The Big Cut
Episode #9 of the course Ten editing techniques to perfect your fiction writing by K.C. Finn
The expression “in medias res” is all the fashion in commercial fiction nowadays. It literally translates as “into the middle of things,” and it’s a technique that plunges readers right into the action. This means no boring bits between the important scenes! Everything has to have a purpose, and there shouldn’t be a point in the story where the flow is interrupted by a purposeless scene. That all sounds great, but how do we, as writers, tell what’s truly purposeless in our own work?
Here’s a quick guide to the two major criteria of purpose. If your scene isn’t doing at least one of these things, then I’m afraid it has to go!
Purposeful to the plot. Let’s say your character is traveling from a castle to a town. You might use many words to describe their journey, but do you really need to? Does something happen on the journey that will be relevant to the plot later on? If not, then you can skip to the next scene in the town straight from the castle, with a simple line explaining the transition—e.g., “After a long night’s ride on the forest trail, Pauncefort spotted Pendle Village on the horizon.”
Purposeful to the character. Does your scene show us something about the character that we really need to know? In one of my books, I used half a chapter to describe one of my characters struggling to walk from her sickbed to the other side of the room. At first, I thought the scene might need cutting, but I studied it again and decided that this was an emotionally important turning point for my (severely disabled) character and that my audience needed to experience that moment with her to understand her actions later in the plot.
Now, a word about cutting. As writers, we’re very proud of ourselves when we produce a draft of, say, 100,000 words of solid novel. If you go through your scenes (or even entire chapters) and find that 5,000 words is totally purposeless and has to be removed, that’s a nasty blow. We are used to seeing our numbers go up, not down. This can put some writers into a mode where they write less in the first place and vow to “add more later” in the editing stage.
I’m here to tell you the truth: That’s not what editing is for.
Throw everything you have into your draft. It is always easier to have too much and chip away at it than have only the bare bones and sit there, thinking “What can I add to this?” Editing is intended to improve and streamline your work, and that’s why the numbers go down. If you want to write a 100,000-word novel, make your target 110,000 and expect to lose that other 10K. Your work will be all the better for it.
In our final session together, we’ll talk about organization. When your work is finished and ready for that big edit, I’ll help you plan out different stages that use the techniques we’ve discussed. That way, you’ll get a comprehensive edit that sticks to the plan, without getting stressed and reading the same sections over and over again!
If you’d like to know more about how “In Media Res” has worked for some of the most popular books, movies, and video games of all time, check out these top five examples from Mental Floss.
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