Friday, March 23, 2012

What to Omit, What to Add

By Susan

Last night, my older daughter, her best friend and I went to the premiere of The Hunger Games. It was a first for all three of us—a midnight showing— yet we'd been planning and looking forward to this moment since we'd all three read and devoured Suzanne Collins' first book of the trilogy with the same name over a year ago.

As the lights lowered and the noise surrounded us, I made a conscious decision to think about the story structure as we paced through the film. How did the screenwriters incorporate the back story? What about the nuances of the relationships, and the details of the plot points? Would the movie be true to the novel that both my twelve-year-old and I loved so much? As the movie unfolded, I noticed small changes—details omitted, scenes altered. Bits were left out, the depths of relationships were minimized, and the action, rather than the internal character struggles, carried the story forward in a balance of both compassion and killing (it is—after all—a movie about teenagers forced to fight to the death).

Yet overall, the movie was a smash: true to the novel, telling in its complexity, and cast with superb actors to carry the narrative.

It made me think about my own manuscript and the suggested edits currently in my hands, given to me last week by my steady, blunt and brilliant agent, Leigh Feldman. What to omit? Where to minimize? And when to alter?

It also made me think about another movie I'm looking forward to—Blue Like Jazz—a new film based loosely on the memoir of writer Donald Miller. By his own admission, the movie contains many scenes and even plot points critical to the film that never happened in his life. Yet in the quest for a good movie, he chose to rewrite his own history for the screen—building his life into the framework of a story. The book was one thing, and the movie, which opens in April, will be a completely different animal.

Don Miller has spoken candidly about both the memoir and the movie. In admitting he'd written the book for himself, as a rolling narrative of his own journey through his faith, success, and failures, he agreed to retell his story in order to create a product fit for the screen. I suspect that the movie will contain the soul of his memoir, and the tone of his struggles, if not the plot point specifics perhaps expected by die-hards who love books and expect the movies to follow suit.

Sometimes, the choice of what to omit alters the story and transforms it into something different—as will be with Blue Like Jazz. Yet sometimes, as with The Hunger Games, the changes are small. Time-saving, detail-minimizing, and story-shortening avenues to the same destination.

And for my story? After my first round of Leigh's suggestions, I removed an entire subplot storyline, cut full paragraphs of musings that detracted from the heart of the story, and rebuilt a character's arc based on her active participation in the civil rights movement of the 1960s rather than her thoughts on the movement itself. It altered the story in ways I would not have seen without Leigh's brilliant nudging. I liken these edits to the way a filmmaker would slash my story for the screen—making it stronger by breaking it, polishing it by cutting out the ruminations, and finding a way to tell a bigger story for a broader audience instead of seeing life only through the eyes of the protagonist.

It will be a better story because of my attention to the details of my edits. I'll maintain the soul and the tone of my story without compromising the core plot. Yet as it shifts beneath my hands, I think of only making it the best possible novel I can write. The same way, I'm sure, Suzanne Collins and Donald Miller looked at their books-turned-cinema. Make it work and make it better. But make every tweak count.


  1. Whoa, I had no idea they were making a movie from Blue Like Jazz. Ryan is going to be ecstatic.

  2. Release date: April 13. I can't wait- Don Miller is one of those writers that really 'gets it.'


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