To trim, focus on the story points readers need

If you need to compress your fiction, consider the information that is truly needed—or not needed
By Gene Stewart | Published: April 11, 2012


I had a story I wanted to send to Sybil’s Garage, a journal of speculative writing. It was 6,300 words and their limit is 5,000, so I clipped off the first five pages of the story, then read through them. When a necessary bit of information came up, I rephrased it as concisely as possible and put it back into the story. By doing this I got it painlessly down to 5,000 words.

Well, almost painlessly. It surprised me, and hurt my feelings a little, to notice how many empty words I had used. There was a lot of hemming and hawing going on at the start of my story, before I got down to telling the reader what was going on and why it mattered.

So I am glad I compressed my story.

This is how to compress: Focus on story points, which means information a reader needs. Ignore the writing. Pretty phrases, detailed descriptions, and soaring metaphors do not matter to the story or reader, nor should they to storytellers.

Present story points as efficiently and elegantly as possible. This lets you retain a satisfying story but avoid wordiness.

If in doubt whether a given item is a story point, leave it out. Does the story still make sense? If so, keep it out. If not, put it back in, as concisely as you can.

Hemingway was a master of what to leave out. One of his basic methods was to present events without mentioning their context. Instead, he implied them. This led to powerful impressions and removed the events from specific dates and places. It lent a universal quality to the people and actions he described.

Hemingway was also celebrated for his style. Some call it blunt, others terse. Short, declarative sentences built of plain nouns and basic verbs allowed him to paint pictures and offer impressions, stroke by stroke. He once said he wanted to write the way Cezanne painted.

His effect was cumulative, but notice something. Much of his style resembles newspaper writing. It is factual and direct. He offers story points as efficiently as possible. His style came from his blunt manner of including story points.

Hemingway wrote many more pages than he ever published. All writers do. This points to another of his methods, which was to write everything he could think about in a scene, then cut it later. He removed all the BS, as he called it, leaving only what was true.

True; not factual. His goal was to write one true sentence, then another, and keep going until his story was told.

To see how this worked, look at one of your rejected stories. First, list its story points, then look at how they’re presented. Can you state them better for readers? More efficiently or elegantly? Is every sentence true?

Rewriting a story that has been rejected many times is a good way to learn how to write a better story. Go over it sentence by sentence, and take out the crap. Anything the reader doesn’t need to understand the story must go.

Some will wonder about descriptions. Curious George had adventures with the man in the yellow hat. In those stories, the color of the man’s hat mattered. Was it a Stetson, a bowler, or a beret? Did that matter? Was it too tight for him, or did it fall over his eyes? Did that matter?

Write as if telling a joke. Every detail should set up the punch line in a joke; exclude any detail that doesn’t. Extra details only blur the joke, lessen the punch.

It is the same with fiction. If a detail matters, keep it. Otherwise, get rid of it. Descriptions should be concise if needed, avoided if not. If it matters what kind of car or color of house, or what the tavern looked like, state it simply.

A short story needs a point, and anything not helping to make it is not only a burden, but a potential sabotage. Look at your rejected story. Are there details leading nowhere?

Edgar Allan Poe said that, in a short story, one thing happens. Everything—each word—supports that thing. Story points let you X-ray your fiction for dead spots. Cut out the latter and your writing can thrive.

Gene Stewart writes both nonfiction and mystical realism from Nebraska. His recent credits include short stories in the magazine Big Pulp and Tales of Moreauvia and the upcoming anthology Día de los Muertos. He’ll also have poetry in the upcoming anthology The Terror at Miskatonic Falls. Web: genestewart.com.