Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Trimming the Manuscript Part 3: Determining the Balance

Here’s a crazy-zany idea that I don’t know if anyone else has tried. Do you know the balance in your manuscript between action and non-action (description, internal thoughts, etc.)?  Maybe the story’s too huge because of an imbalance. Hm…

 So here’s what you do:

 1) Create a scene list for your novel. Any time the setting changes, there is a POV switch, or something significant happens to carry the characters into a new scene, note a scene break. Name each of your scenes (this is a lot of fun and no one else will see these.)

2) Work with one scene at a time. This is very important so you don’t feel overwhelmed or get confused. Especially if you have multiple POVs or just a whale of an epic on your hands.

3) Separate your scene into two new documents. One with all the action and one with all the inactivity. The action document will have the dialogue too. Anything strictly not action or dialogue goes into the inactivity document.

4) Now note which document is larger. You don’t have to have a perfect balance for every scene. Some scenes are meant to have more action and others little. After you’ve noticed where the scales weigh on this scene, think about that scene and what its purpose is. Is this a scene with a big reveal? A lot of subtle foreshadowing going down? A place in time marked for internal development for your protagonist? A place where the plot speeds up and takes the protagonist from Point A to Point B? What is the purpose.

5) After you’ve realized what that scene is supposed to do, look at your action document. Consider:
a) Do you need that much action for this scene to do its job? Do you need more?
b) Does your action stand on its own two feet, meaning, you don’t need a lot of explanation to help the reader along?
c) Is the action in this scene the best way to carry the story forward? Or is it action for the sake of action?

6) Next, look at your inactivity document.
a) Based on the purpose of this scene, and what is going on, do you have places where description bogs down the narrative? Can you break it up and seamlessly put it in with the action as it comes?
b) If this scene is a turning point internally, do your interior thoughts and observations made by the character do its job? Do you need more or can you reword their thoughts for maximum impact with fewer words?
c) Are you using description, backstory, explanation, or interior monologues for the sake of filling space rather than carrying the story forward? What can wait for later or may need to be bumped up earlier in the story? Trim the excess fat.
d) Are there ways to show how the characters feel through action?

7) After both documents have gone through analysis, cutting, and restructuring. Put the scene back together. You will probably find even more ways to trim as you do. And, you may end up cutting the scene completely out because now you know it doesn’t move the story or the characters forward, or it is shallow, or where an unnecessary tangent plot begins.
8) Move on to the next scene. Repeat.

Recognizing the purpose of a scene and what focus it needs to have is a great way to shed some story bulk. Knowing how to move the story forward in that scene either through action or inaction also helps the writer watch for plot holes, character inconsistencies, and keeps minor characters and subplots in line.

You may discover that you've put too many superfluous action scenes in the story or have redundant passages of backstory, internal monologue, or description. Restore the balance.

How about you? What do you do to determine whether your story is imbalanced or bloated because of an imbalance?


  1. One thing I am doing is writing my story in play format with a minimum of action to begin with. The emphasis is on dialogue, so that the characters come to life. The only text not devoted to dialogue is narration written in italics and separate from any dialogue. I do this to see how much action I can squeeze out of the characters' speech itself before trying to put down any concrete narration. It's like framing a house, one scene at a time.

  2. Interesting method. Sounds like fun.

  3. Update: I can't believe how much exposition I'm trimming by separating the action from everything else! I find that some of the internalizing is redundant. The actions of the characters pretty much show how they are feeling.