Ask Jami: Editing Tips–Tightening Scenes

by Jami Gold on March 1, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Tight hand squeezing a red foam heart

In my post last week asking if we can have too much voice, some great questions came up in the comments.  I decided to turn them into “Ask Jami” blog posts rather than bury the answers in the comment string.

Earlier, I shared ideas on how to use color-coding to check if we’re “overusing” a writing element.  Today, I’ll share suggestions for how to tighten sections that are “too long.”  (That is, sections that break the two-paragraph guideline to the point of negatively affecting pacing.)

As we discussed last week, the two-paragraph guideline suggests that we should mix up action, exposition, dialogue, internalization, etc. every two paragraphs (or so) to prevent reader boredom, pacing issues, and choppiness.  Note that the two-paragraph guideline is just that—a guideline.

Sections that go “too long” aren’t bad simply because they’re longer than two paragraphs.  A section longer than two paragraphs might work perfectly well for various reasons: voice, tension, unique information, etc.

However, when we come across a problem area, and our check shows a “too long” section, we want to know how to fix the issue.

Tightening “Too Long” Sections

We’re not talking about the micro type of tightening we do: cutting modifiers, repeated ideas, overwriting of details, etc.  This refers more to the macro kind of tightening—paragraphs or more—when we’re trying to fix overall pacing in a scene.  We usually see issues like this come up during information dumps of a character’s background or a setting description.

For example, in the comments of the post about voice, Amanda Byrne asked:

“I’m hoping maybe you can help me with the whole “two paragraph” idea. I’m in the middle of editing a WIP, and I’ve just hit a section that’s about six paragraphs long, and it’s all memory. … Any suggestions?

Amanda and I moved our discussion of her story to email, but I thought some of the general suggestions might be helpful to everyone.

When the Author Knows—and Shares—Too Much

When we come up with great backstory or world-building elements, we often want to include it all for the reader.  However, those sections are prime candidates for those “darlings” that need to be killed.

I once heard that when we research (or make up) details for our book, we should use only 5% of what we have.  5% is probably an exaggeration, but the point is that we shouldn’t be including most of what we know.

So how do we know what should be included?

  • Give details that are relevant to this story.

No matter how touching, how well-thought-out, how beautifully written the other details are, if they don’t play into the current story, they don’t belong.

Determining what needs to stay and what can go is a good first step to tightening sections that are too long.  If we hate the thought of killing those darlings, we can save them in another document for the “Extras” or “Deleted Scenes” section of our blog.  *smile*

When Dumping Is Easier than Weaving

But what if the reader needs to know this information?  If the information is relevant to the story, we have to introduce it to the reader without calling attention to it.  This takes more work on our part, however, which is why information dumps are the easy—and lazy—way to go.

Think of the kid who won’t eat vegetables.  How does the parent sneak the healthy stuff into the child’s diet?  By chopping them into little pieces and hiding them among the other yummy ingredients.  We have to do the same thing with information.

  • Turn info dump paragraphs into phrases woven among other elements.

As a simplistic example, we shouldn’t say, “They were in the bathroom. The knife fell.”  Those are passive/boring sentences that tell.

Instead, we’d say something like, “The knife fell to the linoleum, and the impact echoed off the shower tile.”   Then we have active, showing sentences that let the reader know they’re in the bathroom, all without coming out and saying it in a direct, boring way.

However, that technique of interweaving information and action can go only so far when we’re staring at paragraphs’ worth of backstory.  Turning all those telling sentences into active sentences within one section of a scene could result in clunky, forced action.

When We Forget that Patience Is a Virtue

The real cause of info dumps is that it takes work to weave backstory and other description with active sentences.  We’re impatient.  We want to get all that necessary stuff out of the way so we can get on with the story.

That’s a legitimate approach when we’re writing a first draft.  First drafts are all about discovery, discovering the story and the flow of scenes.  But when we begin revisions, we have to take a hard look at those info dumps.

The best way to interweave those details with other elements and keep the natural flow of a scene is to spread them out.

  • Give details when they’re relevant and not before.

We might think we’ve done okay with our backstory because we avoided dumping it anywhere near those important first couple of pages.  But then when a situation in our story requires some background information, we might think, “Woo hoo!  Now I’m allowed to share all this stuff.”  And we info dump to our heart’s content, believing the story demanded it.

Well, yes and no.  The story might have demanded some background information at that point, but not all of it.  So much of writing is about creating layers, and this is no exception.

In chapter one, we might mention that the hero has a bad relationship with his father.  In chapter three, we might reveal the detail about how long it’s been since they’ve spoken.  In chapter eight, we might share the words of their last fight.  Etc., etc.

