I recently took a 2-3 month break from my novel and wrote short stories. Why? For one, my novel needed to sit for a bit. But more importantly, writers should always expand their skillset. While I don’t claim to be a Poe or Hemmingway, I have learned a lot about the craft from my stint as a short story author. Not just about short stories, but about novels as well.
(NOTE: This was going to cover all the things I learned from short stories, but it turns out there is just too much to fit in one blog. So we’ll just cover one topic)
Brevity (being brief) is key to any good short story. Trying to fit an entire plot in the span of 500-5,000 words is quite a challenge, especially coming from a guy who wrote a 141k word first draft (that’s me if you haven’t guessed). Novelists just do that sometimes. We ramble.
This is a guide to cutting down your word count!
“But Caleb, my story needs those down times and small scenes where the reader can get to know the characters!”
Yes and no. Yes, you should have side scenes and downtime if they advance the plot in some way. No, you shouldn’t have them if they do nothing except provide not-quite necessary backstory, character development, etc. Those aren’t enough. A general rule to follow is this (you may have heard this before and for good reason): if the scene can be removed and the MAIN plot remains intact, cut it.
But how do you have those special small moments between big events that really showcase characters and setting? Easy. Give the scene something important. Even if it’s something super small like noticing a clue, a character acting strange, or a shift in the weather, as long as in pertains to the main plot in some way, it’s okay. This is one of the main reasons I plot my books religiously. It makes it so much easier to write these “small” scenes and plant the important plot bits in them.
Okay, so cut unnecessary scenes. Got it. What else? Cut unnecessary paragraphs, sentences, and words. The best thing you can do to get rid of unneeded words on a smaller scale is to look for repetition and cut it. Repetition is absolutely the worst and will pull the reader out of the story. Get rid of repetition; it basically just annoys everyone. See how painful that was to read? I just used three sentences to say one thing. You do that too sometimes.
Description is the big hitter for me. I get WAY too wordy on this stuff. Let me just show you why fewer is better with an example.
- The cafeteria smelled of old green-beans and rotting fruit. The floors were streaked with grease and dotted with gum that was yet to be scrapped off by detention students. The trash cans were overflowing with unfished lunches and sat in the corner like decaying toxic wastes. Children shouted across the room to each other, danced on chairs, and threw grapes at each other in a frenzy. The lunch-ladies huddled in the corner, too afraid to stop the madness.
You definitely get the picture. But could it be done with fewer words?
2. The cafeteria was about as clean as the inside of a dumpster, and the chaos within would have put even the wildest of daycares to shame.
I know, some of you are thinking, “Well I liked the first one better.” That’s fine. But the issue here is that if we describe every single thing we encounter in the book with this level of detail, our readers will lose interest. Or least some will. It’s okay to be wordy sometimes, but often it’s better to go with option 2.
Dialogue can be the factor that really gives your story value. For some writers, it comes easily. Not to me. I make my characters say just plain stupid stuff and have been known to write entire sequences of unneeded conversation. But I have learned a few things along the way. Here are some quick tips that double as ways to improve your dialogue and cut down on your word count.
- If you can show what a character is thinking instead of having them say it, do that. For example:
“I’m really nervous about the test,” Kaven said, his knees bouncing up and down in rhythm.
“Relax, you’ve got this,” Angela reassured him.
Kaven drummed his fingers on the bench and glanced again at the door. His sister Angela put a reassuring hand on his shoulder and tried to smile.
- Watch for repetition. Yes, it’s ironic how often I mention not repeating yourself. But still, the same thing applies to dialogue. Example:
“Yeah. I know he’s not mad at me,” Sade said, staring at the puddle under the bench. She watched it ripple with each drop of rain. Thunder rumbled overhead as if to reflect her mood. “He’s not mad, but I still feel like I’ve done something wrong.”
That doesn’t seem terribly repetitious. In fact, it sounds very much like something someone would say. But rarely do dialogues in books truly sound like real life. Otherwise, it would take about 100 pages just to get through a dinner scene. Just try and read the paragraph above without the second, “He’s not mad.” Still makes sense, right? And it’s cleaner. Need I mention, briefer?
- Don’t always start at the beginning. Again, life is slower than a book. There’s no reason to bore the reader with how the conversation got started every single time. I’m not saying to start every conversation with, “Well, you’re the worst, Tony! I can’t believe you tried to microwave my glasses again!” But definitely, do it some of the time. I mean come on, who doesn’t want to know why Tony’s at it again with the shenanigans?
Well, that’s about it! These are just a few of the ways you can cut your word counts. Let me know if I’ve missed any important methods!
Now go write/edit!
Until next time! – Caleb Robinson