—(Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly)
BookWorks' founder and veteran editor, Betty Kelly Sargent, is back with another answer to a reader question on how to keep a novel plot from becoming too complicated and confusing. This is where editing can save the day.
People tell me my novels are too complex. What should I do?
"Omit needless words", for starters. That’s what Strunk and White suggest for all prose, and few would disagree. Lose the adverbs, simplify your descriptions, and then take out all sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and, yes, even characters that are not absolutely essential.
Do you have too many subplots? Can you eliminate one or two without weakening your novel plot? Go ahead and see what happens.
Revisit Your Outline
And ask yourself why the story got so complicated in the first place. Are you trying to include too much of what you learned in your research about, say, Paris in the forties, or the cause of the Spanish Civil War? Did you just become so intrigued with the ex-husband of the protagonist that you let his story dominate too much of your novel plot and distract from main events? Or maybe you started to lose your way because your sketchy outline kept changing in ways you hadn’t anticipated. You might take another look at your outline and do some revising. Maybe that whole chapter, on the protagonist’s father’s journey to America, could go.
Trim, Revise and Prune Your Novel Plot
Leaving things out is hard, and learning what to leave out is even harder. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll be amazed at how much more effective your novel plot can be.
Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd put it this way, in Good Prose: “Of the things we have learned in revising, perhaps the most important is the concept of sacrifice. Sometimes passages, even chapters, characters, or themes, that are perfectly good in themselves must go for the good of the whole.”
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