What To Cut Out Of Your Story

As much as it’s important to know what to keep in your story, it’s just as important to know what to leave out of it. Cutting out what’s unnecessary makes it easier for your reader to follow your story–and it’ll also make it easy for you to follow, too.

Now, you may think that certain passages in your story are way too “beautiful,” too “funny,” or too “fascinating” to be brutally sliced away with a ninja sword, but you might be surprised at how much your story can hold up without passages that you have deemed “too beautiful to fail.” Often times, it’s these “beautiful” but unessential passages that are dragging your story down into a ditch.

Today, I’d like to show you what you can cut out of your story right away.

What To Cut Out Of Your Story

1. Cut Out Anything That Doesn’t Move Your Story Forward

In Your Writing

For example:  if you have a chase scene in your novel where the detective of the story is running after the criminal through a subway station, and you stop mid-chase to give a long, detailed description of the subway station, you’ve just killed the momentum of that scene. That long, detailed description of the subway–no matter how beautifully it is–has to go. It’s doing nothing to advance the plot, and it’s also slowing down the fast-paced tempo that is needed for this type of scene.

In the end, everything in your novel, whether it’s a character description, or some seemingly random dialogue, has to serve a purpose. Study professional stand-up comedians to see what I mean by this. Stand up comedians never waste time talking to an audience without a purpose. Although they may seem as if they’re only talking off the top of their heads, a stand up comedian is always setting the audience up for the punch line.

As you write, see yourself as a stand up comedian: every line you write is a “set up” for the “punch line” (the “punch line” being the climax of your story). Cut out anything that isn’t essential to that set up.

In Your Life

Hours upon hours vegetating in front of a television set, or watching cat videos on YouTube, does nothing to move your life forward. Sure, entertainment is great for taking a break after long day of work, but if you’re overdoing it, you’re severely hampering your progress in life. So, cut out anything that doesn’t help move your life forward in a positive way. Instead, spend more time on activities that will improve your life in a positive way–like running, meditating, journaling, or cooking healthy meals.

By the way, this same rule applies for activities that aren’t creating the desired effect that you were originally looking for. If you’ve tried something for a long time, and it’s just not working for you, then maybe it’s time to cut it out and try something else.

2. Cut Out Any Redundancies

In Your Writing

If you’ve already explained ten times that the green sludge in your Sci-Fi novel causes people to shrink–trust me, you don’t need to mention it one more time. (We understood that plot point the first time you introduced it.)

In Your Life 

At one point I had three e-mail accounts, and ten different social media accounts. I have now narrowed down my e-mail accounts to two (my private e-mail and my work e-mail). And I’ve also cut down my social media accounts from ten accounts to five. (I’m working to cut that number down even further by the end of this week.) I’ve come to learn that, unlike what most social media experts recommend, I really don’t need ten different social media accounts. I just need the ones that my readers use the most, which right now are Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Anything more than that is just redundant in my view, and way too time consuming for a writer bent on finishing his novel.

But this is just one example of how redundancies can pile up in our lives without us even noticing. I think it’s better if we rid ourselves of these redundancies. Our lives need clear direction, and cutting out any unnecessary repetition is sure to help us achieve the clarity we seek.

3. Cut Out Any Wordiness

In Your Writing 

Here’s an example:

Bad: On a day after yesterday, but before tomorrow, I’m writing about how you can cut out life’s unnecessary fluff, and stuff, and garbage that gets in your way in order to move forward in life with greater and greater clarity.

Great: Today, I’m writing about how you can cut out life’s unnecessary fluff in order to move forward with greater clarity.

Cut out wordiness by winnowing a sentence down to its basic structure (subject and verb) and only add more to the sentence if the sentence needs further explanation.

In Your Life

To quote a great philosopher: “Those who speak, don’t know. Those who know, don’t speak.”

Try spending more time listening, and less of your time talking. I’ve often found that listening brings more clarity to my life than if I spend hours upon hours blabbing away.

When you do finally talk, make sure your words matter. Don’t let your words linger uselessly in the air like a broken hanger in a closet.

4. Cut Out Any “Telling” (And Replace It With “Showing”)

In Your Writing

Cut out all passages that simply tell the reader what’s happening in the story, and replace them with passages that show the reader what’s happening in the story. (To learn more about the difference between “showing” vs. “telling” please read: ” ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Explained In A Language Grown Ups Can Understand” and “More On Showing vs. Telling + Examples.”)

