How do you shorten a story that’s too long?

Author/editor Rayne Hall produces some of the finest books you can find on the art of writing.
Author/editor Rayne Hall produces some of the finest books you can find on the craft of writing.

IF YOUR STORY or novel is too long and you need to bring the word count down, try one or several of these techniques. Some are soft options, others require you to cut into the flesh.

  1. Delete introspection. Whenever your point of view character spends a lot of time thinking, pondering, wondering, assessing, evaluating, remembering, reminiscing, musing and emoting, cut the lot. Condense all the thoughts in that scene into two sentences. That’s it. You may expect this to hurt, but it’s surprisingly painless, and the result is tight and exciting.
  1. Delete the journey. Whenever your PoV spends time getting to a place – whether he’s walking, driving, riding or flying – cut it. The reader doesn’t need the guided tour of the flora, fauna, history and politics of the region, nor all the introspecting the character does along the way. Pick up the story when he arrives. These unnecessary journeys can often be found at the beginnings of chapters.
  1. Delete backstory. Whenever the plot halts to give the reader a view of what happened in the past, cut that. The reader needs to know less backstory than you think. Replace the backstory scenes with single-sentence summaries of what had happened. Excessive backstory can often be found in the first few chapters.
  1. If you’ve used the “Scene & Sequel” method of structuring, shrink the sequels. Most sequels need to be no longer than a paragraph. Often, a single sentence is enough.
  1. Condense the timeframe. Instead of spanning a decade, make it happen in a single year. Instead of stretching it over one week, squeeze it into one afternoon. This is astonishingly effective, saving thousands of words. However, you need to watch out for continuity errors: Make sure the characters’ ages are consistent, and Christmas doesn’t happen three times in one year.
  1. Condense the geography. Instead of sections taking place in five different locations, move them all to the same place. A novel needs fewer words if it takes place in one town than in six.
  1. Reduce the characters. The fewer characters, the shorter the novel. Whenever there are several people of a kind (three children, two sisters, four colleagues) let there be just one (one child, one sister, one colleague). Combine several characters into a single person: perhaps the noisy neighbour is also the gym instructor, and the choir conductor is also the owner of that pesky cat.
  1. Cut a subplot. By leaving out a subplot, you can slim your novel substantially. If it hurts to throw away those wonderful scenes, put them in the freezer and cook them up in another novel.
  1. Delete superfluous words. Many words carry little or no meaning; you can shed them without loss. Here are the main candidates: could, start/started to, begin/began to, that, then, somewhat, somehow, really, completely, very, say, all, just. Rigorous deletion of unnecessary words can often slim a novel by several thousand words.


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