#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
That is no joke at all. The freedom you’ll feel after hacking off an unnecessary subplot or secondary character is incredible. But let’s break this particular rule down into a couple pieces.
I’d like to go back to Rule #4 for a moment here: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
Before revising or rewriting a manuscript, take a break, open a fresh document, and try to fill this out for yourself. Can you tell your story in six sentences?
This is your guidebook.
What is the story that you’re trying to tell? Imagine it like a red dotted line, dancing down the middle of your novel from the start to the finish. Now imagine all the other sub-plots you have. Search out other themes and character conflicts besides the main cluster.
Now, imagine destroying those with very tiny, heavy artillery.
What I’m trying to say is this: everything that diverges from your story—evaluate it carefully. Does it reinforce your main plot, conflict, and narrative? Or does it distract? Does it draw the reader’s interest and attention in a totally different direction?
Stories, in the beginning, are about possibilities. Remember the last time you started writing something, and you had all these grand ideas about how the plot would play out to reach your final destination? Each of those is a path you can take—and sometimes, we make the mistake of following all of them in a first draft, in an effort to wheedle out which one will suit the story the best.
Once play time is over, though, it’s time to focus. Pick one and scrap the rest. You need:
A main character.
A main story.
A primary conflict or need.
I’m not saying that you can’t have compelling secondary characters or sub-plots that tie into your story. What I’m suggesting is that you make your main character, story, and conflict a priority. Everything else should tie into it and reinforce it.
Let me tell you a little story. This story is about a new kid in a new school, and some mean girls she meets there. Now imagine there are not one, not two, but three mean girls, each of them unique in their meanness: one is a pretty idiot, one is conniving and sly, and the third—well, she’s backup.
As you write this story, you now have three main antagonists. That’s right: three unique girls to keep track of as the story progresses. You have to know where they are at all times, what their goals are, their separate wants and needs and histories.
Suddenly, there’s no room left for your hero.
Can’t one mean girl have many faces? Couldn’t the pretty idiot also be conniving and sly when she’s on her own turf? Can’t she have minions, but we don’t really need to know who they are—just that she has them?
Mashing characters together is easier than you’d think. Once, I actually just replaced one guy’s name with another, and re-read the story as-is. It was, hilariously, perfectly fine, with a few clean-ups here and there.
Try it. Spend your story points where it matters—on your hero’s journey.
Hop over detours.
Have you ever heard this advice? It was intended for filmmakers, but really, it’s just as suited to writers:
“Never show someone walking through a door.”
Do you spend three scenes getting from Point A to Point B? “Well, there’s important character development happening here. And scenery. Don’t forget the scenery.”
Cut it. I know that look of fear—trust me. I really do. I’ve felt it. But just try cutting those three scenes. Start your journey, and jump-cut straight to the destination.
Your reader is smarter than you think. Your reader has a huge imagination to work with. Your reader can do the work for you.
In fact—readers like doing the work for you. We love imagining possibilities. Our imaginations are far more vivid and weird and interesting than anything that can be put on the page. So sometimes, leaving that open space for the imagination to play is just the thing that will speak to your reader.
And back to “focus”: cut out those parts that distract or detour from your main story, character, and conflict. Do your characters have a side quest that allows them to grow closer, realize their mutual feelings, and eventually get that first kiss?
Okay, awesome. Now cut the side quest. They can still kiss, you know. It’s fine. There are plenty of places in your story ripe for the kissing. It’s difficult at first to kill your darlings, I know—but when you allow yourself to slash and burn those unnecessary pieces, the freedom you’ll feel is so worth it.