Friday, November 14, 2014

Kill What? What to Do When You Need to Cut a Major Part of Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I once had to cut a major (and awesome) event from the end of a novel I was writing. This event was so important to me, the entire magic system developed from it, and a huge chunk of the book lead up to it. But after several months of struggling during revisions, I realized I had a problem.

That awesome event wasn't working with the novel I had written.

I knew I had to cut it, but I didn't, because it was, well, awesome. And I loved it. And I'd pictured this event in my mind so clearly I could feel it.

But it wasn't working.

I spent a few months trying to make it work before I accepted that it had to go. It really killed me to kill it, but I couldn't write the novel I knew it could be without cutting that particular event. Once it was gone, and I re-outlined the new ending, my revisions got back on track and the novel was much stronger.

Even if getting there felt like I was cutting off a body part.

How I Knew it Wasn't Working 

The most obvious clues were my critique partners saying, "this ending feels like it's part of another book," and "I really don't care what happens in X." This event took place in a separate location from the bulk of the novel and happened to people the reader didn't know. Of course they wouldn't care.

(Here's more on making readers care)

The other clue was the way the rest of the novel kept heading in a different direction, and resolving that awesome event didn't resolve (without a lot of contrived plotting) the core conflict and main goals of the protagonists. And even with the contrivances it was iffy.

The last clue was my own instinct. I knew it. I could feel it.

Clues You Might Need to Cut a Critical Event From Your Novel

1. Your writer's instinct says so. 

We often know (even if we don't want to admit it) when something isn't working. This is a different feeling than those "is this working?" doubts we all get from time to time. Being unsure of a project is normal, but that keep-you-up-at-night dread that it's just plan wrong? Odds are your instinct is on target. Trust yourself.

2. You're doing plot gymnastics to make it all work. 

Plot events should flow from one to the next. Things should feel inevitable, not forced. If you're banging your head on the keyboard to fit the pieces together, that's not a good sign. Sometimes we get the best plots from trying to make two ends meets, but if your working too hard to make it work, it's probably not working.

3. The reasons to arrive at that event aren't plausible. 

Characters should have strong motivations and reasons to do what they do in a novel, and if those reasons are weak, the novel will likely feel weak. If you can ask one or two questions why and the whole thing falls apart, you're probably on shaky ground. Same as when you answer those questions with "because that has to happen for X to happen."

4. Resolving that event leaves a lot of loose ends for the story. 

This is especially true if the event is in the third act of your novel, or the climax. This loose end feeling usually happens because the event is not connected or integral to the rest of the story. It feels like a major part of the book, but it doesn't resolve the things the characters need fixing. It's not driving plot in any way, it feels more tacked on.

5. No real stakes for that event. 

Odds are there are stakes, but they're likely to be the large, yet vague "lots of lives will be lost" type. On first glance they seem high, but the reader (and often the characters) don't care if it happens or not. They're not invested in it. It's not personal to the protagonist. If this event can happen and things really don't change one way or the other for the main characters, you might want to take another look at your stakes here.

(Here's more on what to do when plots go astray)

What You Can Do When a Major Event Needs to Go

1. Cut it. 

It'll be hard, but the story will be the better for it. Allow yourself to follow where you plot naturally leads. Save the original scene(s) in another file to make the cutting easier.

2. Move it. 

While this wasn't an answer for my event, sometimes moving an event to another part of the story can give it new perspective. It might work better as a trigger to another part of the plot than as a result of one.

3. Change who's in it. 

The same event might work better if it happens to/with different characters or people.

(Here's more on crafting better plots)

Realizing there's a fundamental flaw in your plot is never fun, but if you look at it objectively, you can usually find the answer and fix the problem. Even if that's banging on the delete key in a big way.

Have you ever cut a major plot point because it wasn't working? How did you handle it?

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. What to do when a major part isn't working?

    Curl in the fetal position and cry. Then eat lots of ice cream and spend time in denial...

    Oh, you mean HELPFUL things. :D Because that's what I normally do.

    This is a great list. Normally it's the big twist that doesn't work for me, and I have to move it up to the midpoint or sooner. This is a great guide!

  2. I'm faced with that now--my book had a split personality in the tone. Both halves were great writing (even agents said so) but never the twain shall fit. I've had enough time away that it won't hurt quite so much to cut it, but it's still hard enough.

  3. I wrote a lovely little story once that unfortunately topped the scales at 150,000 words. Started trying to trim it but I was ending up with holes in the plot. Then I realized I had too many story lines mixed together. I separated them out and set some aside for a totally different book (just need some different characters). Rewriting the remaining lines. Works much better this way.

  4. Needed this now. Thanks so much!!!

  5. Thanks Janice and commentors. I'm struggling with this myself right now. I know I have to cut a large chunk from the first draft, since the rest of the story has changed drastically in revision. I just don't want to *sigh*

  6. What about the option to take the disconnected event out, set it aside, and use it to write a new story?

    Then, if you fix the original and have that new story, you then have two stories.