It’s easier to write all that at once, but adding one layer of understanding to the story at a time helps the pacing.  And as a bonus, holding back those other details keeps the reader involved in the story because they have questions they want the answers to.

How we fix those too-long sections doesn’t matter.  What matters is that readers shouldn’t realize when we’ve included backstory or world-building details.  If they notice our spoon-feeding of information, the story isn’t moving forward anymore.  That’s bad not only for pacing, but also for the biggest reason of all: storytelling.  If we’re not telling good stories, then there’s not much point to anything we’re writing.

(Standard “Ask Jami” disclaimer:  I am not agented or published, so take all my “advice” in the spirit of me offering information to get people to think, and not in a “I think I know everything” way.  *smile*)

Do you use information dumps when you’re drafting?  How do you clean them up during revisions: deleting, interweaving, spreading them out, something else, or all of the above?  Is there one technique you feel more skilled with?  Or one you struggle with?

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30 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Melinda Collins March 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Hi Jami!

I absolutely use info dumps when I’m drafting! I usually try to clean them up by simply deleting and shrinking it down as much as I can. My problem is that sometimes I don’t the reader will get the scene without more of the background story than what’s needed, and sometimes it takes a good critiquer to tell me that. However, I can say that I think I’m getting better at it. I guess I figure I’d rather the CP and BR tell me they need more background info in a particular scene than to have them come back and say, “Back it off! Delete! Delete!”

When I do make those big ‘cuts,’ I like to keep them in a word doc for ‘extras’ and ‘deleted scenes’ as well. But I will say that I do have those particular background ‘short stories’ that I write before the first draft, and those stay out of the WIP *entirely* (except for tiny pieces) since they were more ‘Melinda needs to get-to-know her character first’ stories. 🙂

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Jami Gold March 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Hi Melinda,

I’ve gotten better about not info dumping during drafting, mostly because I try drafting in deep POV. That helps me with many issues. 🙂 And you’re right that beta readers/critiquers are our best resources for finding that balance between too much and not enough. We gotta love our beta readers–so useful in so many ways. 🙂

I don’t usually write out those backstory “get to know” snippets, but I do develop them in my head. Thanks for the comment!

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Roxanne Skelly March 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm

I find I tend to shy away from info dumps during my first draft, probably ’cause I hate them so much. I have put them into a separate file, and pick and choose once in awhile.

My biggie is wandering into unnecessary dialog.

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Jami Gold March 1, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Hi Roxanne,

Oh yes, when the characters think they’re so interesting we’ll follow them anywhere, even into the depths of banter that has no bearing on the current story. *sigh* Yep, been there, done that. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Renee Schuls-Jacobson March 1, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Another reason to love you.

Will you be my beta reader? One day? I’ll let you kill all my little darlins. Maybe. 😉

Great post!

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Jami Gold March 1, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Hi Renee,

Aww, thank you! Yes, I am an honest beta reader…with many pointy knives. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Alessa Hinlo March 1, 2012 at 8:48 pm

Great tips!

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Jami Gold March 2, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Hi Alessa,

I hope they help. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jennifer Tanner March 1, 2012 at 10:58 pm

Hello Jami!

I want my characters to be well-developed so I end up creating massive back stories for them. I’ve learned to pare it down to keep it pertinent to the scene. It’s a fine balance…keeping the reader interested while giving them just enough information so they won’t be tempted to go back and re-read pages thinking they’ve missed something. That really kills the pacing.

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Jami Gold March 2, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Hi Jennifer,

Yes, I’ve written a page (or more) backstory for many of my characters in my series, but virtually none of that ends up on the page. My problem used to be world-building info dumps. Luckily, I’ve gotten much better at that. 🙂 Beta readers are priceless for helping us find that balance. Thanks for the comment!

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Donna Hole March 1, 2012 at 11:06 pm

I have a womens fiction novel that is 118k because I’ve put so much backstory into the writing. I know I need to cut out about 90k, but I haven’t settled down for revision enough to know what is “relevant” and what I just enjoyed writing.

