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Kill your darlings: 5 tips for cutting and editing scenes you love

Another month, and another of our authors’ Round Robins. This month we have another thought-provoking topic, this time set by author Marci Baun

helena fairfax, freelance editor, fiction editor
Deleting scenes: Do you ever delete scenes? When and why do you delete them? And what do you do with them? Do you save them? Or just toss them? 

When I first started writing, I found the idea of cutting entire scenes massively painful. My precious hours’ of toil in the bin! I’m a lot more relaxed about it now, and will happily cut if it means getting the story into shape.

I do a lot more freelance editing for fiction writers than writing of my own these days, but I always bear in mind how I felt with my first ever novel when I suggest to a new writer that they may want to cut something. I know how gutting it can be to ‘sacrifice’ a scene it’s taken you so much time to polish.

But as hard as it can be to delete your work, sometimes the story is vastly improved by pruning.

5 top tips on editing and cutting scenes in your manuscript

Image by John Conde from Pixabay

Editing tip one: If your scenes are repeating information, better to delete them

In our social interactions in real life, we often only need to see a certain type of behaviour once or twice in a person to get an impression of them. Human beings are very sophisticated at weighing people up, and the same is true when we’re reading fiction.

In a recent manuscript I edited, the author wanted to show in a piece of backstory how her heroine developed a close relationship with her bachelor uncle after her parents died. There were lots of lovely scenes showing how the little girl and curmudgeonly grieving brother bonded.

After a while, though, these scenes, as touching as they were individually, seemed to lose their impact. My suggestion was to cut the number of backstory scenes to just one or two. Readers would easily get the point, and my feeling was the impact would be stronger without too many.

So, editing tip one is to avoid repetition of scenes that all do the same job for you.

helena fairfax, freelance fiction editor, romance
Image by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay

Editing tip two: Ask yourself what does this scene add to the development of the story? If it could be cut, would it make any difference to the narrative?

I often ask writers to ask themselves the question ‘what is my book about?’ It may seem reductive, but sticking to this simple question will help you keep the focus on your main characters and the tension high.

Say your story is about Sheila, who has sworn off love after several bad relationships, goes travelling, and meets handsome widower Rupert on a cruise. Are those funny scenes where Don in cabin 10 is flirting with her necessary? If they make Rupert sit up and take notice, then yes. If not, would it matter if they were cut?

How about those scenes where her mum keeps emailing to tell her how her gran is doing? If they serve a purpose in showing Sheila to be a caring person, despite her present hedonistic cruise, and worthy of Rupert’s love, then they’re necessary. If they’re just there to show what Sheila’s mum and quirky gran are like, then they can be cut, because mum and gran aren’t the story.

You may think these extra scenes will bring fun and interest to readers, but in fact every time you step outside your core premise that all-important tension is lost and you’re moving away from developing the characters you have.

It’s not always easy to see where your own narrative is drifting, but the simple question ‘what is my story about?’ can often help keep the story grounded.

(You can find more on the importance of keeping your story focused in this post I wrote a while ago)

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

Editing tip 3: Cut minor characters and/or merge them

A handy tip writers often use is to merge secondary characters. Going back to the example of Sheila on the cruise. Say you decide to keep the scene where Don in cabin 12 is flirting with her, because it makes grieving Rupert look up and realise she’s an attractive woman. Do you really need the scenes where Toby is flirting with her, too? Isn’t that just overkill?

Why not cut Toby and merge his character with Don’s?

This tip works across all genres, by the way. Does the detective need two best friends? Could one do the same job?

I’ve even suggested ‘culling’ a parent before, when the heroine only conversed with her mum. Does the dad in the corner watching TV add anything? (Sorry, dad, but you’ll need to pull your weight as a character in order to stay in the book!)

Editing tip 4: cut the backstory

Fitting in a character’s backstory in a subtle way is, for me, one of the most difficult parts of writing a novel. Some writers say it helps on a first draft just to drop in all of the character’s past as you begin write your way into the story, and then either cut it out or try to find a better way to get the history across to readers later on in the narrative.

