If it Can be Cut, Should it?


Anonymous asked: “So I’m trying to write a book and I’ve recently come to realize that a sort of world building/cultural detail that is included COULD BE removed. But it’s sort of silly and if it CAN be removed, does that mean it should be? It would alter the story slightly, but only slightly.”

Not everything that can be cut should be cut. It’s always going to be a bit of a balancing act. Let’s chat a little about how that might look. 

First off, there’s a huge difference between dumping loads of information about a world on your reader and giving them only the bare-minimum to get by. Ideally, you won’t want to do either, so that means staking out the middle ground between these two worlds. This sounds easy enough, but trust me, it’s an art. 

The best way to learn it is truthfully by reading good examples of world building. Don’t read a whole book to learn this, but instead, pick a familiar favorite. Read maybe the first chapter or even just the first scene. Where is the worldbuilding? When is the first time a word that belongs to the world of the story comes along – I recommend reading fantasy or science fiction for this because it’ll be easier to notice but really the same worldbuilding elements apply across all genres. Note how much information is shared right away. Finish reading just the first scene – what do you know about this world? Write down a list if you can. You’ll be surprised how much can come across so quickly. 

Also, watch for ways that the author introduces things. What needs explanation? How does the author explain things? What doesn’t need explanation? How does the author get away without explaining it. Think about the mechanics of the scene. Understanding these different components will help you to figure out how to bring the reader into your own world just as effortlessly. 

Just because something can be cut doesn’t mean that it always should. If we were to remove all of the inner monologue of The Catcher in the Rye there would probably be almost no book left. I don’t set a lot of rules even when people are asking what to do or what not to do because the thing is rules are broken all the time. The best tip I can give is to try to think in scenes. Describe the scene as is, give as much detail to what is happening in the scene as you can. Imagine sitting in a waiting room – you’d think of the receptionist, the other people waiting, the things those people are doing, the kinds of magazines on the coffee table in front of you. The plants, some plastic, some alive or dying gracelessly, the color of the carpet, the kinds of photographs hanging on the walls. We might not need to know the color of the wallpaper but if the character is waiting, lots of description will slow down a scene, and can add to the illusion of “waiting.” If the character talks to the receptionist, it might be a good thing to notice he’s got braces and how he parts his hair to the left. These little things help the reader to imagine the scene. Not everything needs description, but pointed descriptions at the right moment help make a scene come to life. 

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