In The Easy Cut: Editing Tips Part 2 we looked at quick and easy ways of improving your writing by making small aesthetic cuts. The reason these cuts were quick and easy was because they were largely superficial – they tightened up your work without making you lose anything you’d really miss. The Easy Cut was all about polishing the writing. The Hard Cut is all about polishing the story, and that means cutting where it hurts.
Unlike last time, I can’t tell you exactly what to cut without reading your work: every piece will need a different kind of editing. Instead, I can give you a series of checks you should make – questions you need to ask – to highlight where your work needs alteration.
So get your scissors out; we’re going deeper this time.
1. Check your driving
In the Hard Cut we’re looking for problems in our story’s structure and composition: do all the parts fit together and do they tell a coherent, entertaining story? One of the first questions you can ask is: “How are the events in my story driven?”
Does stuff just happen to your protagonist, or do they make it happen? Do they have a habit of escaping bad situations through sheer luck, or by the agency of another character rather than by their own skills and cunning? Exactly how many decisions does your main character make, and do their decisions affect the progression of the story?
If you answered ‘no’ to that last one in particular, then you’re in a heap of trouble. A main character who doesn’t drive the story with their decisions is barely a character at all. Why would I want to read about a protagonist who just bounces from one random event to the next? Your story might as well be called ‘A List of Stuff That Happens to Some Guy’.
There are ways to make a character vulnerable to the influence of others while firmly rooting them at the steering wheel of your story. I’ll point out Discworld’s Rincewind as a good example. Here’s a very cowardly character who appears to be bounced between unfortunate incidents as if the universe has something against him, but in fact it’s usually his own bad decisions that place him in these situations. He decides to run away, and ironically runs head first into another dangerous predicament and thus advances the plot. He also makes plenty of decisions – who to side with, how to escape, and, on the odd occasion, when to face his fears – which ultimately lead to the story’s conclusion.
So bear in mind that a little bit of luck to save the day isn’t a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be the only ace up your character’s sleeve.
2. Check your conflict
This is an easy way to make sure your story has a sensible structure: ask yourself “What is the central conflict?”
The vast majority of stories follow a similar structure: we begin with a status quo, a conflict is introduced, the main character/s go through ups and downs to try to resolve the conflict, and finally the conflict is resolved.
That conflict is what ties your story together – it’s the core of the plot. To see how well your conflict is written, try this experiment: ask your Beta Readers to sum up your story in 15 seconds. If they can’t, then it’s possible your central conflict isn’t clear enough.
Sure, you can argue against this by shouting about your ‘multi-faceted conflict’ and ‘diverging sub-plots’ and whatnot, but what’s the glue that holds it all together?
So let’s try this with A Game of Thrones, a book written from several viewpoints and spanning a series of vastly interwoven political intrigues. What’s the main conflict of the story? Let’s see:
Game of Thrones is about a power struggle over the Iron Throne.
Right? Right. It’s right there in the title. Yes, the book is also about a lot of other stuff and foreshadows plenty more besides, but the central conflict is that power struggle: it ties in all those other sub-plots under its bloody, bloody wings.
Another exercise you can try is drafting a blurb for your story. How would you sum it up in, say 100 words? Now try 50. That. That’s your conflict.
3. Check your motivation
Next: What are the motivations of each of your characters?
It doesn’t matter how small a character they are, they will have some kind of motivation driving their thoughts, words and actions. That barista doesn’t politely serve you a cup of coffee because she is a barista by nature – she does so because she needs to pay her rent, and the desire to keep her job tends to stops her from spitting in the milk.
It’s important to know what your characters’ motivations are, because those motivations will help to drive the story. You should pay special attention your protagonist’s motivation, because this thread should wind through your entire plot and the way they try to resolve the central conflict. At every step, the reader should be clear on what your main character is trying to achieve – again, ask your Beta Readers what they think that character’s end goal is. If they can’t figure out why your character is doing what they’re doing, it’s time to consider a re-write.
You should also consider how your characters’ motivations might change over the course of a story, and this brings me onto…
4. Check your arc
I feel this is perhaps the most important question of all: is your main character exactly the same person by the end of the story as they were at the beginning?
If the answer is ‘yes’, then you probably have some major editing to do.
Generally, all stories follow one or more main characters – it is their story we are telling. If your character hasn’t changed by the end… then what was the purpose of the story in the first place?
This is something that has always bothered me with the structure of TV sitcoms. It’s always the same: status quo, conflict, character learns a humorous ‘lesson’, everything returns to the status quo . . . and the next episode proves the character never actually learned anything as they make the same mistakes over and over again. Consider How I Met Your Mother: how many times does Ted continue to make the same douche-baggy moves, fall for the same girl, despite professing to have learned otherwise?
That’s kind of OK in a TV show which has to run for 10 seasons of 20 episodes or something silly like that – but only because we’ve gotten used to that kind of poor writing and atrocious structure being the norm. On the flip side, there’s now plenty of episodic television out there with stellar writing and character development. The Walking Dead is a good example: every character is constantly changing over the course of the series in line with their harrowing experiences. There is no status quo.
I’m not suggesting your character needs some soul-searching, personality-changing inner transformation to occur. But it is necessary to understand that humans are subtly ever-changing creatures, and we are inexorably shaped by the events around us. So figure out how your story has shaped your protagonist, and you’ll have found the cornerstone to their character arc.
