Story Surgery

I re-read a short story recently that I had put away because I didn’t know what to do with it. I’d submitted it a few times with no luck—a sign the story isn’t bad, but it’s not as good as it could be.

I had never been satisfied with the ending, so I started there. I pushed words around. I cut them. I agonized. I lost sleep. I worked on the last two paragraphs for days (yes, sometimes that’s how long it takes), and finally, the ending seemed to gel. No small victory. I thought the story was almost ready to send out.

But then I read it again—one last time, I told myself. I checked white space and typos. I read for clichés, sentence variety, scene and narrative summary balance, tension, character arc and change . . . If you’re a fiction writer, you know the drill. As I read, I remembered a masterful writer of fiction once asked in a workshop: “Does every sentence belong? What does it add to the story?” And my heart sank. The story was still heavy with gratuitous details and phrases, even whole sentences that didn’t contribute much.

So I started cutting. By the time I was done, the story was almost 500 words lighter. Tighter. Stronger. Why had it taken me so long to see what it needed?

Sometimes, time and distance give me perspective. I agree with the advice to “put it away for a while,” then reread with a sharp, critical eye. I often puzzle over a story for a long time before I figure out what it needs. Occasionally, I never figure it out, but that’s another post.

“Does every sentence belong? What does it add to the story?”

Someone—surely more than one writer of advice on story craft—has said that nothing should go in the story that doesn’t advance it in some way. 

I believe that’s the crux of revision whether you’re writing short or long fiction.

Ask yourself: Does this scene (substitute paragraph, dialogue, sentence, image, particular word—yes, it comes down to word choice!) move the story forward and/or grow the character? What does it add? Strike it out and read the passage aloud without it. See if you miss it, not because it was a brilliant turn of phrase but because without it, something absolutely essential has gone missing from the story. If not, cutCut. Cut. Painful, but necessary.

Be wary of language that calls attention to itself. In this story, I threw away a metaphor I loved, a beautiful image, but it didn’t do anything for the story. Sometimes we do have to “kill our darlings.”

Granted, it’s possible to chop the life right out of a story. I know. I’ve done it. But sometimes, if we cut a story to its bones, we find a better way to tell it.

How does “chopping” figure into your revision process?

This post has also been published at Story Circle Network.

Image courtesy of Vecteezy.com.

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