Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Trimming the Fat

Question of the day: if you have a scene that's sagging a little (or a lot!) into exposition or could make a reader bored, do you chop it or do you beef it up/combine it with something more interesting? When is it worth saving?

I think one really easy fix that turns telling into showing (or takes an internal dialogue into an external one) is to literally add dialogue. All of the stuff that your character is saying in her head can literally be said out loud with another character, and you can have them moving through a scene (with some sort of action) in doing so. Alternatively, there are physical ways to transform exposition. Say your character is telling readers how angry she is over a situation. Don't have her say it, have her show it physically. A cliche is to have her throw something (again, that's a cliche), but it's an example nevertheless. In Time of My Life, when Jillian was having an internal struggle, I often sent her out on a run. Jogging for her, was a sign to readers, that she was going through some emotional upheaval. But I didn't have her sit on her couch and say, "I'm going through emotional upheaval." Instead, she pounded the pavement until she felt relief.

Does that make sense?

How do you know when to cut it? Well, for me, I do my revisions in chunks. I think it's hard to gain perspective on what you've written until you can step away from it for a bit and then read it in conjunction with other pages/chapters. So I tend to revise about every 50 pages or so. When you do this (or read the entire me - however the revision process works for you), I think these moments of exposition really will stand out. And then, the key is to really ask yourself - and this is NOT an easy process because we can get very, very tied to every word we write - is this scene necessary? Is it honestly telling the readers something new? If I cut it, will the ms lose anything? Is there a more concise way to transmit this information? I think that often times, new fiction writers take a paragraph - or an entire scene - to connote what can be told in one or two sentences. Not that everything should be pared down, of course not. But those expository scene, well, yes. Trim them down to something more concise, and you usually won't lose anything...in fact, you'll probably beef up the scene by trimming the fat.

Just my opinion, of course! How do you guys out there go about whittling down exposition?


Debra Lynn Shelton said...

I'm a big believer in less is more. When I edit I try to keep "is this really necessary?" in the forefront. I love your idea of stepping away for a bit. I'm so deep into my current completed novel that I'm probably not editing it to the best of my ability. I may take a day or two away from it and come back and see what I find.

Anonymous said...

Allison, this topic couldn't have been more timely. I'm 125 pages and 26000+ words into my young adult novel, and I've been having my teenager (my target audience) reading the manuscript in chapter chunks.

Recently, she nailed a section of my third chapter that I thought was unnecessary but I was so unsure if the rest of the story was conveying what the questionable section was saying. And having my daughter tell me that she thought that section wasn't working has given me the confidence to go back and rethink that section. I'm either going to rewrite as you've suggested--adding more dialogue or creating movement--or I'm just going to cut it.

It's not so much the process of cutting the section that kills me; it's losing the words--I've been setting word goals for myself each day, and I'm worried how the cut will set me back! Thanks.


Michelle Gable said...

So I have a (sort of) related question. I am intrigued by the fact you edit 50 pages at a time. I usually write the whole MS and then edit once it is complete. I would love to know whether you've always done it this way, or have experimented with different ways, and why this works for you (knowing that everyone is different!)

Amie Stuart said...

I'm a *fairly* clean writer--usually I find myself adding in, not taking away. But sometimes I'll run up against a scene (usually an opening) I KNOW doesn't feel right so I play with it until it feels more natural/less forced. I think this is where learning to listen to your instincts comes into play.

(LOL word verification is LESSESS)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Allison, I love your example of Jillian's jogging to pump some activity into a scene that needs to be solved internally.

It reminds me of Pride and Prejudice (guess what I'm studying in english lit right now?) and how Elizabeth tends to go for walks when she sorts her thoughts out.. something she does a LOT.

Liz Fielding said...

Dialogue first, last, always. If I find my hero internalising a whole lot of stuff I tell him to go tell it to the heroine.

Gay said...

The physical demonstration of emotions is difficult. Sometimes, there's no way around the internal dialogue... especially if a character is having an internal struggle (like the times when you yourself would be having an internal argument), but if you wouldn't be saying, "Gee, Alison, I'm in the midst of an emotional upheaval here," it's not appropriate, is it?

I have a scene where a character is slicing tomatoes and onions for a salad and ends up making pico de gallo instead (that's the finely chopped salsa, for those of you who don't eat a lot of Mexican food), because she gets lost in her thoughts and takes out her anger and frustration.

I don't agree with a hero telling things to a heroine--guys tend to internalize. It's what makes them guys. But they'll show their emotions in behaviors; the clues will be there if we look for them, and the key is to describe those clues to the reader.