In Your Life

As they say: “don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” Be the model of what you’re trying to communicate to others. When you “tell” and “don’t show” you’re only teaching people how to be false. A smoker who won’t quit, but who tells her children not to smoke, for example, will only end up finding out that her kids smoke anyway. That’s because her children learned from what she was “showing” them and not what she was “telling” them.

So don’t just “tell” in life, make sure to always “show” by being a model of what you’re trying to teach others.

5. Cut Out Anything That’s Not Precise

In Your Writing

Cut out words and phrases that aren’t precise, and replace them with words and phrases that are precise. Being “precise” means that you’re using words or passages that are as close to your intended meaning as possible.

Be precise by trying out several different words or phrases until you find the right one that fits the passage perfectly.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Okay: “He worried that they might not get it.”

Great: “The author worried that his readers might not understand him.”

You can be more precise by replacing unclear pronouns, like “He,”with precise pronouns, or nouns, like “the author.” You can also replace vague, informal language like “get” with precise, formal language like “understand.” (By the way, this same rule applies to theme, setting, structure, character, and mood, as well.)

Strive to be more precise with your writing and it’ll bring more clarity to your work.

In Your Life

In college, I tried all different kinds of majors before I finally decided on my field of study. I studied Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Chicano Studies, History, English, Archeology, Anthropology, and Philosophy. I ended up majoring in Drama. Then, after I graduated from college, I tried all different kinds of jobs: acting, tutoring, substitute teaching, teaching theater to at-risk youth, non-profit work, and, more recently, consulting and freelancing.

After experiencing all of these different types of professions and fields of study, I’ve been able to become more precise about what it is I want to do with my life. I now know, without a doubt, that I want to make a living as a fiction writerI want to keep churning out novels until I die. But I wouldn’t have been so clear about this if I hadn’t tried out many different majors and professions.

So, if you’re not clear about what it is you want to do with your life, try out as many different fields and professions as you can. If you already know that you want to be a writer, try all different kinds of forms of writing to help you land on the form that fits you best.

Try out different things, and then cut out what isn’t precisely what you want to do in life.

What Elements To Keep In Your Story

Hopefully, after this whole process is finished, what’s left over will only be the elements that are truly essential to your story: the elements that propel your story forward in a positive way and help you arrive at greater clarity.

much “snip, snip,”

Ollin

What elements do you recommend we “cut out” of our stories? Please share your wisdom with us in the comments below!

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31 comments on “What To Cut Out Of Your Story

  1. taureanw says:

    Great post!
    This was something I REALLY struggled with in my first go @ a novel. I’ve gotten a little better & I’ll have to keep your examples in the back of my mind as a reminder!

  2. I hate repetitive descriptions. I mean…I’m not daft. So the author only needs to tell me a character is blue-eyed once for me to get it.

  3. ceciliag says:

    This was a good read, but I have the opposite problem. Up until now i have worked with scripts, both film and theatre. So I am succinct with descriptions and my work is more dialogue driven. Hmm. I have decided that I should go back and start again writing short stories. Or the novel as a series of short stories. I hate verbose. But I come off as clipped. Hmm again. c

    • Ollin says:

      Interesting problem. You may be “cutting out” too early. The cutting out process should happen near the end, so say you spend 90% fleshing out the story, and then you spend the last 10% cutting. (Your clipping mindset should not be with you 100% of the time. It’s almost as if you are two authors. The writer writer and the editor. The editor must be firm and decisive, but the writer writer must always have the last say on things.) I think when my work comes out too “clipped” it usually means I have starting gutting the thing too early in the process. (Sometimes I start cutting right away–that’s a big mistake.) I would suggest letting the piece breathe for several drafts in before you even think about having to seriously cut anything from it. Hope that helps. Good luck!

      • ceciliag says:

        yes this does make sense. Though i am not cutting as i go, I initially write less. It is a process and I will work on it. I do see what you mean about being two different kinds of writers. I shall release my inner writer writer!! (laughter) But right this minute I have better grab my coat and go rescue that big fat sheep who is trying to stuff himself through a low hole in the fence. c

  4. Christina says:

    Especially with action sequences, think of what you’d notice yourself if you were being chased. And limit descriptions to what applies to that action.

