All too often, I’m reading stories as editor of Two Cities Review, or I’m reading stories as a teacher of creative writing, or I’m reading the stories of my dear writer friends, and I’m thinking one singular thought. I’m thinking, “This story would be fantastic — if it were cut in half.”
I think this so often when I’m reading stories; and surprise surprise, when I actually get around to noticing it in my work, I think the same thing. This story of mine would be so much better, I realize, if it were half as long.
We often hear this from literary magazines and from teachers. But when we actually face the small mountain of hard won words that are our stories, we don’t have the first clue about how to make it half as big. And sadly, there’s no short cut available; even with my newfound knowledge, I can’t write a shorter story in the first draft. I think I still have to write a story that’s too long, and then cut it down. But now that I have a better understanding of the shapes of stories, I’m a lot better at learning how to cut a story in half. Here’s how.
Let’s use the example of a story about a volcanic eruption. That’s a nice juicy problem to have at the center of a story, and it will allow for plenty of interesting characters, revealing themselves with their actions. But most people, when writing the story of the volcanic eruption, will want to start with what the world was like before the volcano ever erupted. They’ll want to go on for a few pages about the peaceful, verdant society living in the mountain’s shadow. Then the volcano will erupt, and then we’ll see people choosing to react in different ways. And finally, people will want to write about the aftermath. But wait, that’s not all; most people tack on even more after that, zooming into the future of what will happen to these characters. We feel a powerful need to give us a character’s entire life, and to tie it up in a bow. But when we seek closure on a human life, we keep needing to go farther and farther forward or backward, because there is no neat place where a human story begins or ends.
In this example story, can you see where you might be able to cut? When you break things down simply into their components as I’ve done here, it becomes more evident. You don’t really need all that beginning peacefulness, do you? You can give us hints of what a peaceful world it was even as it’s being destroyed. And how much aftermath and wrap-up and future do we need? If the story is about what people were like during the volcanic eruption, then the story must be with the volcanic eruption.
Can you try breaking down your story into its most basic components? Even the less plotty stories out there can be understood in this way. Maybe your story is about a character reflecting on his own mortality. In that case, look for parts that are redundant. Maybe it’s about a school dance. Do we need both pre-dance and post-dance? You’d be surprised to know how many beginner stories I read have scenes of prepping for the real scene that will count. It’s the place where we’re testing the waters, figuring out what we want to say and how we want to say it. But how many prep scenes are really that necessary? Can you find prep scenes in your own writing?
Once you start looking at your own scenes and stories with these eyes, it will be much easier to do the magic trick of cutting your story in half.