I read my Tosca Lee newsletter for writers this morning, and right there, under the label of #4, was the paragraph I’ve been trying to tell my clients for quite some time:
Cut anything that does not move the story forward.
What she describes next is what I call step-by-stepping:
The motions of every day life are exactly that: every day. You would not write “I unlocked the front door and closed it behind me, dropped the keys on the counter and turned on the lights,” unless these actions had unusual or special significance—i.e., it’s a very tense night because a killer is on the loose, and is in fact about to jump out from the closet. Instead, you would sum them up with something like: “After I got home…”
While Tosca’s topic was dialogue, this applies to narrative too. And what she says “you would not write” is exactly what I’ve seen in manuscripts I’ve edited. Sometimes it’s every bit as detailed as her example shows, and sometimes it’s just two steps: “he turned and . . . ” or “she reached out and . . .” or “he opened his eyes and saw . . .”—a real doozy if we’re in his POV, because it’s telling. Just show us what he saw.
Allow your reader to assume things. If the character is actually doing what he turned to do, the reader will assume he turned to do it. If the character is touching something she reached out for, the reader will assume she reached out to it.
I know where the inclination to step-by-step comes from. We see in our heads what we want to put on the page. The drama unfolds in our minds, and we want to present every nuance of it to the reader. It’s like trying to write every single movement an actor makes in a scene. Here’s the problem: what takes the actor a couple of seconds to do on the screen makes for boring reading.
So, as Tosca said, unless those actions have “unusual or special significance,” cut them.
The one caveat to this is if you’ve made a big deal about the action ahead of time. For instance, if you’ve made it a point to tell the reader the characters are fifteen feet away from each other, and all of a sudden he’s caressing her cheek, then you have to move him to caressing distance.
But sometimes, step-by-stepping is made necessary because of an unnecessary preamble.
Say you made a big deal about an action ahead of time. Was that action necessary, or dross? If it was an action beat, for example, could the beat be eliminated? Could it be replaced with inner thought? Eliminating the beat may demand that you strengthen the dialogue, which is a bonus. That’s preferred anyway. Using an inner thought could strengthen characterization, which is a bonus—especially if that thought contradicts the dialogue.
Always aim higher, stronger, than everyday actions.
What if we’re moving our characters from one place to another? How important is the ride itself? Is it filled with tense, vital dialogue or just description of the scenery outside the window? Is the vehicle being tailed? Side-swiped? Bumped? Or is it just a nice little drive?
Unless illustrating the ride from point A to point B is vitally important to the plot or characterization, cut it. You can segue your characters to their new location or simply use a scene break and put them there. Describing how they get there is irrelevant.
If you tend to exceed your word count, eliminating the step-by-step dross will help considerably. These few examples don’t begin to cover the kinds of things that can be cut without injury.
However, adding them in to increase your word count will only weaken your manuscript. There are so many other ways. Choose a better one.