Here’s an odd thing: 16,000 words into a manuscript, I decided I couldn’t do anything with the story without major changes, so I made the changes and only lost about 5,000 words. I put the manuscript aside and went back to the outline. Aside from the theme, the characters and the setting, I started from scratch. The original was about Sara helping a woman convince the father of her child to do the right thing. The revamped version is about Sara’s efforts to keep Ellen from losing a catering contract for the movie that is being filmed in the area. I then went back through the manuscript and deleted everything that didn’t fit. I still had over 10,000 words. I may still have to move some of those words around, because some of the problems to be solved in the new outline were not mentioned in the first 39 pages, but I don’t think I’ll lose many more words.
Maybe no one else finds that interesting, but I find the commonality of these two stories very interesting. It seems to indicate that 60% of what I had written deals with setting and the actions of the characters in that place, while 40% deals with plot specific elements. When you think about it, it is probably a much smaller number of words that deal with plot specifics.
Consider a scene in which our protagonist, Sara, is woken by a ringing phone. She answers the phone and the person on the other end says, “You need to get down here. Amber is arguing with David.” That would fit the original outline, since Amber was claiming that David was the father of her child. Now, let’s change that scene to one in which Sara is woken by a ringing phone. She answers the phone and the person on the other end says, “You need to get down here. Ada is refusing to come out of her room.” That would fit with the new outline, but notice that the only thing that changes is the reason the person called Sara. The rest of it—the fact she’s asleep, the ringing phone, the need to go somewhere—is just the product of the environment in which we’ve placed Sara. There’s so much that goes into a story that is there only to tell us what the characters are like and to show them in their daily lives.
If there’s something to be learned from that, I think that it is that details are important. If a character decides to put on a pair of shoes, it isn’t important that she decides to put on a pair of shoes, but it is hugely important which pair she decides to wear. Is she dressing to go hiking or is she dressing to impress a guy? Throughout our stories, there are these telling details that not only define who the character is, but what the character is doing.