“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”
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
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Art: Reclining woman with scissors by Narciso Sentenach y Cabañas
Björn Johnsson says
Just Great! I can easily see how my writing will improve after having read your tips about Killing your darlings. Thanks a lot, Nathan!
He posts after I spent all of last evening stressing about what to cut from my WIP.
Marilynn Byerly says
“As you know, Bob, thingamabobs were invented by your father to locate the Great McGuffin!” I love your funny dialogue example.
I always suggest to my writing students they use the rule of three for each scene. If a scene doesn’t contain at least one or two plot points (information or events which move the plot forward), and one or two character points (important character information) so that you have at least three points total, then it should be tossed, and whatever points included in that scene should be added to another scene.
Neil Larkins says
Great advice, Nathan! And it comes at a time when I am doing just that with my endless WIP, a memoir. I have found that your advise for a novel applies to a memoir: what to include and what to leave out. When you were living your memoir of course everything was important. Now that you’re writing it, your reader might not think so much detail is necessary. This is where it gets hard. Determining just exactly what is enough and what is too much information can literally drive you nuts. This is where writing as a reader comes in, and like Nathan says, perhaps some of the information you leave out can be used in another memoir or even be inspiration for a novel.
J R Tomlin says
“Isn’t it more dramatic (and economical) for them to flirt and kiss during the action scene?”
My answer is a resounding No. When my characters are in desperate danger they will not stop to flirt and make out. I did once read a novel in which they were escaping from the serial killer and yes, they stopped and had sex. My reaction before I closed the book was OMFG.
Nor do I think it is more ‘economical’ (when did that become a virtue in writing I wonder) to cut a character because I could combine two and instead of having one who is religious and one who tells jokes, have a single person who tells himself jokes. But no jokes, because we are not allowed banter, apparently. *rolls eyes*
Nathan Bransford says
I think you’re taking the advice a little too literally? Do what’s right for the world of your novel but I stand by the general principles.
James Nova says
You do realize that is the best-selling author J R Tomlin you are responding to.
Nathan Bransford says
Yes? Should my response be different?
Tom Simon says
Here’s another bit of advice that applies to almost any kind of writing—
Avoid sweeping generalizations: they inhibit clarity and impede communication. If you must use them, don’t blame your readers when they disagree with what you actually said instead of agreeing with what you thought you meant.
Nathan Bransford says
It’s super hard to offer writing advice because it inevitably means generalizing across many different types of books and not everything is going to be universally applicable to every single writer. I do the best I can but am also open to not always getting it right!
In this case, the idea that I was advocating two characters having improbable sex in the middle of an action scene, reducing two characters in a scene to one, or suggesting people shouldn’t make jokes feels more like either taking my advice overly literally or willfully misunderstanding what I actually wrote (I chose to give the benefit of the doubt), but to each their own! Everyone has to choose what’s right for their own path and the world of their own books.
This advice is freely given. Take what’s useful, discard what’s not, I won’t be offended!
Win Reed says
Enjoying this thread *immensely* (O.M.G, I used an adverb–gasp!)
I’ve read and filed away advice from many writing experts–from Nathan to Steven King–and I can’t help but laugh whenever I pick up a classic novel by an award-winning, best-selling, and/or universally revered author only to find in their work innumerable examples of all the “what not to do” rules proscribed by said experts.
Nathan Bransford says
The only truly universal writing advice is “If it works, it works.”
Here’s my bit of advice,
If a person wants to be respected and appreciated, then that person need not shower others with gifts or show how great they are, They need only demonstrate that the feelings of others matter.
Nathan Bransford says
For my own part, I do think I probably could have used better examples that may have better illustrated the points I was trying to make and I’m sorry if I either upset people or if people feel like I am leading people astray.
This is a tricky one. I get the question of what to cut a lot because it’s something many authors struggle with, but it’s also tricky to articulate solutions.
I’ll try and do better but I also (still) stand by the advice. Maybe I’m blinkered by pride in the post but it’s also hard to know when to adjust in the face of negative feedback and when to trust your instincts. That’s when the tenor of the critique matters a lot of the actual intent is inspiring a change in viewpoint.
JOHN T. SHEA says
Okay! I’ve just finished editing my novel, and here it is:-
The Shortest Novel Ever.
By John T. Shea.
Once upon a time it was a dark and stormy night.
Then it wasn’t.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Alright! MAYBE I’ve overdone the editing JUST a little.
Anyway, I’m more worried about the thingamabob falling into the RIGHT hands…
Your thingamabob duologue actually reminds me of duologues in Stanley Kubrick movies, where characters repeat and echo each other’s lines. I find the effect sometimes reminds me of the old “Pong” video game with it’s metronomic back-and-forth.
And what IS the thingamabob!? Is Marilynn Byerly right? And, if so, what is the Great McGuffin? And where is it? And how much is it worth on the black market?
Seriously, commenters differ on this post but I think we can learn something even from disagreement. I’m opionated but far from infallible, and I’ve been known to change my mind.
Thanks to Nathan and all commenters!
I’m curious what you mean by “send the main character on a mini-quest” in the opening.
I’m finding my chapter 1 doesn’t advance the plo,t but is vital to showing the normal world of the protagonist before things change. Can you give a quick example what you mean by sending them on a mini-quest to pull the reader through the opening?
Thanks, found this an informative read.
Nathan Bransford says
Essentially a mini-quest shows the protagonist trying to actively accomplish something before the main plot gets going.
It can be literally anything, but they key is that rather than showing a character just “in their element” and having static conversations and going through a day in their life, they’re trying to *do* something.
So for instance, In my first JACOB WONDERBAR novel, the plot really gets going when the kids blast off into space, but before then I kick off a mini-quest where Jacob is trying to save his friend Dexter from an evil substitute teacher. (This ends up tying into the plot later).
Rather than just showing a character at school, show them trying to ace a test and show what’s riding on it. Rather than just showing a character at work, show them gunning for a promotion or giving a big presentation so we can see what they care about.
The best way to show the “what is” before the inciting incident is to show what the character cares about in their “before” life. And the best way to do that is by showing them trying to accomplish something that’s important to them.
Carolyn Hagemeister says
Thank you, this is an extremely helpful post. I’ve just finished the first draft of an overly-long YA novel, and have been trying to identify places to cull excess material. I’ve done several of the above-mentioned no-nos in my draft.
Johannah S. says
I’ve been in the same boat too, and having now cut from 122k to 98k words, I have a much stronger novel. All this cutting was the hardest part, though!
Thank you! I just decided to cut the whole first chapter of my novel after reading this. It was just setting the scene and introducing the characters. The second chapter starts with much more tension. The only thing I have to do now is remember what I cut so that I don’t assume readers know it already.
Jemima Pett says
Mmm. I’m nearly finished editing my latest, which I thought would be 80-85k. It was, after my first run through. Now it’s climbed to over 90k, and I’m sure it should be less. And I thought I’d cleaned all the unnecessary stuff. Maybe a character has to go…
Or maybe it’s worth a 90k word-count. Send it to my beta readers and see what they say, perhaps.