Pruning Your Story

On Thursday I posted a story about young girls and caterpillars (they have more in common than you might think!) and it started at a home during a wedding reception. When I first sat down to write this piece, I found myself facing a common difficulty for me, not having any good idea for how to begin. I knew exactly where the short story would ultimately go and what it would do, but how to introduce the reader to this world? I decided describing the environment was as good an approach as any, so I just started with that until I had the following:

It’s not every day that a house sees a wedding, and so, accordingly, the place is decorated such as it had never known before. Come in by the entryway and you first are greeted by what can only be described as a shrine to flowers. Dionysus never knew such a worthy offering, if there was ever a florist’s scavenger hunt, one stop here would satisfy the entire list. Such variety of color, shape, and smell … smell? Well hang on, there seems to be a challenge to the flower’s dominance of that particular sense. Ah, the source of competition is over here, come down the hall towards the kitchen. While you won’t see a single crumb of evidence on the granite and steel surfaces, one snuff and you know exactly how well this room has been used this week. You might mistake the room as a factory for the manufacturing of girls, given the copious smells of sugar and spice and all that’s nice. Enough of the smelling, though, how about the tasting? Where could all these goodies have been ushered off to? Ah, let’s duck into the living room, that’s a likely candidate. Yes, here they are. Quick now, those tables are likely to burst any moment under the weight, so grab whichever sugar you prefer and then come look on the mantle where–

WHAM! The door to the living room slams open and the master of the house enters, a good deal more quickly than he’d intended…

Now I had reached the actual start of the story, so I paused to read over the intro as a whole. My conclusion was that at best, I was making my short story too top-heavy, and at worst, this segment was a complete distraction and disconnect from everything that would follow. This sort of stuff might have had a place in a broad, sweeping novel, but in a short story there’s just no time for it, clearly it had to go.

But… I liked it. It was a lot of fun to make, I didn’t want to just throw it away. This is, of course, not a rare conundrum, if you’ve written any amount yourself I’m sure you’ll remember a similar situation of your own. Maybe that segment you wrote is really, really good in it’s own right…but it just doesn’t fit with everything else. Maybe that last chapter took you weeks to create, and you don’t want to admit that all that time meant nothing. Maybe that scene was the very seed you started this whole thing from, but as it grew it changed so that the kernel it came from no longer fits. Whatever the specifics, I think it can all be summed in a single word: pride. You’re proud of something you made, and even if cutting it is the right thing to do, it hurts you personally. That should be respected.

So, should you cut it out? I’m sure people have come up with different formulas for answering that question, for me personally it comes down to just two points.

  1. What is the broad purpose of your story as a whole, and what is the narrower purpose of this moment in the story? Does the sequence in question satisfy those purposes? If not, then it’s just distracting from your message.
  2. Perhaps it does satisfy the purposes mentioned, but does it do so at the cost of being disruptive to tone or pace? If so, then this isn’t the right solution to the need at hand.

If your chunk of story falls afoul of either of those two criteria then it’s time to get out the pruning shears. Exactly the right way to perform surgery on your work, though, depends on which of the two principles are violated. In the case of the first point, you probably need to amputate the segment as a whole, with refactoring in the parts preceding and following to smooth things over. My intro to the caterpillars fell under this category, so I omitted it entirely. The fact is, if I had paused to first ask those questions about what my purposes here were, I probably wouldn’t have even written that segment. So it’s not so much that I’m cutting out a part my story as that I’m undoing what should never have been written in the first place.

In the case of the second point, you clearly can’t just cut your piece out and leave it empty, your piece was fulfilling a purpose that still needs to be fulfilled. Perhaps instead of cutting the whole thing out you could try and refactor your scene to satisfy the needed tone and pace. Suppose that for some reason I really did need to start my story with introducing the reader to the house and all the preparations therein. Instead of cutting that segment out entirely, I could just tighten it up a good deal:

It’s not every day that a house sees a wedding, and so, accordingly, the place is decorated as never before. Observing each room betrays some new evidence of all the preparations made for the occasion. The entryway, buried in flowers; the halls, a gallery of lace; the kitchen, laden with scents, scents that all answer to the feast of goodies garnishing the living room.

WHAM!…

If you can’t just refactor your scene, then you need to get the most creative. You should extract the core that you needed from it, the essential purpose it was fulfilling, and either insert it into another already-existing scene or else incorporate it into a new scene that takes the place of the troublesome piece.

Perhaps the most important point I want to make, though, is that just because a piece you love might not belong in your story, that in no way means it belongs in the trash. Hard work and personal pride should never be disregarded, and you should consider finding some other way to preserve your work. If it was something about the mechanics of the scene you liked, well that’s an idea you can jot down in your notes and save it for some other story where it will better fit. For example, I thought it was interesting how my intro utilized an action in the story (the door opening) to interrupt the narration mid-sentence. For this short piece it didn’t really fit, but I think I’ll pocket the trick to use somewhere else.

Another option is to take the pruned branch of your story, and plant it somewhere else to see if it can grow into its own tree. Sometimes a character, location, or chase sequence can be so fascinating that it distracts from the rest of the plot, it shines too brightly in contrast with its surroundings. In that case maybe it has the capacity to support an entire new story where it’s the main centerpiece. For better or worse, that’s what I’ve decided to do with the Caterpillars intro I wrote. Check back Thursday where I’ll post the result of me letting it loose to evolve into its own thing.

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