Cutting down on your word count can be a difficult task for any author, though this is a large part of editing. The very vast majority, if not all, of us have a lot of unneeded information in our novels that we just don’t need. As I re-edit my Herezoth trilogy for an Autumn release of new editions, I realize where a lot of my cuts are coming from:
- Unneeded repetition or emphasis
- Unneeded descriptions or elaborations of people, places, or things
- Over-explanation, or explaining concepts that aren’t confusing or interesting
Number three is something I think we are all guilty of as writers. We get to a point where we don’t want to confuse the reader, so we want to make sure something is clear. And then we overdo it. You know what they say paves the road to hell, right?
Maybe it’s an inherent “contradiction” in character motives that truly isn’t a contradiction, but the result of changing circumstances or of growth. Characters sometimes change their minds, sure. We don’t necessarily HAVE to explain away every instance of that, or every time a character says one thing and then does something that implies the opposite. Sometimes, perhaps. But not always.
Now, my focus today is actually on the first list item, because I’m cutting a lot of redundancies and repetitions. Especially in dialogue, though elsewhere as well. What do I mean by that?
I’m taking about instances like this (which doesn’t come from any of my novels, as I write fantasy, but it demonstrates what I’m talking about):
A: “He was lying to you.”
A: “Why would he need to go downtown to get groceries? There’s a Trader Joe’s two miles away.”
Now, depending on the setting, the characters, and the story this repetition and emphasis might be useful. Maybe B is a very naive character, and this scene is a wake-up call and a turning point in terms of disillusion and frustration.
More likely, though, it’s just not necessary. You could easily cut out B’s line entirely, and more than likely, A’s first line as well. A’s second line, by itself, implies skepticism. It indicates fully that A doesn’t believe what “he” said.
However, maybe A is a direct, brash, and even insensitive person. Maybe A is intending to be harsh with B, to imply, “you’re a fool for not seeing this.” In that case, the overemphasis might make sense. You might want to keep both parts of A’s dialogue, joining them if you cut B’s.
You always have to consider your characters’ personalities and intentions when writing dialogue. Not just word count.
Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference
Little changes can make a big difference, especially when they add up.
But–and this is important to remember–it’s not always about word count.
Sure, B’s line is only one word. Sure, that’s not “cutting” much at all. But it could vastly improve the pacing, the tone, and the readability of the passage.
Small changes like that–which I make all the time–are really some of the best edits I have ever made. This is especially true after a first draft. A LOT of my first draft edits involve cutting down, say, three pieces consecutive pieces of dialogue like that to one. Which leads me to one last reflection:
We don’t write dialogue like people talk.
People talk with lots of interjections. Not just “er”s and “um”s and “like”s, but:
“I don’t believe it!”
“You’re kidding me!”
“He’s such an idiot.”
This, however, just leads to much repetition and a lack of readable dialogue in fiction. It’s also a crutch that I know I fall upon and use for EASY and LAZY ways to emphasize everything in first drafts.
Editing that stuff out forces me to cut back, but it also makes me get more creative in how I emphasize what matters.
So, do you find you repeat yourself this way too? Do you find you have lots of short, reactive, interjective dialogue, or dialogue that can really be cut back because it’s repeating one message various ways?
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”
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