When Michelangelo was asked how he was able to create such a beautiful statue when he created his Statue of David, he told him that David was already there in the rock. All he did was cut away what wasn’t part of the statue. If you have worked hard to get your second draft to the best place that you could, your book is now the point where it too is like the statue. Everything is there. All you have to do is cut away what isn’t part of your story.
In your second draft, your novel should have expanded it beyond the anticipated word count. In your third draft, it is time to start cutting out what doesn’t belong in your book and tightening your prose.
Before beginning the third draft, read through your manuscript, focusing in on what needs to be eliminated.
Cut the Chitchat
I believe that the easiest place to start editing what doesn’t belong is in your manuscript’s dialogue. It is also one of the elements that demand ruthless scrutiny. I know we have gone through this before when we were working on the second draft, but going through your dialogue again now will
The importance of editing dialogue cannot be overstated. It is the primary interaction methods between characters. Dialogue drives attitude, enables and motivates conflict, mirrors personal development, and so much more. If you tend to be heavy on the dialogue like most people, you’ll need to ruthlessly edit your dialogue.
Remember that every piece of dialogue needs to serve the story. Every conversation must move the story forward. Look for stretches of dialogue that don’t serve the story and delete them. For instance, a conversation of a family eating dinner and setting up the sense of normality before your inciting incident occurs might seem a good idea, but does it really?
If your characters are just making chitchat that is not relevant to your story, you’d do better to remove the conversation all together or at least review it. Is it possible to re-work this dialogue so it also speaks to deeper issues? Perhaps you could use the scene to foreshadow future events or help develop a better understanding of either the protagonist or the antagonist.
Characters Shouldn’t Always Say What They Are Thinking
Another common problem with dialogue is that when we talk in real life, we rarely say what we are really thinking. What we say rarely connects directly with our thoughts. Instead, we allude, suggest, try to persuade and negotiate, often to clumsy effect, when talking. There’s a difference there between negotiation and deceit, but we don’t tend to spill all the fine details of our thoughts or intentions.
Imagine a scene where three characters are being chased by a bear. They run across a creek and toward a large oak.
As they go, one character grabs a limb. She quickly formulates a plan in her mind.
1. Yell. “Quick, grab my arm.”
2. does she shout “Here! Take my arm! I’ll pull you up after me and we can get away from that bear.”
The first option feels more natural. There’s no time for explanation. It also doesn’t give the reader further information about what the plan is once our trio reaches the alley. This character may indeed know exactly what she plans to do next, but the reader shouldn’t have this information. It’s better keep the actions in the moment and out of the character’s head.
Introducing body language is an ideal way to avoid the trap of overusing adverbs in your dialogue tags – telling the reader that someone says something “angrily” or “despondently.”
People aren’t just talking heads, so make sure to address their body language along with the words they say, and you’ll paint a much more vivid and involving picture for your reader. Body language is also useful if you find yourself editing stretches of dialogue that feel too long. The interactions and information within the dialogue may be essential to the story – and perfectly well written in terms of the inter-character chatter – but it just runs on for too long in one big block. However, as stated in an earlier post, don’t overdo the body language. Knowing when you are using enough is part of the reason that writing fiction is considered an art.
But beyond the mouth, remember to tap into the thoughts of the character. Avoid giving too much exposition, in other words, telling, not showing.
Now is a good time to read your dialogue aloud to see if it flows natually. If you stumble over words, or everything feels too robotic—rewrite. It also helps to get into character when you’re reading your dialogue – taking on the affectations and attitude of each character to see if it too is natural. This way, you can also easily tell if your characters clearly have their own voices and aren’t blending together – or, worse, failing to differentiate themselves from your narrative voice.
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If you have a first draft that you would love to publish this year, be sure to pick up a copy of my novel editing checklist and if you haven’t already, sign up to make sure that you never miss a post of this editing series.