Abridging a book

Over the last month, I’ve been slicing and dicing a book for Radio 4, from its original 70 thousand words down to 22 thousand which works out as ten episodes each with 2,200 words. At the same time I’ve been thinking about plotting a book, and during my arsing about trying to avoid work research I found this totally marvellous blog which gives very useful advice on how to write a tight synopsis. The writer’s name is Beth Anderson and she writes thrillers which I’m sure you know are driven by a watertight plot and fast pacing. Anyway, I’ve abridged several books now and it basically means taking out anything that doesn’t drive the narrative forward. Firstly you have to read the book a couple of times to get a feel for it. Then you go through cutting any sub plots or anything that doesn’t move the narrative forward, while retaining the basic story. Then you go through again, and this time you might have to make decisions about cutting bits of the main narrative. This will often lead to chopping scenes and then stitching it back together in a sort of Franken-book where you hope the bolt in the neck doesn’t show too much. My producer once told me that the better written a book, the harder it is to abridge because there is so little fat on it.

It takes a bit of confidence to abridge a book because you’re like a really nasty editor with a red pen, slashing and cutting through whole chapters. But it really does make you think about what is essential in a book. Because having stripped back that much, with some books, the whole plot falls apart. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, but the one I’ve just abridged only succeeds because the main character is so compelling. But the actual plot has holes the size of a swiss cheese. I had to break the Abridging Rule which is you never add words of your own to stitch bits together unless it’s absolutely utterly necessary. (If you add your words the work becomes an adaptation as opposed to an abridgment.)

So if abridging a book reveals the plot holes, Beth Anderson’s blogs shows you how to write a perfect tight synopsis – a selling tool – one you can build a whole watertight book from. Very basically she forces you to write one sentence summing up the whole book, with no fluff or curly bits. One sentence that determines exactly what your book is all about. Then another sentence describing the beginning. Finally one sentence describing the ending.

Then you go back and fill in the major roadblocks. It’s very hard work, so much so that I haven’t done it. But I have printed it off and written How To Write A Synopsis in big black letters on it. And having finished my abridgement, the writer of the book would have written a much tighter plot if he had read that blog too.

7 thoughts on “Abridging a book

  1. It's great. I've read a lot of similar stuff before. But this puts it really well. I write scripts, then realise there is something wrong, try to change it, which means boiling it down to the stock anyway, so why didn't I just do that in the first place…. Once I've worked out what the essence is, I then try to re-write it without having to throw everything out… Nightmare! This is another really useful and practical reminder of how to do all that stuff FIRST. Duh! It's all so obvious, really…

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  2. I'm abridging a long, long novel into a comic book. I now have a script that is simply dialogue, but I'm trying to shorten it even more. I've made myself a note that "Abridging a book basically means taking out anything that doesn't drive the plot forward," and I'm going to keep that in mind. Really, though, the hardest bit is the "accent" barrier. The characters in this book have Irish accents, while I'm an all-American kid. Whenever I try to adapt their dialogue, I run the risk of making them sound un-Irish, or worse, ridiculously Irish. :0p

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