Flash Fiction:
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Monday, January 22, 2007

Sometimes You Cut So You Can Add

Here's an excerpt from a writer named Scott, a.k.a. Trailmix, on a thread at the Hatrack River Writers Workshop.*
My name is Brodi. At last count I was 178 years old and as far as I can tell, I shall never die. I have been cast into the deepest, darkest oubliette in the Kingdom. I’ve been in here so long that I have taken to recounting stories of my past to the darkness. A better audience than that fat boar of a King and all his bony cronies, I’ll tell you that much. I don’t suspect the good King thought I would survive the fall. Honestly, I wished I hadn’t. Although I do take comfort in the fact that I outlived the old pig. The King, by now, has passed on; it’s likely his successor has as well, perhaps his after that. There is not a single person alive, save for myself of course, that even remembers my crime. Murderer they called me but that isn’t exactly true is it? When Fate has it in for you, there is no escaping her. Believe me, I tried. That’s how I ended up in here.

Original excerpt: 174 words.

He was concerned that people were telling him to answer more questions in the first 13 lines** of his text. It seems he didn't think he had the space. My solution was, of course, to cut some text so he could add more important stuff.

Now, none of what I'm about to say would matter if the opening were supposed to hook us through atmosphere; but it's clearly setting a hook through specific information. Your mileage may vary.

I analyzed the excerpt for specific information Scott conveys. It includes:

  • Name

  • Age

  • Unnaturally long imprisonment

  • Unnamed king did it to him

  • Committed a crime (I assumed I could take him literally, since he's not qualifying the words "my crime")

  • Imprisoned for murder.



With a pure cut -- no rewording or reordering involved -- we can cut 44%, for a 98-word opener.
My name is Brodi. At last count I was 178 years old and as far as I can tell, I shall never die. I have been cast into the deepest, darkest oubliette in the Kingdom. The King, by now, has passed on; it’s likely his successor has as well, perhaps his after that. Not a person alive, save for myself, even remembers my crime. Murderer they called me but that isn’t exactly true is it? When Fate has it in for you, there is no escaping her. Believe me, I tried. That’s how I ended up in here.

Note that all of the data points have been preserved.

Here's a 69-word version: a 60% cut.
My name is Brodi. At last count I was 178 years old and as far as I can tell, I shall never die. King XXXXXX, who cast me into his deepest, darkest oubliette, has surely passed on; it’s likely his successor has as well, perhaps his after that. No one alive remembers why they called my crime "murder". I couldn't escape Fate. I tried, and I ended up here.

What's the principle here? Identify the information you want to convey up front, and then you can rip out anything that doesn't contribute to it.

The main culprit here was superfluous detail.

  • The characterization of the king as "fat" and his cronies as "bony" stuff is unnecessary. If it were important to his characterization, that would be one thing -- but it's not something I need to know now, and possibly not ever. It's certainly something he can insert later in the story if it's relevant.

  • I don't know what "the fall" is that Brodi wasn't supposed to survive, but since it doesn't get explained anyway, it only confuses the issue. Some other time, when it's important to know about the fall, Scott / Brodi can explain it.

  • "Honestly, I wished I hadn't" is an aside, and somewhat unnecessary. There may be places in which an aside fits, but in the first 13 lines of a story you need to be ruthless about what you expose in order to maximize the hook. When you're orienting the reader, asides are likely to be unhelpful.


Two other items to note:

  • We already knew he lived a supernaturally long time, and I kept the part about the king's successor's successor possibly already dying, so "I've been here so long that I've recounted stories to the darkness" was redundant.

  • There are ways to say "The King, by now, has passed on; it’s likely his successor has as well, perhaps his after that," in fewer words -- but I liked the way this sounded. It gives a feel of the monotony Brodi has experienced, without actually being monotonous. Sometimes you have to know what not to cut.



Finally, note that I added one data point in the 69-word version: the king's name. It just felt right. If the king's irrelevant, then it's not something the reader will need to remember, and it just adds specificity; if he's an important force in the story, then we should learn his name anyway.

Since I wrote the 69-word version, Scott has rewritten the opener, adding the details people wanted to know (and then some), and made the Fate tie-in significantly nicer. (I didn't try to do that because I didn't know where he was going.)

Good writing!

Regards,
Jake

* I didn't disguise anything in this example, because it's already public.

** Hatrack limits public critiques to the first 13 lines because (a) that's the first page of a properly formatted submission, so it's what a slush reader will see, and (b) it avoids the question of whether something has been "published".

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