It’s OK to Leave Stuff Out. In Fact, It’s Better

Superdog by Laura Diehl

Superdog by Laura Diehl / deviantART

When I was in 5th grade, my mom spent hours working on a middle-grade novel. These were the days before word processing, so she used an old Smith Corona electric typewriter. It became a fixture on the dining room table.

Eager to follow in her footsteps, I conceived my own novel. I bought a spiral-bound notebook and wrote on the cover, “The Adventures of SuperDog.” On the first page, I wrote, “Chapter 1.”

And so I began to describe how SuperDog came into existence. I mean, it was important to explain the hows and whys of how such a creature came to be, right? This took at least 1 page.

Then I started thinking of all the other questions his existence raised. How did he manage to buy and supply himself with food on a consistent basis? How did he come to have all of his resources? Where did his magical bone come from? What events led him to getting his powers? This consumed at least Chapters 2 and 3, from what I recall.

I was obsessed with explaining as logically and clearly as possible the ins and outs of this creature, and getting all the day-to-day questions settled, so that readers wouldn’t be confused.

It was pretty boring—so boring, in fact, I stopped around Chapter 6 or 7. I can’t even remember what the story conflict was. I was too obsessed with the proper setup.

I was too young to know it at the time, but the stuff I was writing was really prep work—character background, setting/environment details, world-building rules—stuff that I needed to know to write the REAL story, but not something I should dump in the first chapters.

My inclination with SuperDog is the inclination most writers have when approaching their first manuscripts: I’ve got to show how this world came to be. I need to put in this explanation of why this person is how they are now. I need to show what everyday life is like. I need to … ZZzzzzz.

It’s OK to leave stuff out. You have to, because if you don’t, you’ll never get to the real story you want to tell. The how-it-all-came-to-be can be related as you go—and some of it can create tension, e.g., “Why IS Jeb so nervous whenever he’s around Lucy? When will we learn what happened between them?”

Or: Think of it this way. When you first meet someone new, what do you tell them about yourself? What do they need to know right away? And what will you save for later? You don’t have long to convey your story. A lot must be summarized and left to the imagination—and it’s better that way at the start.

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.
Posted in Writing Advice.

29 Comments

  1. I like to keep stuff vague in the first draft, just getting through the action and from beginning to middle to end. Second draft is where I input all the explanations (when needed) and then I let my beta reader loose on the story to see if everything makes sense.

  2. Explaining day to day life is definitely something I am guilty of in my first manuscript. Currently editing all of that stuff out… thanks for the post :) 

  3. Explaining day to day life is definitely something I am guilty of in my first manuscript. Currently editing all of that stuff out… thanks for the post :) 

  4. Explaining day to day life is definitely something I am guilty of in my first manuscript. Currently editing all of that stuff out… thanks for the post :) 

  5. Explaining day to day life is definitely something I am guilty of in my first manuscript. Currently editing all of that stuff out… thanks for the post :) 

  6. Great ideas here. I’m definitely and over-thinking writer (stop that). I have complete life stories (fascinating?) for many characters. Often, they don’t fit into the story but I’m tempted to shoe horn them in anyway… Still, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad think to know who your characters are.

  7. I’m just starting the second draft of my novel and though I totally agree with what you say, I’ve found in the story that I’m telling that there is a lot of interesting stuff in what i had treated as backstory so I’m actually starting my story at an earlier point than i had originally done. 

  8. Hi Jane,
    I remembered the phrase like “Anything logical is boring” by Hitchcock.
    Your “Adventures of the SuperDog” seems to be an interesting one, not for the story itself maybe, but to tell stories behind. Would you consider writing it again as the little writer as the main character?
    Thank you for sharing.
    Mehmet

  9. Jane,
    Thanks for this great reminder. Back story and info dumps are huge no-nos. I see these all the time in the work of novice writers. Less is more!

  10. Such great advice. I tell my readers: “the first draft is when you introduce your characters to yourself.” Much of what you write down first will have to be cut. All that information is necessary–to you. But it doesn’t have to appear in the final draft.

  11. This is advice every writer needs to hear. The details may be important, but so is the story. Let it flow naturally into it and the story will be better.

  12. Hi Jane, I’ve been reading your blog for a while. But this is the first time I’ve left a comment! I had to. My first book (which also lies languishing, in a box) was called ‘The Great Adventures of Splat the Wonder Dog’!! Must be something attractive about those super dogs huh :-) I”m still very fond of mine. In fact I think of him almost as a real dog….
    Yvette Carol

  13. Oh, yes! There definitely has to be a balance. I’m a semi-pantser– someone who enjoys writing without set limitations to see how the story will fatten up, but also has to have an end goal. Having said that, I can’t place a single word without a background. Backgrounds can be wonderful places to hang out but do not a story make, and so begins the process of defining what is relevant and engaging and what is merely a character’s memoir.

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  18. Hi –new twitter follower and reader of your blog!  I am taking a writing class online and your title caught my eye as we are writing with one word prompts and it’s hard to decide what to keep and what to edit out for the final copy I will be using in my scrapbook.  I hope you don’t mind that I shared your title and included the last paragraph of your article on our class message board (with appropriate credit to you and your website) as I thought it would help others in the class besides myself in our writing assignments!      

  19. This was great, Jane, thank you! I’m struggling with that as I’m world-building: putting enough in for the landscape to make sense to the reader but not so much that I’m hitting them over the head with it. 

  20. Excellent advice! Sometimes I think writers don’t give readers enough credit. So much is stated. And restated. And overstated. I agree that knowing when to leave stuff out is an important skill.

  21. I find that before writing any story, I have a huge brainstorming sessions where I outline out all of the important things (and unimportant things I can’t seem to give up) about the world I want to create. Sometimes I end up with a time-line that covers centuries of history; sometimes just detailed notes on the character’s family tree.

    Then I put all that aside, presume my readers already kinda know it, then write the story. If anything is THAT important, I weave it into the story somewhere, trying as hard as possible to not drop into random out-of-character exposition. I’d rather readers felt like they were in my world, than me showing it to them.

  22. slash and burn, i call it… sad that i/2 ends up on the cutting room floor… but it may resurface someplace else…. i look at it is getting to know your story better….

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