“Kill your darlings” is one of the most repeated bits of writing advice out there, but how do you know which darlings to murder? You need to decide what to cut from a novel, but it can be tricky.
Word counts matter. They don’t matter endlessly, as novels like Twilight attest, but an overly long novel will adversely impact your odds of finding traditional publication, especially for a debut.
And even if you’re self-publishing, no one wants to slog through a novel from an author who never once pressed the “delete” button in the course of writing a 7,000 page tome.
If you are starting with a more average word count it’s still helpful to tighten things up as much as possible, so this post is for you too.
Here’s how to know what to cut from a book. And it’s probably not what you’d think!
(Need personalized help with this? I offer manuscript critiques where I can help point you to areas to cut).
Redundancies in your prose
Believe or not, by far the most common culprit for bloated word counts is hiding in plain sight. It’s plain old sloppy writing.
Things like “Jane nodded her head” when Jane can just “nod.” What else is she going to nod with?
Or: “Jane put red sneakers on her feet.” I mean, I’m glad she didn’t try putting them on her elbows? She can just put shoes on?
Or it’s over-explaining what’s already apparent from context, like:
“You’re a complete moron!” he shouted with venom.
Does it really need to be “with venom” when we can deduce the tone from the dialogue?
These little redundancies really, really add up over the course of the novel. If you have only a few of these on every page it can quickly add tens of thousands of words to your word count.
Scenes that merely exist to “introduce” characters or a setting
Often writers make the mistake of padding their openings with scenes whose sole purpose is to establish a particular character or a setting and don’t otherwise advance the story. These chapters usually end up feeling unnecessary and a bit confusing because nothing at all important is happening.
Instead: Introduce characters and settings in the course of telling the actual story.
We don’t need an entire scene where nothing substantive happens just to get to know a character or provide exhaustive exposition. Just pick up where the story actually begins and trust that you can fill in the other details as you go along.
It’s much better to get to know a character in the course of the story unfolding than in an otherwise meaningless scene.
Even if you want to show what your protagonist’s “normal” world is like before things get knocked off kilter and the plot gets going, give them a mini-quest in the beginning to pull the reader through the opening.
You always need to be telling a story and keeping your protagonist active and motivated. Cut anywhere that’s not happening and fold the exposition in elsewhere.
I see so, so many conversations in novels that are an almost endless series of meaningless false starts and misunderstandings.
“My gods, what if the thingamabob were to fall into the wrong hands?”
“Yes. The thingamabob. I thought that’s what you said.”
“Did I stutter?”
“Then why did you ask me to repeat myself?”
“I intentionally misheard you so you could repeat thingamabob for emphasis.”
“I thought that’s what you–”
“Said. Yes. I also like finishing your sentences to show we are quite–“
“Mentally aligned. Ha ha ha. We just added four more lines of unrealistic banter where one could have done just fine.”
“Now I’m going to introduce a nonsequitur that makes no sense so you can introduce some exposition. Should I ask you a leading question as well even though there’s no reason for me to be curious?”
“You already know this information as well as I do so there is no logical reason for me to be telling you this out loud, but I have some information the reader needs to know, which I will reveal in the most awkward expository dialogue possible. You see, a thingamabob is a–“
“Allow me to interrupt you in a misguided attempt to create a dramatic effect.”
“How dare you interrupt me! Now I’m mad, so you know this is quite important! A thingamabob is a–“
“One more interruption to make sure the reader is as annoyed as possible before they find out this information that is actually quite unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”
“Now I am furious! I am shaking! You see, a thingamabob is a [insert two pages of longwinded description only interrupted by Character B making meaningless comments so it doesn’t look like one single block of text].”
Needless to say: don’t do this.
Conversations should have a purpose. They should be focused. Don’t pad your word count with meaningless banter. Provide succinct exposition outside of the conversation when the reader needs to know something.
You can show quite a lot of cleverness and character with two characters who just get to the point and joust their way to a chapter climax.
Sometimes writers get in the habit of showing 3-5 gestures when only one representative gesture would do just fine. I call these “gesture explosions.”
The gas tank exploded into a towering orange cloud. George gasped and clutched his chest, crying out in a plaintive peal as his heart started beating out of his chest as ran for cover, short of breath.
Does George really need to gasp, clutch his chest, cry out in a plaintive people, and feel his heart beating out of his chest while he’s also short of breath? Or can he just do one of those things and we get the picture that he’s surprised?
Especially in action scenes, judicious use of gestures maintains a breakneck pace rather than getting bogged down in an avalanche of redundant descriptions.
These repetitive gestures can really add up over the course of a novel and end up in a manuscript that is tens of thousands of words too long.
Minor characters that can be consolidated
Sometimes you’ll find that two or more characters fulfill a very similar role in the story, and your reader ends up struggling to distinguish them or remember who is who.
If that’s the case: consider consolidating multiple similar characters into one.
It will give you more room to make the resulting single character more memorable and compelling, and will help remove some excess fluff as you try to juggle including two or more characters and their backstories.
Two or more separate scenes that should be one more dramatic scene
Always, always look for ways to make more than one plot line advance in your chapters.
Sometimes authors get a bit linear with the way they think of the plot, and every scene only incrementally advances one story line at a time.
A common example: Two characters falling in love find themselves in an action scene and then when they escape and things calm down they go somewhere else and have a long flirtatious conversation and kiss for the first time.
Could it be more dramatic (and economical), for instance, for them to flirt and kiss during the action scene?
Be true to your story and don’t overdo it (it’s okay to have “quiet” scenes if it’s right for the story), but especially in the middle of your novel, try to make sure every single chapter is advancing at least two storylines.
Subplots that get away from you
Subplots are great and important and can add depth and flavor to a novel.
But sometimes subplots can run away with the story, either because they don’t ever tie back to the main plot, they aren’t resolved in a satisfactory way, or because an author falls so deeply in love with a particular subplot it starts drowning out the rest of the novel.
If the subplot feels extraneous: consider deleting it.
Or, if you fall too deeply in love with one, ask yourself whether you just found the actual novel you want to be writing. Then consider a revision to make it the main plot or break it out into a new book.
“Darlings” that don’t advance the story
We all have stretches in our novel that are in there because we love them and they don’t advance the story and they’re just something we wanted to get on the page. These are the “darlings” in the “kill your darlings” advice.
I am not the type of editor who will tell you to get rid of all of your darlings.
Sometimes darlings are great! Not every single thing in a novel has to be completely efficient and tight and perfect! Some real magic happens when things are at least a little messy!
That said, at least take a hard look at these and do a gut check.
If you have a nagging voice that tells you to cut something… it’s probably best to listen to it. You might be able to find a way to weave these darlings in elsewhere, or they might belong in another novel.
This is an obvious place to start when writers look to trim their word count. And yes, do watch out for excessive descriptions, particularly when you’re describing everyday objects and gestures.
But even in novels with an excessive word count, I often counterintuitively find that there isn’t enough physical description. That’s why I have it at the bottom of the list.
Sure. If you have three pages about a bowl of soup that doesn’t matter much to the overall story, you might want to pare it back.
But chances are your word count is where it is because of one or more of the other items in this post.
So here’s some possibly counterintuitive advice to finish this post: as you cut, make sure you have sufficient physical description.
Have you ever had to pare back a long word count? What did you end up cutting?
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED November 5, 2019 as “How to know what to cut from a novel”
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Art: Reclining woman with scissors by Narciso Sentenach y Cabañas