It is shelved while I grow some distance from the story and can have those “what was I thinking” moments 🙂

………dhole

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Jami Gold March 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Hi Donna,

Take heart, one of my stories started at 136k and I trimmed it down to 93k. I empathize with the huge effort it’ll take to fix it. *hugs* Shelving it for a while to gain the distance you need is a great approach! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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shah wharton March 2, 2012 at 12:43 am

I did an SOS post on this a few weeks back because I was in a crisis. My pro tag has a LOT of background all of which is pertinent to the story, but I’d plonked it all within the first third of the book – it was so grotesquely ugly I found myself feeling nauseous each time I opened the file. Most of it went the way vomit – flushed down the loo – some was saved and some even remains. I know during beta-reading rounds and edits it will shrink beyond recognition. Then the book will be so much better. 🙂 Great post. X

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Jami Gold March 2, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Hi Shah,

Yeah, I have one chapter in one of my stories that makes me sick when I try to figure out how to fix it. 🙁 I’m glad you were able to do the purge. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Buffy Armstrong March 2, 2012 at 8:26 am

I used to do a lot of info dumping in my first drafts. I mean A LOT. I would write pages upon pages of the nonsense. Now that I’m a little older and I hope a little wiser, my first drafts are much leaner, almost too lean. I’ll find a happy medium some day. When I’m revising I try to leave little nuggets of info so the reader wants more. I like to make sure that I end a chapter with the reader having questions. Why does her mother hate her so much? Why is so and so afraid of him? Why did he steal that? Whether I’m successful with this remains to be seen!

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Jami Gold March 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Hi Buffy,

Yes, after I did the huge trimming on one of my stories, my writing was almost too lean for a while too–as I was in this big hack ‘n’ slash mode. 🙂 You’ll find a happy medium.

And yes, I’m big into chapter-ending conflict/questions/cliffhangers too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Brock Heasley March 2, 2012 at 10:17 am

I had an issue like this with my memoir. The first chapter was, essentially, an info dump about my father. It was the absolute worst, most cliched way to start the book. But the info was important so I did exactly as you say–I took the info and sprinkled it throughout the book. Dad’s biographical details now only show up when relevant, and no other.

These are some fantastic tips.

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Jami Gold March 2, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Hi Brock,

Thanks! And your approach sounds like a great way to make all that backstory work. Thanks for the comment!

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Jemi Fraser March 4, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Great advice. In the first story I wrote seriously, I finally realized the entire first 2 chapters were nothing but backstory. Writing them out helped me get to know the characters, but didn’t really serve any other purpose. It was hard to cut them, but well worth it!

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Jami Gold March 4, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Hi Jemi,

Yes, that’s very common. 🙂 Like I said, information along those lines that might be good to save for a Extras tab on our blog. (Or at least we can tell ourselves that to find the guts to press the delete button. LOL!) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena April 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm

I agree that you shouldn’t info dump for fear of boring the reader, but what if there’s an elaborate theory, or philosophy, that you have to present to the reader all in one go? What if you don’t want the big theory (which is absolutely necessary to the story) to be scattered here and there, and want it to be delivered in one long, coherent section?

My story had such a theory/ philosophy. I tried to make it more interesting by having one character ask questions and the other answering and illuminating the theory. In other words, I communicated this theory in a Socratic dialogue. One of my readers absolutely adored this theory (though maybe because of the content, not because of the style I conveyed it), but another reader said she liked it but would prefer it if I made it sound less like a catechism.

Any suggestions?

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Jami Gold April 7, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Hi Serena,

Great question! One of my stories has a section like this as well, and oh, have I struggled with it. 🙂

A while ago, I did a guest post over at the Girls with Pens blog, talking about what scenes need to have, and I included a checklist of elements that can go in a scene. Maybe see what other elements can be added to that section so it’s there for more than just “it needs to be.” 🙂

For example, does the protagonist have a clear goal for why they’re asking (or answering) the questions? Can the stakes be hinted at more clearly (like it’s important for the character to know this or else they won’t be able to do xyz). Would it help to add a third party to the conversation with an opposing view to add more conflict? Etc., etc.

Does that help trigger some ideas? 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Serena April 7, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Yes that definitely helped!

I can see now that my scene only had one of those three things—revealing a theme.

Hmm…thanks for the suggestions!

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Jami Gold April 9, 2012 at 9:10 am

Hi Serena,

Oh good! I’m glad I could help. 🙂

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Claudia June 10, 2012 at 11:15 am

That was great info. What’s the best way you’ve found to keep up with all the bits you have given? What the other character knows? What the reader knows? Thanks

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Jami Gold June 10, 2012 at 11:23 am

Hi Claudia,

That’s a great question! Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for you. I tend to keep all that in my head–bad habit, I know. 🙂 I need to start writing a “story bible” for some of my work, especially the series.

I’ve heard that some people will do a scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter outline. That outline might contain 1-3 sentences of the forward plot movement of that scene/chapter, and then notes about things characters or readers have the wrong impression of at that point. Personally, I’d find it too much work to keep track of everything the various characters know, so I’d be more likely to take this approach where you focus only on the non-obvious–the inaccurate beliefs.

I’ll let you know if I think of any other ideas. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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