You can’t always tell where your story begins until you’ve actually started writing, and often the first two chapters turn out to be all backstory and not the real story at all, and could be deleted.

Image by Edar from Pixabay

There are two other great pieces of advice I’ve heard from other writers. The first is: if you feel a scene isn’t working, go through and highlight in yellow all the parts referring to the past. If you cut these out, would the scene work better?

The second piece of advice is: never share your character’s backstory until the last possible moment. It’s tempting to explain to readers upfront exactly why a character behaves a certain way.

But readers are very savvy. Just a hint is enough to make them realise there is more to this character than meets the eye, and by withholding information, you will make readers turn the pages wanting to find out.

This leads to:

Editing tip 5: resist the urge to explain

This tip isn’t so much about deleting whole scenes as about cutting information that’s already clear from the narrative. It’s tempting to tell readers how a character feels – for example ‘Leonora left, slamming the door behind her. She was absolutely furious.’

It will have been clear from the dialogue in the scene that Leonora is furious at this point, so the last sentence could easily be cut. Plus in real life, if someone slams a door there’s no need for them to shout through the letterbox that they’re angry. We get it already!

Sometimes gestures or expressions can be ambiguous. A hand on the brow could mean someone’s puzzled, or it could mean they’re really upset. Often it works much better to let the reader decide, without hammering it home for them. Part of the whole pleasure of reading novels is to get to know new characters and to work out who they are for ourselves.

*

 The last question in our topic is ‘what do you do with your deleted scenes?

When I first started writing, I always used to save deleted scenes, just in case I could ever use them again, but in fact I never opened my folder of ‘outtakes’ after the book was published. So I really enjoyed these tips from the Writing Beginner website on 5 Clever Uses for Your Deleted Scenes,  including publishing the scenes on your website, or adding ‘blooper’ scenes to the back of a book.

Finally, I’ll end with this famous quote, from as long ago as 1914:

*

I’ve really enjoyed this month’s Round Robin! If you’d like to hear what the other authors have to say on this topic, please click on the links below.

Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-2n4

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea

Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/

Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/

Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com

Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/

Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/

Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobincourtright.com

16 thoughts on “Kill your darlings: 5 tips for cutting and editing scenes you love

    1. Hi Skye, please do feel free to print them out. I’d be honoured! I’m so glad they’re useful. I’ve enjoyed this month’s topic again. Thanks for your kind comment x

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  1. Yes, yes, “murder your darlings.” Once I realized that “pruning” bad scenes or characters improved the story, I’ve been ruthless ever since. Except when the characters tell me the scene needs to say. They’re the ultimate higher authority–even higher than the editor! LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m pretty ruthless now, too, Fiona, and try to keep the narrative firmly on track. I love the idea of the characters begging for a scene to stay. I totally agree – it means they want to explore this scene more and give it more depth. It’s great when that happens :) Thanks for dropping in, and for your great comment!

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  2. I really enjoy editing! I find it really satisfying to make something obviously better. It’s a very different headspace from writing, though, and I’m careful not to start doing it until I’ve got the bulk of the text onto the page. Otherwise I’d fiddle around forever trying to perfect the first sentence (which of course might not need to exist at all)!

    I think a turning point for me was the moment that I realised that Speak Its Name *had* to come from Lydia’s point of view, rather than being shared out around three or four characters. I ditched 30,000 words, rewrote a few scenes, and ended up with far fewer holes to fill than I’d thought I’d have. It just worked so beautifully that I couldn’t resent it. I put a few of the deleted scenes up on my blog afterwards.

    My favourite quotation – which I think may actually have been about engineering or aircraft design or something, but works very well for writing too – is “Begin by putting in everything you like. Finish by taking out everything you can.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kathleen, I so agree about trying to get everything down (or as much as possible) before starting editing. I’m an inveterate tinkerer of details – and what’s the point, if you may well end up cutting something, anyway? I find it very hard to let my perfectionist tendencies go and just move on with the writing, but it’s the only way to get anything finished!
      I love your example of changing the point of view. I can imagine how your heart sank when you realised it had to be done, but also the satisfaction of getting it to work. And I love the idea of putting the deleted scenes on your blog. I expect it was interesting for readers to see how the final novel came about, and how much work goes into making it the best it can be.
      Love the quote, too! I can imagine how that advice would work from a design perspective. I find it really fascinating how designers come up with a final product (even though I’ve got no skills in this area whatsoever!) so it’s interesting to think that their methods have some links with writing.
      Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!

