Less Is (Usually) More

Yesterday I had a hankering for some good old science fiction action, so I pulled the movie “The Chronicles of Riddick” out of my collection and watched it yesterday and this morning. I have seen the movie several times, but apparently I hadn’t watched this particular DVD. It was a Director’s Cut. I usually cringe when I hear Director’s Cut, because usually it means adding in stuff that was taken out for a good reason. But in this version, I found that the Director’s Cut included material that helped make better sense of what was going on in the story.

thAt the end, I noticed that the DVD also included Deleted Scenes, and so I watched that. Those scenes also added to the storyline. With all the extra material, I found I wasn’t bored, but that the story definitely slowed down.

And that’s my lesson for today. The edit process–specifically the cutting process–is a matter of balancing pace with cohesion. Cut too little and the story is slow. Cut too much and it’s jerky and incomprehensible. My writing tends to be pretty sparse, and in many occasions I have to go back and add material to flesh it out. On the other hand, more than once I have recommended to my writing students that they cut their material by 20%. That’s often hard to do, simply because you have fallen in love with your story. But at that point, you change from nurturer to surgeon. In a worst case scenario, you recruit someone like me to come in with a chainsaw.

Movies have a mandate to move quickly, especially action movies, so it makes sense that they would leave some good material on the cutting room floor for the sake of keeping their audience interested. But what about novels? It depends on your reader. If they are wanting action and escapism, then by all means, cut away. Ernest Hemingway was never long winded. Some of his very famous books are hardly longer than 100 pages. But he also put himself through the cutting process. Why? Because cutting often makes the story clearer. We have a natural tendency to repeat ourselves several times when we are writing. If you say it the right way the first time, there’s no reason to repeat yourself.

It’s a painful process. I will be the first to admit it. But you have to look at the long view. Do you want a story that you get out there right away, which might get a mild positive reaction, or worse yet, flops horribly? Or do you want a story that will last long after you are gone?

It’s your decision.