Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Trimming the Manuscript Part 2: Too Much Plot? – It Happens

Some writers have a knack for developing plotlines and subplots. If you’re an ace outliner on top of that, you might find, as I did, that pretty soon you have too much of a good thing. And too much plot or too many subplots can contribute to an inflated word count.

For a first-timer (meaning someone not published yet) your epic-sized novel may be the reason why agents and publishers are saying “no.”

There’s a difference between an epic and epic-sized. Some stories are epic. They are also tightly written too. Having an epic-sized novel doesn’t necessarily qualify it as an epic.

So how to bring down the word count and yet still have a solid storyline?

Outline in the simplest form. First identify what your main plot is and the crucial plot points that make it happen. Don’t include all the subplots or any plot points that aren’t crucial. If you have a hard time identifying crucial from the unnecessary, get some beta readers right away. You’re too close to the story and have invested too much time into developing plot points and lines to think straight about them. You need other eyes to help you.

Once you have the basic gist of your main plotline then look at your subplots. Write a separate outline for each of them. One or two subplots are the norm for any story. If you find you have five or ten, you need to get out the pruning shears. If your story is an actual epic, there will be more subplots but still make sure you haven’t bit off more than you or your audience can chew.

Once you’ve analyzed your essential plot points in both the main storyline and the subplots, you should have some scenes or even chapters you can cut already. If this round of analysis didn’t come up a lot to trim, then it’s time to look at each scene in the story.

Is this scene absolutely necessary? If you have a scene full of action and nothing else, you’ve got room to trim. For instance, your main characters have just walled up inside a fortress while an invading army of trolls surrounds them. Now the heroes must fight to keep the fortress. It’s a necessary part of the story but watch how you tell it. Pages and pages of straight action equates to boring filler. Are you characters growing during the conflict? What’s at stake for them? Are you showing it? What can happen during this battle to spin a plotline forward? There needs to be growth and change for any scene to be necessary.

Say you have a main character that is newly arrived on a strange world. There’s the temptation to explain everything about that world right away. After all, we need to ground our readers so they don’t feel lost. And a sense of wonder is a great way to keep them reading. Don’t describe your setting, incorporate it. What will that character first tend to notice about the new place? What is going on there? It’s not always like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy steps out of her house and gets several minutes to examine the Munchkin countryside. Places are active, not passive. Even quiet, pastoral settings can incorporate a tone. If there is no one there for the MC to react to or act upon, use the setting as a character. Trim the info-dumps. Spread out the details according to what the character will actually notice and what will actually happen. It’s great that you made up a deadly species of squirrel, including charts and an index on all their characteristics. If the squirrels aren’t a main part of that scene don’t share all your notes with the reader.

Sometimes we can condense or tell a series of happenings as if they happened off-stage, rather than write them out. It’s a great way to save space. Say you have a group of people traveling, you can trim all the travel scenes, doing a recap through dialogue after they’ve arrived, if something interesting happened. Unless, of course, the bulk of the story is about their journey, we don’t need to read about all the interesting parts of their trip in full-blown detail. “Pick your battles” is a well-known saying and it’s applicable here. Pick your scenes and don’t fret about the rest. Again, note if there is plot or character growth during a particular scene. If there is, keep it. If not, summarize or chuck it.

Another good rule of thumb is to start a scene with the action already going and end it early. We don’t need a prologue to a scene or a miniature epilogue at the end of it. Get to the point, share what is necessary, and make sure the scene propels the reader forward. Scene prologues and epilogues give readers an invitation to put the story down.

True epics will exceed 100K words and often even the 120K. There is a limited market for these books and a devoted body of readers who can’t get enough of them. If you have a true epic on your hand, don’t freak out over all the negativity on word count. As long as your manuscript is tight, every scene is necessary, and you’ve unloaded every bit of fat possible, you’re doing it right. Finding an agent or publisher is going to be an uphill battle but that’s due to circumstances out of your hands.

Contrary-wise, don’t make the mistake of thinking your story is an epic merely because it’s got a huge girth. It’s our job to analyze, chop, tighten, and choose wisely the content of our stories. Most people fall into the trap of epic-sized rather than true epic. Beta readers/critique partners are your best buddies in this instance. They’ll point out the places where their attention wanders, the parts that aren’t necessary, and question whether you’re serious about six subplots.

And congratulations if you are good at plotting. It’s a great skill. Embrace it, but don’t overdo it.

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