Divas on Writing: Is Your Story Bloated?
Raven’s iPhone rang, and she removed it from her pocket, swiped the screen from left to right, and glared at the unfamiliar number. Annoyed by the unidentified number, she tapped the green answer button to connect the call, put the phone to her ear, and prepared to give whoever it was a piece of her mind.
One thing that bothers me as a reader—and is therefore something I will notice as an editor—is when a book is so bloated with filler and fluff that it’s hard to determine what details are necessary to pay attention to and what you can skippety skip right over. And that inability to separate the important from the humdrum just leaves me with one choice: skip it all, and I wind up skimming books instead of reading them.
Editors don’t have this option, however. It’s part of our job to identify areas where manuscripts have too much extra… whatever. Detail, description, dialogue, narrative, repetition, redundancy, and excessive activity are just some of the things we look for when we edit. But how do you, as the author, know that you’ve got some extra filler in your manuscript?
Here’s a list of list of some typical causes for manuscript bloat that we’ve seen. If you recognize one or more of these, you may need to trim some excess from your book:
- An unnecessary listing of mundane activities and details: It’s not necessary to give a play-by-play of every motion the characters make, e.g., she walked up the stairs, she put the key in the lock, she turned the key, she opened the door, etc. This type of content fills the reader up, but it’s all fluff and no meat. Focus on the actions that matter, not the everyday nonsense that doesn’t.
- The need to account for every moment of time that elapses within the story: No one needs to know they went to the bathroom or stopped at the grocery store unless these trips are part of the plot. Each scene should move your story forward in time or plot, so feel free to write scenes that occur days later as long as the time shift is clear.
- The excessive use of description: Often authors are taught to be descriptive, but this can lead to over description of settings, people, clothing, colors, etc. “The oversized armchair was soft, brown, and leather, its arms just the right height and width to rest one’s head when curling up and reading.” Does that paint a decent picture of the chair? Sure. Does the chair matter to the story? Probably not. Focus your efforts on describing what’s important.
- Describing all the outfits, all the time: If Sean has an important job interview—one that will determine whether he stays in London with Sam or moves back home—and he’s wearing his best suit, then yeah, tell the reader about it because it probably says a lot about Sean and his state of mind. But if Sean’s hanging out with his buddies at the bar, the fact that he’s got on dark-wash jeans that sit low on his hips, a blue long-sleeved Henley that matches his eyes, and a worn leather jacket really don’t matter. Unless someone needs these details for a police report later or to identify the body, who cares?
- Dialogue that starts at hello and ends at good-bye: Are your scenes too long; is your conversation too much? Sometimes that’s because the dialogue is unnaturally long. There’s no need to always start with the Feel free to jump into a scene right where the good part starts, and then when the important information has been conveyed, be done. Not every conversation has to end with good-bye.
- There’s redundancy and repetition slowing things down: Redundancy and repetition sound sort of repetitious, don’t they? When you hear redundancy, think of things like “She nodded her head in agreement.” Why? Well, you only nod your head—you wouldn’t nod your knee—and a nod always represents agreement. So neither of those is necessary. Repetition can be repetitive words or phrasing, but it can also be a concept or idea within your story that’s being repeated to the reader. Do you find yourself over explaining or repeating concepts that readers may have gotten already? Sometimes less is more.
- Sex scenes are too descriptive or too graphic: Yeah, yeah, yeah—I know. Everyone loves a good sex scene, me included. But sometimes extra detail slows things down when they should be quick. If you have more than one sex scene in your story, it’s also a good idea to mix up the length, tone, and level of detail in each to keep them fresh and interesting.
When it comes to bloat, these are some of the worst offenders. During your self-editing process, look for them. If you’re unsure about a sentence, a phrase, or a scene, simply ask yourself that one simple question: Does this matter? If the answer isn’t a resounding Yes! you can probably trim that excess away.