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  3. Enjoyed your post! I wrote down the 5 points. You are correct in letting the reader figure out for themselves what they think is going on, it gets them more involved in the story, but is often hard for the writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, Rhobin, it’s so tempting to think the reader needs to be told, but readers are very quick to pick things up and even enjoy the process much more than being spoonfed. These ‘explainer’ lines are easily taken out at the editing stage.
      Thanks very much for organising another great topic.

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  4. I’m a great fan of editing, partly because I’m a killer at heart and like murdering darlings; but mainly because I used to be part of a film group…

    The so-called director actually thought he was so talented or in touch with higher powers or something, and that he didn’t have to do drafts.

    I’ll just leave you with that thought for the moment.

    Anyway, he lost control of the script, added on huge chunks rather than edit it down and after two weary years we “premiered” his Great Vision at the local Corn Exchange.

    It was a silent film, and I think it was actually longer than LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.

    You couldn’t make it up, and believe me, I’m not.

    As you can imagine, it wasn’t exactly feted as the next BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, and you can probably guess why!

    It’s also one reason why, these days, I am not keen on egotistical authors who think they’re the next Shakespeare (I actually heard that comment recently on a Goodreads Facebook group) and, yes, it’s one reason why I don’t always believe in youthful entrepreneurialism. Because oddly enough, our ranks included a very talented graphic designer, an excellent photographer, me (so-so author-to-be) but together and with this nincompoop in charge, egos went wild, valid tenets of writing and editing went straight out of the window and we produced a load of s**t.

    And we were all in our twenties.

    All I can say, hand on heart, is that I relentlessly warned the nincompoop (Autists don’t have egos), at the time desperately wanted to edit the hulk into something watchable and was ignored at every turn.

    I think the running time was four-and-a-half hours.

    Well, the whole group imploded in the end and the nincompoop disappeared into darkest Fife. I believe he resides there to this day in a dingly sort of dell reserved for the truly deranged.

    And I suspect he STILL believes he doesn’t need to do drafts.

    The moral of the story?

    You gotta do drafts.

    Secondarily, youth and passion doesn’t mean you can arbitrarily ignore the rules. Bring an unedited, overlong, self-indulgent piece of tripe to the table and it will lie there, uneaten.

    The epilogue?

    I went to the hard place and paid my dues (twenty years editing MACNAB, for example); and when DEAR MISS LANDAU brought me a momentary eyeblink of fame the nincompoop tried (over twenty-five years later!) to get involved…

    I turned him down flat.

    The moral of that?

    In this business and in many others, you have to market yourself and make people believe you can deliver what they want. Sometimes people have to work with partners they despise because they can deliver those goods; and much as I truly despised that nincompoop, if he’d been through a Damascene conversion, had a spotless track record and blue-chip contacts in Hollywood, I’d probably have had to sell my soul and deal with the Devil.

    But he had done none of this, and there was no way I would ever let my polished products anywhere near an egotistical amateur who still did not believe scripts and prose had to be edited!

    And they have to be edited, they really do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. James, I love the way you’ve expressed yourself in this comment. The line about retreating to darkest Fife made me laugh out loud. And I can just imagine a four-and-a-half-hour showing of a silent film in a local arthouse. This would make such a great short story or screenplay if you ever wanted to write it up!
      There are quite a few writers who haven’t grasped what editing is really for when they start the process. Many think it’s just a question of correcting grammar and punctuation (which they can sometimes swear they don’t need help with, anyway). A good editor can help you look at your story with a fresh perspective, and I’ve never heard of a novel being perfect on the first draft.
      Thanks very much for your great comment!

      Like

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