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March 25, 2019
By Betty Kelly Sargent
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she takes a look at the how to streamline a novel's plot.

Dear Editor:

People tell me my novels are too complex. What should I do? —Fred S.

Omit needless words, for starters. That’s what Strunk and White suggest for all prose, and few would disagree. Lose the adverbs, simplify your descriptions, and then take out all sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and, yes, even characters that are not absolutely essential.

Do you have too many subplots? Can you eliminate one or two without weakening your plot? Go ahead and see what happens.

And ask yourself why the story got so complicated in the first place. Are you trying to include too much of what you learned in your research? Did you just become so intrigued with the ex-husband of the protagonist that you let his story dominate too much of the plot? You might take another look at your outline and do some revising. Leaving things out is hard, and learning what to leave out is even harder. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll be amazed at how much more effective your novel can be.

Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd put it this way, in Good Prose: “Of the things we have learned in revising, perhaps the most important is the concept of sacrifice. Sometimes passages, even chapters, characters, or themes, that are perfectly good in themselves must go for the good of the whole.”

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.