The Subtle Art of Abridgement

I’ve written about this before but it seems that abridging a book is a bit like ghost-writing – a subtle, almost Machiavellian art form, of finding the absolute plot – the core of a book and getting rid of everything that is not utterly essential to the forward movement of that plot.
If your average book is 80,000 words, then an abridger’s job is to squeeze it down to about 10,000 words. So if it’s being done on Radio 4, that means 2,500 words per 15 minutes. I’ve just abridged a book by Hassan Nekker for BBC7 or 4Extra as it’s about to known. It’s called Woman with Birthmark, and is the jolly tale of a man who is found shot. Twice above the belt and twice in the balls. The police can’t find anyone who has a motive for this crime. Although the lover of one of the police team is convinced the shot in the balls means the killer is a woman. A few weeks later another supposedly blameless citizen is found murdered in exactly the same way. Could there be a serial killer on the loose?
Five half hour episodes, each at about 4,500 words.
So how, I hear you yawn, do you abridge a book from 80,000 to 22,500 (4,500 per episode x 5 – each episode is half an hour.) Well firstly I read the book a couple of times. Especially if it’s a crime novel the plot tends to be quite complicated, and if it’s a good crime novel it will be intricate and the solving of the crime will be down to many little links. This makes the job of abridging harder because if you pull a thread, to reduce the word count, it can end up with the whole plot collapsing like a pack of cards. Suppose the plot is advanced because a character earlier in the book remembers something vital, but you’ve already cut the chapter where that character first appears because it’s part of a conversation that doesn’t contribute anything to the plot. That’s what I mean. Do you put in a bit of that earlier conversation and cut something else? If so does that now have a knock on effect? ( It’s considered bad form to add your own words to the abridgement if it can possibly be avoided).
So I go through the book and cut extraneous romance and subplot. I then divide what’s left into five episodes and try to make sure each episode ends with a cliff-hanger moment. Then I start to do the serious cutting. It’s important that you don’t end up with this happens then this then this then this, an endless series of happenings, or great swathes of prose followed by great swathes of dialogue. Light and shade. Remember the tone of the book.
I then manage to get each episode down to 4,500 words as my producer asked. My producer then rings and says each episode read out loud comes in at 27 minutes so could I add another 150 words to each episode. I agree, then put down the phone and curse my producer before going back to the full manuscript and adding in 150 words, very carefully.
Anyway it’s done. It’s a subtle art because I have to keep the essence of the story and I think the essence of the tone too. And in this case, it’s mordant Danish humour and occasional flashes of black wit.
And no it’s not very well paid. Nothing you do on radio usually is. But it’s nice to hear an actor read out the words and know that you decided which words he or she should speak.
Woman with Birthmark is on BBC7 from May 7th

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