How to shorten your manuscript

Pink scissors on a turquoise background

5 ways to cut your story down to size.

An author we know was offered a contract for her novel on the condition that she cut down the length from 600 manuscript pages down to 450. Most manuscripts can do with a little pruning; see our post how long is a story. But shortening the text by a quarter is a tall order.

Here’s some advice we were able to give her.

1. Remove backstory.

Many authors tend to tell too much about their heroine’s origins or childhood in the first couple of chapters. They think that the readers need to know where the character comes from or how the protagonist grew up in order to understand her properly. Actually, this is a fallacy. It can be counterproductive to explain too much about a main character for two reasons:

  • Because making that character’s background specific removes the chance for the readers to identify with the character. An everyman type of character, someone blank (at least initially), can make it easier for the readers to put themselves in their shoes.
  • Because readers like mystery. The audience does not want to be spoon-fed but likes to work things out for themselves. Characters that do strange things are fascinating, and the things they do appear strange mostly because we don’t (yet) understand their motivations. If we know everything already, understand their conscious and subconscious desires and needs, then that explains everything they do before they even do it, so there is less chance for them to surprise us.

Keep backstory to a minimum, and consider imparting the truly relevant aspects of the backstory not at the beginning of the narrative but in the second half. A good way to keep the backstory short and fresh might be to use a dialog scene after the midpoint of the story in which the character reveals the most relevant part of their backstory to another character (as well as the audience). A “campfire scene” might be a good place for this kind of thing.

In fact, it doesn’t even have to be the protagonist talking about his own backstory – it could be minor characters talking about the protagonist in her absence that impart some information that helps the audience get a clearer picture of who the protagonist is. In a small but important scene in the well-written thriller Hunt for Red October, a bit part character tells another bit part character about hero Jack Ryan’s backstory as an invalid after a helicopter crash. The almost untold backstory of Jack’s determination demonstrates his resilience and strength of character.

2. Remove a subplot.

How many storylines or plots have you identified in your tale? Are they subtly interwoven, or are the subplots told in separate blocks? Undoubtedly they will interlock at some points, but consider how much you would have to adjust in the A plot if the C plot were simply not there. Perhaps tightening the focus on an A and B plot only would benefit the story.

Possibly it might be an idea to consider the subplot you lift out here as a separate work. Does it carry enough weight to stand on its own? Can you make an A plot of it in its own right? Maybe strengthen it with its own new B plot? Perhaps your story world is big enough to have two or more stories set in it. Or perhaps the subplot you lift out now could become a sequel to the original work?

3. Remove a character.

If you are considering lifting out a subplot from your manuscript, you might find that a character becomes superfluous. Conversely, look at the cast of characters in your story and consider what would happen if any of them disappeared from the action. How much adjustment would you have to make in order that the main plot works if one of the supporting characters were no longer in the picture? Is there one lesser character who is not so very necessary? If so, consider taking them out of the equation.

Again, as with the subplots, your story world may be interesting enough to warrant giving this character their own work, making them the hero of their own tale. This separate novel or film could be a spin-off, a sequel, or even the same events recounted from a different point of view.

Another technique is to conflate two or more characters into just one. This is particularly common in adaptations, for example of long novels into a movie or of historical material into a novel or film. If many different influences are at work upon a protagonist, consider paring down these many smaller roles into one character who provides the stimuli that in the source work was provided by many.

4. Remove the prologue.

If you have a big prologue section, consider cutting it.

  • The Director’s Cut of Aliens featured a long introductory section about what happened to the settlers on a planet. Then the story itself starts, featuring the heroine being called to investigate why there has been no word from the settlers on this planet for a long time. In the initial movie release, the entire introduction was simply left out – and the movie-going experience was all the better for it.
  • William Friedkin had two massively successful and genre-changing films, The Exorcist and The French Connection, under his belt when he made Sorcerer, the story of four outcasts stuck in remote Colombia. One reason the film flopped at the box office was the long prologue section, most of it not in English, which introduced the four major characters, showing the audience the reasons why they fled to the Colombian backwaters. The film works just as well if you begin watching after the prologue – you don’t really need to know where the four men came from or why they were outcasts in Colombia in order to follow them on their exciting and deadly journey.

5. Remove description.

Modern novels are very fast-paced compared to 20th or 19th century fiction. Chapters are shorter, scene breaks come more quickly, both to allow bite-sized reading. Another way to achieve a faster pace is to pare down descriptions to a bare minimum. If your character spends a night in an hotel, it may be enough to describe the room with a colour, such as “white”, to give your readers a sensory detail to latch onto and let their imaginations fill in the rest. Since most readers will have associations with hotel rooms, and all modern hotels look pretty much alike anyway, you may not need a list of furnishings.

It’s a little like the development of film editing. When film was a new medium, you couldn’t cut from a guy having his breakfast to the guy in the office, the audience would not understand how he got from A to B. Nowadays, the language of film is so ingrained in people’s visual acuity that they are able to fill in such gaps easily. The same can be said of most ordinary phenomena such as hotel rooms or trees or attire. One precisely chosen word can do the job of a sentence or even a paragraph, with the result that the pace picks up and the text gets shorter.

Of course, we’re not suggesting that this kind of writing is better than Dickens or other masters of description. It can lead to laziness on the author’s part. It is said that Tolkien knew the shape of every leaf on every tree in middle earth. Even if you describe less detail in your story world, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to know your world well. Consider yourself a guide – though you may not intend to discuss the shape of the leaves on a particular tree, your knowledge of that shape may become useful at some point. If you know it, your audience will feel it – and be more convinced by the world you show them as you lead them through the story.

Now hear this!

Photo by Alex Gruber on Unsplash

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