Trimming Your Novel: High-level Trimming

Get out your notebook! Taking a step back from your manuscript and studying the entirety of your story can help you trim your word count. At this stage, you might cut entire scenes or chapters. You might cut or combine characters. You might rearrange, add, or remove plot elements. Sentence-level details are not a concern yet.

Before getting started, I highly recommend letting your manuscript sit for a week, or even a month, so you can revisit it with fresh eyes.

Study three-act structure and beat sheets

Now is a great time to study three-act structure if you are not already familiar with it. I highly suggest K.M. Weiland’s plot structure series and character arc series. Learning three-act structure will help you recognize whether a scene or story component is pulling its weight… or not.

Beat sheets are another good resource. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet is a common one. If you write romance or have a strong romantic subplot in your novel, check if you’re hitting all the romance beats described in Gwen Hayes’s Romancing the Beat. The Hero’s Journey, originally described by Joseph Campbell, is a popular beat sheet for fantasy writers.

Identify areas that need trimming

When trimming (or revising) a manuscript, the first step should be checking if the story structure is sound. After all, you don’t want to spend a week polishing up a few chapters only to later cut them altogether for the sake of the bigger story.

As an added benefit, studying three-act structure can help you identify pacing issues in your novel. For this post, I’ll use Weiland’s definitions for terminology like “inciting event.”

Write out your plot beats

As a first step, write out your story’s main beats according to three-act structure:

  • hook
  • inciting event
  • first plot point
  • first pinch point
  • midpoint
  • second pinch point
  • third plot point
  • climax
  • resolution

Generally, a plot beat falls every 1/8 (or about 12%) of the way into the story.

Bonus: this outline will also come in handy when you need to write your novel’s synopsis!

Calculate where each plot beat falls

Next, do a little math to see where each plot point falls in your story. This will very quickly tell you if your story is suffering from pacing issues.

For example, say you have a 250-page manuscript and you find that your first plot point (which caps off Act I) occurs on page 80. If we take 80 and divide by 250, we can see the first plot point falls 32% of the way into the novel (80/250 * 100 = 32%).

However, after studying three-act structure, you’re aware the first plot point should happen no later than 25%.

You immediately know you need to trim your first act by about 7% (or almost 18 pages). Otherwise, readers might get bored and feel like your story is dragging because your protagonist hasn’t left the Normal World yet and kicked off the reactionary chain of events that begins the second act.

Identify spots to trim

Armed with this knowledge, you can identify areas of your story that might be suffering from extra bloat or bad pacing. Ask yourself whether information in these sections is 100% necessary for the story’s climax to make sense. What can be cut without changing the meaning of your story? What characters or settings might be combined? How can events be streamlined?

The beat sheets are also helpful for identifying repetition (not necessarily of words, but of ideas). For example, if you’re using Romancing the Beat, maybe you determine there are five scenes serving the “maybe this could work” beat before the “midpoint of love” beat. Do you really need that many, or would just one of those scenes, the most powerful one, suffice?

Next week

Next week’s article will discuss some resources that can help you edit scene-by-scene and cut superfluous words. (It is now available here)

Return to the Trimming Overview page.

Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

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