    I know I play with different permutations of different character types in my stories. And then there's how the traditional fantasy and urban fantasy series actually end up having some comparable characters—like each one has a cat shapeshifter, an accidental murderess, a lunatic, someone freakishly hard to kill, and someone who's prone to mental breakdowns. (…Actually, all those got tossed into one character, in my traditional fantasy stories.)

    Anyway, my one urban fantasy series is actually my second one started (but first with a novel done), because I came up with the novel's MC and some "cool" scenes, realized she wouldn't fit in the one UF world, and therefore made another one that would let her exist. :)

  7. Great things to consider. I'm working on something where I added a huge bunch of complications. Part of me feels that it works; the other part can't remember why I added the complications in the first place. I wonder if not remembering why you did something in the first place might also be a consideration for cutting or changing something as well.

    I do know, that I had cut a whole bunch of stuff I loved, previously, that other people loved as well, but absolutely didn't fit with this second permutation...

    This might explain why I still haven't finished it. So many options!

  8. It's easier to cut an element from your work if you consider it to be 'relocating your darling' rather than straight out 'killing'.

    Besides, nothing's ever wasted in writing... that awesome plot element could be used elsewhere....where its awesomeness is appreciated.

  9. Elizabeth, that's my Plan B :) I like testing the twist in the midpoint. Another good spot for a big moment.

    Angelica, ooo that's a real toughie, sorry to hear that. If it's just the tone, maybe it won't be so bad to revise. It's not "cutting" so much as rewriting? Good luck with it!

    LD, that describes my first novel perfectly, so I feel the pain. That's great that you figured out how to make it all work before it drove you crazy.

    Amelia, most welcome!

    Marcie, save your original file so you have it, then cut away. You'll probably end up delighted and wondering why you were ever scared to do it :) And if not, then you still have that original draft to go back to.

    Carradee, you can certainly do that as well. There's no one option for anything in writing. Shifting characters like that is a great way to hold onto them and still get them out of the way if they aren't working for one book.

    EP, I've cut things because I couldn't remember why I did them, so yes, I think it can be. If you can't see why they matter when you read it, that's another red flag they might not be needed. Maybe try looking at ways to make the stuff you and your beta readers loved fit with Perm 2? It'll probably take some tweaking, but now that you have both versions maybe there's a middle ground there that does work.

    Jo, indeed. Those "saved cut scene" files are great for that.

  10. Oh oh oh. I had to do this a week or so ago. I cut some 50 pages and rewrote them completely. It hurt so bad. But what i did was preserved a lot of extraneous stuff and I'll use it for it's own side story. That way it isn't totally lost, but it isn't gumming up the works, either. Great post!

  11. Very useful advice, Janice, many thanks! I think cutting back our novels is something most of us have to do at some point or another. I certainly need to do that (I've even got a book out, published on Amazon, that is crying out to me to take it down and cut it back...which I plan to do asap!).
    And yes, you're right, one has the feeling suddenly that the plot has taken a wrong direction, that another story has intruded and it needs to be trimmed out (and saved for another use of course). it's more of a feeling than a certainty, which is why it's so hard to take a decision and go ahead and cut!

  12. Kaitlin, good for you! Great way to recycle.

    Claude, we always know. I've learned to trust my gut, and even with this one I let it go father than I should have.

  13. I so identify with this. I've been working a novel and have changed the plot umpteen times because the awesome scene just didn't fit. One time it needed way more action. The characters needed more stress. Another time I was way too many "and then" moments. Boring. Great advice!

  14. Oh, as usual, you are posting the exact thing I need exactly when I need it! I have redone my novel and one of the most exciting things in it no longer fits. A whole race of people, a whole relationship, no longer fits now that I am clear what struggle my character has to go through. So I've been trying to find a way to still keep these people in, and I just can't see how. And I've done so much work developing them, their culture, their history, their religion, their politics, their family dynamics, everything. Just throw them away?

    So after reading this and then thinking a bit, I think I can include them in the current novel in only the role they need to play (only they can kill the dragons, so they HAVE to be in it), without spending as much time with them as I wanted to originally. AND I can write another novel in the same world (because I have spent so much time creating this world, I intend to write in it for, like, my whole life). Which makes it a little easier to let it go.

    But only a little.

    Thanks for the great post. I have a feeling it's something we already know when faced with it, but it helps to have an "official writer" give us permission to let it go.

    1. Oh good! I love when that happens (the right article finding the right writer, part).

      That sounds like a good plan. You save the work, and it gives you a head start on the next book.

      Feel free to give yourself permission when you need it :) Trust your instincts and do what you feel is the best thing for your story. That nagging little voice in our head is more often right than wrong.