You’ve just finished the first draft of your story and you can’t wait to revisit it, but when you do it feels like a blotted mess. It’s cluttered with character descriptions, meandering subplots, and quirky observations. You know you need to make some deep cuts, but you don’t know where exactly.
Here are some of the things that can bog down your story and what you can do to tidy them up.
Chekhov’s gun is a principle in storytelling based on Anton Chekhov’s quote, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”
Every setup should pay off.
An author with a strictly structured story won’t have problems with this. They’ll check their math and know where everything fits before they start.
I like to write with a loose blueprint so I can discover things as I go. The problem is I’m more likely to jam my stories with impulse setups, like little mysteries I think are cool in the moment, but are often forgotten.
If you write by the seat of your pants color-code the paragraphs that contain setups within your document. This will make editing easier later on. Once you’ve finished your first draft go to these setups and ask yourself, “Did I pay this off?” If not give it the ax.
Setups that Suck as Scenes
Have you ever seen a film where everything slows down to draw attention to specific detail? Perhaps the hero’s mother mentions that her daughter used to love diving before her father died. Everyone in the audience nods their heads knowing the hero’s diving background will come up again. Now that heroic plunge might be a heart wrenching moment later on, but why did the setup have to feel so inorganic and superfluous?
If you’re setting something up to payoff later make sure the scene is entertaining in the here and now. Those scenes are where you’re most likely to lose your audience. Put something intriguing on the surface before you challenge people to read between the lines.
Try using micro setups and micro payoffs. Use the first few scenes to setup your overarching mysteries, but also setup something that will pay off in that scene. Show readers that you’ll reward them for paying attention.
Early writers feel a need to convey a passage of time by padding out their story. They show characters entering and exiting scenes. They come into conversations as they begin and exit with the goodbyes. They write transitions between locations, as if travel details are obligatory for believability.
They forget that time jumps are part of storytelling, that they don’t need to show the process that led a character from point A to B to C, so long as A connects to C in some way.
Rather than padding out the passage of time you should find clever ways to convey it.
- Set a murder out on a frozen lake. Set the next scene in the springtime when fishermen find a bloated body.
- Give a character a flesh wound in one scene show it scabbed over in the next.
- Put your hero behind the wheel at sunset. Have an ominous moon hanging overhead when they arrive at their destination.
Arbitrary Emotional Cool Down
As a horror writer I try to consider how much emotional torture readers can take before they fling my book into the fireplace. If I just put the reader through a sequence of high tension and mounting dread, I want to ease off the throttle and give them a moment to breathe, to let them grieve the loss of a character, to allow the scales of hope and dread to balance back out.
My natural instinct will be to write a soft uneventful scene with some comic relief and a few minutes of character musings.
The thing is every scene should meet certain qualifications to justify their inclusion. There should be a conflict, something that advances the plot and reveals character details.
My first attempts at breather scenes eased back too much. They were boring. Not every conflict should be a matter of life and death, but there should always be something at stake.
It’s important to give readers an emotional cool down, an eye in the storm of blood, but you need to make these breaks eventful in their own way.
These seemingly innocuous scenes should plant things that will factor in later. Every story should see its hero go through a profound personal change. Now is a good time to check in on what their situation is teaching them. Might they learn a lesson here that could be essential to their survival? Fill these low tension scenes with meaningful developments.
When I wrote He Has Many Names I spent a lot of time researching hell and the devil. It colored the way I saw the world and tuned my ear to devilish things. Whenever I heard an idiom related to Satan I thought, “Now I’ve got to shoehorn that in.” I felt a compulsion to add Satanic puns in places the story didn’t need them. Fortunately my editors caught what I was doing and put a stop to it.
Solution: If you’re writing a vampire story you didn’t need to wedge every Twilight quip you can think of in. Just because youe subject is a well-trodden topic doesn’t mean you need to reference every incarnation of it. Over-referencing is a rookie mistake.
William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”
My first drafts have a lot of darlings, little wordplay witticisms that break up the action. I like to write in the first person, but my narrators can be overtly clever, snarky, and mean spirited.
I find most of my clever one-liners wear on me after a few edits. By the final draft my narrators are a lot more likeable.
I put my darlings into storage. It makes it easier to cut them. When a quirky line breaks up the flow of a scene I copy and paste it into its own document. Maybe I’ll re-gift it to a character who can wear it better later.
When editing ask yourself if that extra character detail sparks joy, if your settings are cluttered with too many descriptions, and if all your plot points are load-bearing.
Sometimes when a story feels like it’s missing something it’s because it has too many things it doesn’t need and the parts that matter are underdeveloped.
Stop hording unnecessary details. Every aspect of your story should serve the central theme. If they don’t then you’re going to need to tidy that shit up.