5. Check your purpose
This might be the quickest cut you can make, but also one of the hardest. Do all your side-characters serve a purpose? By which I mean, do they either advance the plot or add depth to your main cast?
You might find a couple of your favourite side-characters are just fluff, taking up unnecessary space if they don’t serve either of the above. You need to give them a reason to be in the story, or cut them completely.
An example where I’ve fallen into this trap myself: I once gave a teenage character a whole roster of pointless friends with too much page-time just because he was in high school and ‘ought’ to have friends. Each one had a personality, back story, and . . . next to zero impact on the plot. They were just decoration, an unnecessary detail in a story where the main character spent most of his time not-even-on-earth. All I actually needed to do was pick out one key friend to play the role of confidant and flesh out the protagonist at the start of the story, and drop the rest into the background, where they belonged.
So give your side-characters purpose, or get rid.
Taking this a step further, you can apply the same philosophy to actions as well as characters. It’s a hard rule to live by, but the majority of your words should be on the page for a reason. Consider a plot where a character called Bob gets up one morning to catch a train which will then crash on his way into work. How long do you describe his toast-making ritual? Do you go through every getting-dressed action before he leaves the house? Do you list every item in his fridge that morning, the way his wallpaper looks, the way the tap whines when he’s pouring water to boil for coffee?
Of course you don’t. You tell the reader just enough about Bob’s morning routine to show the reader something of his background and his personality. For example, you might point out the lack of creases in his suit to highlight his fastidious nature; you can tell us that he eats a few mouthfuls of unbuttered, burnt toast to show us he doesn’t look after himself well; and then you could mention the picture of his wife that he knocks over in his rush to get out the door. Each of those points is there to tell us something specific.
Cutting back to these purposeful details can greatly improve the punch of your story, allowing us to get into the meat of the conflict quicker and with more decisiveness in the storytelling.
6. Check your research
Here’s a fun question that every author hates asking: where did I go wrong?
Here you want to be actively searching for the plot holes in your story. Ask your Beta Readers to find reasons that your story wouldn’t work – and then explain to them why it does. If you don’t have an explanation, then you have a plot hole, my friend.
Sometimes these can be big plot holes; for example, if a jet engine is key to saving your character’s life, but you’ve misunderstood how a jet engine works, that’s a pretty massive hole that the reader will fall all the way into. Sometimes they can be quite small; the one that will always stick with me was not understanding how hard it would be for a driver to miss a flat tire in their own car. A hole not big enough to topple the entire plot, but certainly enough to make the reader trip over it.
You want to smooth as many of these holes over as possible, and sometimes it’s going to change how your character tackles the problem at hand. Jet engine won’t work? Well, is there another kind of engine that would work, in this scenario? If not an engine, a parachute?
Science isn’t the only thing you want to study for. If you’re writing in the ‘real world’, spend some time researching the locations in your story. Have you done something silly like describing Northumberland as flat? Have you done something even sillier like calling the Northumberland coast hilly? Because it’s not. It’s flat. Specific locations require specific knowledge.
Don’t think you’re off the hook just because you write high fantasy, either. Do you know what rocks your mountains are made of? I can guarantee your dwarven/gnomish/goblin miners are going to need that piece of information. How does your army’s trebuchet work? Is it possible that you’re actually describing a mangonel instead? When your hero starts life as a farmer, do you know as much about working the land as they should?
Proper research adds richness and depth to the storytelling, and if you’ve done it right then you’ll have sealed up those hole before the readers can get to them.
7. Cut and Paste
Time to apply a bandage, a final tip to make the pain of cutting a little more bearable: save your favourites.
I keep a document stowed away called ‘Bits and Pieces’, and it is literally bits and pieces of stories I have chopped up. From five lines of dialogue to 500 word paragraphs, down to an odd five-word phrase… I keep things that I can’t bear to lose forever, and I keep them for a rainy day when I might need them again. It’s my personal cure for Writer’s Block; if I’m having an off day I can browse this cutting-room floor and pick up a discarded remnant and buff it into a shine. Sometimes a line of dialogue, an odd word is all it takes to spark those neurons into a creative fire once again. And I find it dulls the pain of cutting out beautiful, but utterly pointless writing.
There is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ approach to editing. Some of these tips will work for you, and some won’t, and that’s OK. Editing, just like writing, is a skill that you develop with experience: you can’t just teach it in one go. If you want to hone your skills, then I highly suggest you join a writing group of some kind – an online forum, or a social writer’s circle – and I urge you to critique other people’s work.
We can always find faults with the work of others more readily than with our own, and we learn to identify faults that we can’t see in our own writing. Then, in providing constructive criticism for others we are forced to explain why we think something doesn’t work, and as we get better we can explain how to improve it. And gradually this translates into how we edit our own work. ‘Teaching is the best way of learning,’ and all that.
This wraps up our little mini-series on editing. You can find Parts 1 and 2 below, if you missed ’em. Excuse me while I go back to… more editing. I suspect most writers are masochists at heart, especially once we hit the point of enjoying our editing process. Good bye for now, and best of luck on your own road of pain!
Do you have burning desire to tell me how wrong I am about my approach to editing? Light it up in the comments! Are you in the middle of editing your work now? Come share your own tips, tricks, and bitter frustrations with the rest of us. Misery does love company 😉
If you want to be notified when Jack Hansard episodes have been updated with their final edits, you can follow the AIM Facebook Page to receive these updates, or check the An Inspired Mess homepage each week for a link to the most recent one. You can also Follow Me On Twitter.
Take care y’all.