Trimming the Tree
Updated: Feb 25
It's spring and soon I will have to go out to my little orchard and trim the peach and the plum tree. They are getting tall and if I top them now, picking the fruit and taking care of them will be easier to manage. It's not that different from writing.
A tree has a 'lead' branch that forms the trunk, the other large branches are called scaffold branches and form the structure of the sides of the trees. Off of these branches are smaller branches supporting even smaller branches. Sounds like a story, doesn't it? They can have similar issues, too.
Sometimes a branch will be light starved, usually the lower branches, and they will die and fall off. Sometimes we have characters or plot points that are not supported enough and can not hold up their part of the story. They drag it down. They need to be trimmed.
Sometimes a tree will have two lead branches. If a story has two lead plot lines, it can be harder to maintain the flow of story. It creates competition within itself and requires balance to pull off. When you examine your story, you may decide one of these leads has to go so that the focus can be where it belongs to propel the story forward, to allow for growth.
Too many small branches block the flow of air and don't allow for proper pollination. Too many details, too many asides can muddle your story. You need to focus on the necessities, the parts that will bear fruit. You can think of each blossom as a promise you make in the story. Too many blossoms-- too many promises to keep. The story becomes burdened by having to make good on everything, the branch bends and maybe even breaks under the pressure of it all and now you have to go back in and do damage control.
Trimming is hard. How can you chose what needs to go and what needs to stay? Outlining is key here. Make a small outline-- something that fits on a piece of paper. Steven Pressfield calls this the 'foolscap method' and he got it from his mentor, Norm Stahl. Take everything to the barest minimum. The things you can't leave out are what you need to keep. The rest is questionable. You can go on and on with bigger outlines and outlines for each character's story arc-- and these are all good exercises-- but if you keep outlining and not cutting, your story is only going to grow. Lennamore is a large story spanning generations and a large cast of characters, the fantasy genre can accommodate that to a point, but it would have been even longer if I didn't discipline myself to the task of trimming, of making sure every, character, every scene, every line was necessary. Thankfully, cutting for writing is easier than trimming branches on a tree because you can glue it back together.
I always have a file running alongside my work in progress called 'Cut'. This is where I put everything I take out. Knowing I can fish is back out of the trash is a mental balm against destroying my own work. Once-- one solitary time-- I have gone back to my cut file and put something back. But it was in being able to set it aside that I got so much cut in the first place.
You will keep trimming as you work through but it is important to gain control of the story in the beginning, for the health of the story over all.