    Thanks Ollin:)

  5. Excellent tips, Ollin. There’s one you mentioned that I have a difficult time convincing my (7th grade) students about: “Try spending more time listening, and less of your time talking. I’ve often found that listening brings more clarity to my life than if I spend hours upon hours blabbing away.”
    I’ve told them that information is currency, that they’ll learn more if they just listen … instead of waiting to jump in and grab center stage. The same holds trues for interviewers and for writers who should listen to the characters. Let them do the talking, then write.

  6. P. says:

    I’m really impressed with you, and what you share. This was a great post, with excellent examples. Thanks for bringing together ways to eliminate excess in writing and in life. You rock!

  7. Lynne Spreen says:

    Thanks for this, Ollin. I have a critique group of absolute beginners, and I am going to print and hand out your post to help them understand more about what they should be doing/not doing.

    Also, I’m always struggling to keep up with my social media and loved how you narrowed it down to the few that you feel are most useful.

    Have you found LinkedIn very useful for you as a writer? Do you recommend it for writers?

    • Ollin says:

      I recommend whatever works for writers. It all depends on your audience. If my audience really loved using digg it and reddit, I would probably only focus on those two accounts. Listen, if you have a huge staff working for you, and you are a huge company working to market your brand, of course you would be on all social media accounts because you can handle the workload. But for a lone author that just isn’t practical. So narrow down your reach to the 2 or three accounts that your readers spend the most time on. For me it’s those three, for another it may be something else. Just make sure to study where your stuff gets shared the most and narrow it down using that info. Good luck!

  8. Kari Scare says:

    I love the connection you make between writing and life. My approach for what to “cut out” of our stories – both the ones we write and the ones we live – is summed up in one word: simplify. I keep telling myself to simplify in all that I do because I tend to overcomplicate most things. When I start to feel overwhelmed, simplifying always brings me back to a calm state. This approach works for me in life and in writing. I even have two signs in my office that say “simplify,” to keep it always before me.

  9. Oh god that was one of your best posts!! You’re talking about success in writing but also in life in general… and to be able to compare both is awesome. Thanks for sharing

  10. spinx says:

    How much time does it take you to get a new post up and running here?

    • Ollin says:

      Good question. It’s hard to answer that question because many posts are in the works for weeks and months at a time before I ever write the post down. (I write Mozart style. You ever seen Amadeous?) But the actual writing writing part of it anyway from 30 min to a few hours depending on the length and depth of the post itself.

      • spinx says:

        Whoa!

        Some pretty decent time for simple posts! And certainly not wasted- you really do manage to get a lot of people up and going–nice, nice, nice!

        Now I am curious, how much time do you usually spend writing your novel? This last month for example?
        Is it becoming easier, in your opinion?

        (Thanks for the reply ;T)

        • Ollin says:

          I kept a 5 hour a week schedule for most of this past year. But in the past month I’ve pulled in over time. Like 10-20 to make my deadline. I’ll be talking about me meeting my deadline for this year on Monday. Look fowrard to that!

  11. krpooler says:

    Ollin,

    You have provided an excellent summary of the importance of writing to move your story forward in a precise manner that serves a purpose while eliminating the unnecessary fluff” that distracts the reader and causes the story to lose momentum. I have heard all of this before but your post brings it home very succinctly. Essentially you have shown us, not just told us how to do it. I find the comments and discussion to be very enlightening as well i.e. “think of what you would notice if you were being chased and limit description to that action” by Christina. Got it!🙂 Thanks for another great post!

  12. Carolee says:

    Oh, does this ever hit home! I am in my 3rd hoped-for last major re-write. However, in learning more about the craft and writing, I’m finding that the job is not done.

    One of my hard-learned lessons is I decided to change to 3rd person POV–after I’d written several chapters in different single POV’s. Couldn’t decide which character’s POV was more important. Switching it makes so much more sense. Hard lesson.

    What I’m finding now is exactly what you spoke about–“remove anything that stops the action….” Thanks for your posts. I learn a lot from them.

  13. yourbestwork says:

    //Great Article! Very clever! I enjoyed the way you parallelled the concept of narrowing, trimming and clarifying in your writing to life itself. What a great juxtaposition! Very well done. Thank you!

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