I’ve already written about fleshing out a novel that’s too short, so today I’ll talk about the opposite – what to cut from a novel that’s too long. You might be the type of writer who overwrites, going into lots of detail when writing a first draft. When you come to revise, you’ll want to trim a lot of the unnecessary parts out, particularly if your word count isn’t suitable for your genre or age range.
In traditional publishing, literary agents have been known to reject novels purely because they’re too long. A 200,000-word middle grade novel will probably get an automatic rejection! So trimming down your book can actually help your chances of getting published in some cases. If you’re self-publishing, it isn’t as important, but readers will still have certain expectations around length depending on the genre.
But which bits should you cut? Sometimes everything seems important, making it a struggle to decide what needs to go.
Here are some of the things I’d recommend trimming to get a novel that’s too long to the ideal length.
Exposition – telling and info-dumping
Exposition (telling or summarising, rather than showing) can make a novel too long if you’re prone to info-dumping frequently.
I have a whole post about avoiding exposition, but here are a few key areas of exposition to look out for and cut:
- Backstory: Try not to dump a character’s backstory or life history into the narrative when they’re introduced. Look out for areas where you do this and trim them out. Weave them into the narrative more naturally, via scenes, dialogue and interactions.
- World-building and history: This is a common culprit for exposition! World-building and history can easily make a novel’s length become unruly. Look for sections where you’re dumping a lot of world information in at once, including explanations of how things work, and history, including summaries of historical events. Try to only include what’s absolutely necessary for the story you want to tell.
- Reported events: Perhaps you have lots of segments where you’ve summarised or reported on an event that took place outside of the main story, or before the main story happened. Go through these and ask yourself if they’re really needed to drive the story forward (especially if they take place at a different point in time), or if they’re best off being cut.
Remember that exposition or “telling” isn’t always bad – it’s just about balance, and using it at the right moment, and in the right amounts. Too much “telling” can make a novel feel laboured – and make a novel too long!
Monologue and introspection
Do you have long paragraphs explaining how your character feels, and them thinking everything through? Or do you have a lot of dialogue where a character is talking, and other characters in the scene are forgotten while this happens?
Monologue and introspection like this can slow pacing and make a novel drag, as well as contributing to a high word count. It can also be boring to read, particularly if a shorter description would be just as effective.
Have a look and see if you’re using too much monologue – trim theis down where you can, and see if those sections can be replaced with something simpler and equally effective.
Characters – especially if you have too many
Now, I’m not saying you can’t have a lot of characters in your novel, but for inexperienced writers, it can be very difficult to have a huge cast of characters (think Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time) and to do it well.
Look at how many characters you have in your novel. Are they all needed? Do they all tie into the main story in a way that feels necessary and needed?
One problem with including too many characters is that the author may be spread so thin that there’s less space to develop each character individually. This can lead to characters feeling two-dimensional. For experienced writers, this might not be too much of a problem. Either way, it’s worth thinking about whether you’re using too many and spreading yourself thin.
Subplots and “filler”
If you’re a “pantser” or write without an outline, you might be inclined to include a lot of filler. If you have a lot of filler content that is unrelated to the main plot – particularly unrelated moments of “conflict” – you could end up with false tension. False tension is tension or conflict that seems disconnected from the story. For example, if your characters are on a quest to defeat a villain, but they’re often randomly attacked by bandits who have nothing to do with the overarching plot or the villain, that can lead to false tension.
To use a video game analogy, it’s like concentrating on the “side missions” instead of the main one. False tension happens when you throw lots of things in that are disconnected from the main plot. Readers can then be left wondering what the “point” of the story is.
You could also have overused subplot. If you’ve given every single character multiple, detailed subplots, you’ve likely overshadowed the main story with filler content.
Think carefully about whether something that detracts from the main “point” of the story is really needed, and if you’re using too much subplot and filler, be ruthless in cutting that back!
It may be helpful to look at resources on story beats, such as Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, to help you decide which sections of your manuscript are important and which ones can be cut.
Purple prose and overwriting
Purple prose means writing that is overly descriptive and flowery. Lyrical writing isn’t in itself bad – some readers and writers love it! – but going overboard can mean your work is bogged down in it. Overwriting can lead to word counts getting out of hand, and that’s how a novel gets too long.
You may also a habit of overwriting in other ways, such as overwhelming the story with detail. This can cause issues around pacing (making a book feel slow) and reader interest (making them feel bored or overwhelmed by information).
If your novel is too long, look at areas of purple prose or overwriting that you can cut down on, such as overusing adverbs or long passages of flowery description.
If you have a tendency to get bogged down in details, you can look at where you might be overwriting in the following areas:
- World information: History, architecture, politics, society, magic systems, and how everything works. If you’re writing contemporary fiction this might be things like medical information, systems that are in place, or events that have happened in the past and present.
- Character information: Backstory, physical descriptions, thought processes/monologue, feelings, dream sequences (these often don’t add much to a story).
- Dialogue: Tags – particularly more flowery ones if you know you overuse them, such as “queried”, “exclaimed”, “interjected”, “blasted”. These aren’t bad if used sparingly but they can get unruly. “Said” is the invisible dialogue tag, and far less distracting. Watch out for overusing adverbs around dialogue too – “quietly”, “softly”, “loudly”, “menacingly”.
- Technical detail: This is more common in certain genres, but be careful you aren’t overwriting about technical detail such as measurements, distances, etc.
- Eye movements: This is a huge one! Authors commonly use a lot of stage direction regarding eyes – telling the reader where characters are looking every second or overusing phrases like “He studied the view” or “She glanced down”. Weed out descriptions like this as much as possible if you know you overuse them.
- Descriptions in general: Do you over-describe scenery and settings, characters, objects, etc? Make sure you have a fine balance between descriptions and dialogue/interaction and action in your scenes, and that you’re not getting bogged down in describing things.
Redundant and repeated words
You probably have words you overuse when you’re getting a draft down. All writers do! And it isn’t easy to notice this in your own work. As well as repeating “crutch words” you favour, you could be overusing redundant words – making your novel too long by using 800 instances of the word “just” for example!
I have a whole post on redundant and repeated words, including some words to trim down.
Those are my tips on what to cut from a novel that’s too long! If you have the opposite problem and write short, you can also read my post on making your novel longer. No two books are the same – so you might find yourself writing an overly long novel at one point, but your next one could be too short! It’s good to know what type of writer you are (an overwriter or an underwriter) but it can often depend on the project, so having strategies for both can be very useful.
If you still aren’t sure what to cut from your manuscript and need more personalised help, my editorial services might be helpful to you.