by Karin Beery
Let’s be honest—unless it’s vital to a plot, most people don’t want to read about a character’s bowel movements, mouthy kids, or hangnails. Often authors include mundane details to make their characters seem more realistic, but that realism doesn’t always come across well in books. Today we’re going to quickly look at five things you can reduce/eliminate from your manuscript to help strengthen your story.
- Small talk. If you were raised before cell phones, your calls probably started like this:
“Hello, this is the Van Burens.”
“Hi, is your mom there?”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
“Mr. Smith from the insurance agency.”
“One moment, please.”It’s polite and informative, but in a book, it takes up too much space and slows down the story. You don’t necessarily want your characters to be rude, you don’t need a hello/goodbye in every conversation, and unless the weather is important to the plot, you don’t need to show people discussing it.
- Introspection. Most people overthink things, be it every decision they make or only those related to a specific subject. That’s normal. But it doesn’t work well in books. It’s okay—even expected—to have characters reflect on situations, but after they do it once, move on. You don’t need to remind your readers over and over again, nor do you need to show the characters thinking about every situation they experience. When you repeat thoughts/scenes/reactions, you give readers a reason to skip pages. Once they start to skip, they’ll keep skipping (so don’t give them a reason).
- Well, so, okay, etc. Just because people say it in real life doesn’t mean it needs to appear in your dialogue. It’s amazing how many times well and so appear in manuscripts when authors start their sentences with them—they can show up hundreds of times! That’s a lot of words that could be used to show something more important to the plot. The same is true for filler words such as like, okay, um, uh-huh. Leaving them out won’t make the dialogue feel unnatural but including too many of them will slow the pace and stand out as unnecessary.
- Step-by-step instructions. Every morning I wake up, let the dogs out, feed them, pack my husband’s lunch, then start breakfast. Not many people care, and they shouldn’t. It’s boring. So is explaining how to put the key in the ignition, start the car, throw it into reverse, pull out of the driveway, and slide it into drive before heading into town. Whether we want to or not, we live orderly lives—you often can’t do one thing (drive into town) without doing another thing first (starting the car). Readers don’t need to see each of those steps though. If it’s important to show a character’s nighttime routine, show it once. Then trust your reader to remember it and move on to other important details of the story.
- Repetition. Similar to #4 but slightly different, readers don’t need to see character repeating themselves. Yes, we’ve all had experiences where we had to tell the same story over and over again, but you don’t want to do that on the page. Remember #2? When you start repeating things, readers are tempted to skip pages. Don’t give them a reason! Find creative ways to convey what’s happening in a scene without actually repeating every detail. Your readers will thank you.
Yes, you want your characters to be realistic, but too much realism can slow down a story and kill the intensity. When you look for and cut back on these five things, you’ll naturally tighten your story without sacrificing characterization.
Karin’s sophomore novel—Practically Married—releases October 2019! Sign up for her monthly newsletter and you’ll receive sneak peeks, behind-the-scenes stories, and pictures of her cats and dogs. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for writing tips, updates on Guiding Light, and more!