Friday, July 13, 2012
Kill What? What to Do When You Need to Cut a Major Part of Your Novel
There's an awesome event at the end of my novel-in-progress. It's so awesome the entire magic system developed from it, and a huge chunk of the book leads 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, but I couldn't make the story what I knew it could be without cutting that 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.
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.
3. The reasons to arrive at that event aren't plausible.
The motivations and reasons are weak. They might be there, but ask one or two questions and the whole thing falls apart. Often you'll answer yourself with "because that has to happen for X to happen."
4. Resolving that event leaves a lot of loose ends for the story.
Especially true if the event is in the third act of your novel. This happens because it's 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.
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 at stake" 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.
(Here's more on what to do when plots go astray)
What You Can Do About it
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.
2. Move it.
While this wasn't an answer for my event, sometimes moving it to another part of the story can give it new perspective. It might work better as a trigger to another event 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?