

    I agree that you shouldn't cut scenes or passages simply because you can't figure out right away how to get it right with whatever technique you're trying. You should keep working on that technique. Failing that, you should find another way of accomplishing your storytelling goal (that is, replace the failed scene/passage/whatever with one that does work for you), but just hacking out stuff when it's not perfect isn't the solution, either.

    Though, you know, whenever I revise things, I make monstrous cuts and the total length always ends up growing. But that's because I replace things, I don't just remove them.

    I'm reading Victor LaValle's "Big Machine" right now, and it's a sprawling, messy story and I have no idea where it thinks it's going or what it thinks it's about, and that's one thing I like about the book. Just last night I was telling Mighty Reader that I'm sick of thinking about books in some artificial and constrained "agents say we have to get to the point and stick to it" sort of way. The middle of my Hamlet book is going to be a 30,000-word digression about empiricism versus received wisdom, and there will be a pantomime on the beach in the wreck of a ship, too. Why? Because I want the story to point at lots of things outside the plot. I have been thinking that some of the best books have only made their meaning clear to me years after I read them.

  7. A timely post, Davin. I struggled with a sentence in a recent story that I couldn't seem to fix. I finally deleted it and didn't miss it after letting the story sit for a couple of days. Still, deleting a troublesome sentence/scene may be the easy--but not the best--way out of a problem section.

    BTW, thanks to Michelle and Scott for their responses at my Six Questions For blog (, and to you in advance for your post on Friday.

  8. You see, it's the layers thing again, or as Matthew so astutely put, dimensions. A synopsis doesn't show layers like a manuscript can. It can TALK about them, but you won't be immersed in them.

    To me, a synopsis tells, and a manuscript shows. A poem can show, too, possibly even better than a manuscript can, so length isn't the issue at all.

    We can all spout out great ideas. I'm currently writing ideas for my film projects - plot stuff, but the real magic (which I won't be doing) is when the director and actors bring life to the plot and make it something surrounding an idea, not just the idea itself.

  9. I was reading Sol Stein this week and had an epihany about problem scenes and writer's block. I had a couple scenes in a row that I couldn't get right, even though the plot was moving forward and the characters were doing what they were supposed to do. And knowing that, I was having a hard time moving forward. I'd done all the traditional things to "fix" the scenes, and then read Stein's perspective on adversarial relationships in scenes. There was already conflict, there was already suspense and tension within the chapter, but I had all these scenes in a row where the two characters on stage were in perfect agreement. Bleh. I could have cut the scenes and added the information they contained later, that would have been much easier, but instead I went back and added some conflict between those characters. And I suddenly had a richer sub-plot to carry forward. Thinking of that experience together with this post, I'm convinced that those scenes that don't "work" right away are often opportunities. We won't know what they might lead to unless we explore them.

    Great post. Thanks!

  10. Jim: Thank you for the questions and posting them. We just received a really great discussion piece over in our "Ask a Question" post (click on it in the right hand column) concerning an answer to one of your questions.

  11. Awesome post :)

    I was just thinking that. I'm trying to write a short story (not too short though, something like Chandler's short stories), and I'm used to writing novels...

    So I wrote three pages, deleted them and wrote four paragraphs on top of that. Which was okay, and there was a point to it. I think. It's hard figuring out what matters and what doesn't.

    Well ;)

  12. You can't tell people you got a puppy and then say "no no, it's really an insect" .. that's just fair!! Unless you teach it to fetch. In which case... I will need to see a youtube video asap. :)

  13. Great post.

    Cutting is usually so painful that i have no problems taking out as little as possible :)

    I think what it comes down to is being stubborn enough to search until you pin down EXACTLY what isn't working instead of taking out the entire thing.

  14. I'm late to the discussion and normally I wouldn't post, but I complete disagree with this. I used to do this exact thing a lot, but I didn't know what I do know. A sentence does not matter; a tree is of little consequence in a forest.

    Deleting sentences or scenes or in my case, entire chapters does not cheapen the story. First if I cut 15 words out of 80,000 words in no way equates to a 500 word summary. But mostly, to me this, logic is quicksand. It will only keep you on the hamster wheel, chasing your own tail, insert analogy here.

  15. Zuccini: Thank you for joining the discussion, even if it's late. We don't mind.

    I think it's important to look at our works as a whole, like you're implying here. Taking out a sentence here or there, even sections or chapters, may not have a significant effect on the book. I suppose it would depend on how great those things are that you remove. Of course, if you're removing them, they probably aren't great. I, personally, am a huge fan of cutting and trimming and keep the story as short as possible.

    I'm not sure Davin's post here clearly points out that cutting is necessarily bad. I think he brought this up just for discussion to see what we think. :)

  16. I tend to overwrite, so I cut at about the rate Stephen King recommended in On Writing when I revise (10%). This cutting usually refers to sentences and phrasing. Scenes are a lot harder to call when I'm editing. Sometimes, they're a "darling" as the old phrase goes, and I need to murder them. They might be cool or splashy, but they're not moving the story forward. I keep these scenes in an out-takes file. Sometimes they get put aside for another project, but usually I find I can mine them for a nugget of dialogue or a shiny detail.


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