Your Story As Sculpture:
What to Leave In? What to Carve Out?

Perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

By PJ Parrish

Two weeks ago, I posted a critique from one of our TKZ First Page writers. I liked the submission but I thought the writer erred on the side of being a little too spare in her writing. I called it “skeletal,” in fact. Click here to go back and review it.

It got me thinking, though, about sculpture. Back in college, I was briefly an art major, and while I was pretty decent in drawing and painting, I floundered in anything involving three dimensions. My final project in sculpture class was titled “Nude With a Dixie Cup Head.” I called it that because after carving away at my lump for weeks it still looked like hell, so during one long desperate night in the dorm bathroom, I filled a Dixie Cup with plaster, jammed it onto the torso, and called it a night. I got a D in the class.

But that class did teach me something that later helped me when I became a writer: You have to know what to leave in and what to carve away.

Usually, we think of novel writing as a pretty linear endeavor.  We don’t chisel away at marble or plaster until something emerges from the crude material. We start with nothing (the blank page) and add and pad until our vision is realized.

Writing a novel is a long series of questions and answers that you constantly ask yourself as you move through your story. As you do so, maybe it’s helpful to think about writing in terms of three-dimensional design. Consider…

Setting: Did I establish where my story takes place concretely enough so the reader feels transported to coastal Maine or does the setting feel like some generic Anywhereville? Am I wasting too many words describing this old insane asylum or do I need more to enhance the mood, to achieve what Poe called “the Unity of Effect”? If a setting is, indeed, like a character, is mine a quick line sketch or is it a well-rendered life-drawing? Or worse, is it not a character at all but just a sloppy caricature of Paris, Las Vegas, Miami…fill in the place with whatever postcard image you can come up with.

Backstory: How much do I reveal about Joe’s tortured past and do I deal with it in one long flashback scene or do I dribble it in slowly?  Am I boring my reader with all this family-tree data or do they need it to understand the dynamics between mother and daughter? And if you write a series — how much about a character’s past from previous books do you need to add?  Too much and you bore loyal fans; too little and you confuse new converts.  If you go back and read the submission I mentioned above, you’ll see that I asked the writer, even in her first 400 words, to include a few more tidbits about her characters to add intrigue.

Description: Do I tell the reader what my protag looks like or do I let it fall to their imagination? Have I successfully conjured up this police station so the reader feels the atmosphere or does it add nothing to the narrative? Have I exploited my description?  This is a subtle tool of fiction but important:  Do you make your descriptions mean something? Do they somehow enhance and reflect what is going on in your action?

Years ago, at Thrillerfest, I heard David Morrell talk about this brilliantly. He talked about how the novelist John Barth used a method call “triangulation.” (James Hall teaches this as well). When describing your setting, you take the sense of sight for granted, but then you add two other senses from among the remaining four. If your characters merely “see” everything, your writing will feel one-dimensional. So you “triangulate” and emphasize the other senses.

Tattoo this line from Morrell on your forehead: “The flaw of an amateur is to assume what’s in our head is what’s on the page.”

Think of Hemingway, a master of spare writing, yet you always got a sense of where his characters were, be it Havana, Africa or Key West. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” opens with five paragraphs of dialogue but then we get this:

The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick-moving shadows as they passed.

So lean…yet Hemingway knew what to carve away and what to leave in. Not too much. Not too little. Such a delicate balance.

What to leave in and what to carve away is foremost in my brain lately because I am nearing completion of my first draft and rewrites loom. What I know awaits me…

I have to add some stuff:  I need to go back and beef up the backstory of a key character or his motivation in chapter 33 will make no sense. I have to add a little more color and work harder to make my setting come alive for the reader in Peoria who has never been to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

I need to subtract some stuff: The book is too long in sheer page count. And without even opening the early chapters, I can smell some cheese that needs cutting. I have to cut some passages that are larded with research, even though I worked really really hard to educate myself on copper mining, Catholic ritual and obscure whiskeys.  I need ferret out my writer tics, do a delete on extraneous attributions, and kill such darlings as “the road rose before him in a vampiric mist.”

Kill your darlings…

Faulkner supposedly said it first, but I like how Stephen King put it:  “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Now, what does that mean, really? That you’re supposed to cut away all your best, most writerly stuff? I dunno. If you struggle with rewrites as I do, if you don’t know whether to approach it with a sledgehammer or a scalpel, I recommend you start by reading Chuck Wendig’s essay “25 Steps to Edit the Unmerciful Suck Out of Your Story. 

A darling is often ill-defined as those things in your story that you love, but that’s daft. Don’t kill those things. Might as well say, “Murder your wife, burn your house down, YOU DO NOT DESERVE SUCH THINGS.” No, a darling is something that you love but that cannot justify itself in the text. You write a chapter in the middle of the book that has no bearing on the rest of the book and it drags down the pacing but you love-love-love it, well, that chapter might need two bullets in the chest, one in the head. Behead those precious, preening peacocks. I tend to do this at the very end, often because that’s when I actually have enough context and instinct regarding the draft that I can see those divots and nodules at a healthy distance. That said, it’s something to be aware of throughout the entire writing and editing experience.

I highlighted that part in red, because I think it gets to the nub of what I am trying to articulate here. (And forgive me if this feels obtuse but I can’t quite get this nailed down).

What to leave in? What to leave out? Are you a builder or a sculptor? Do you start with nothing or maybe a bare armature pf a plot? Or do you start with a big heaping mound of wet clay and pare away until your story is revealed?

I can leave you only with one last quote, this one from Elie Wiesel: “Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.”



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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

10 thoughts on “Your Story As Sculpture:
What to Leave In? What to Carve Out?

  1. “The flaw of an amateur is to assume what’s in our head is what’s on the page.”

    And not always an amateur, I’d say, at least in a first draft. My critique group came up with an Acronym for this: RWIM. Read What I Mean.

    After spending so much time with our characters, settings, motivations, and all else, we’re so familiar with the inner workings of the book we forget a reader is likely coming into this totally naive.

    And, as you point out (brilliantly, as always), too often we let the pendulum swing too far the other way and add TOO many details.

    • Terry,
      My critique group grapples with the same thing, though we don’t have a name for it. But it’s the phenomenon of “seeing” your story unspool effortlessly in your head but then there is a disconnect when you try to capture it on the page. We all struggle with it. I just read a chapter my sister Kelly sent to me and we got on Skype last night and I told her I wasn’t “seeing” the action clearly enough. Yet when she explained it to me, it was clear. The trick is in rewriting so it makes it onto the page in such a way that the reader gets it.

  2. My goodness, what “Nude With a Dixie Cup Head” would be worth today!

    I find writers tend to be either putter-inners or taker-outers (I think Thomas Wolfe may have said that). No one way is correct. I tend toward lean first drafts, then add when I see places where things are heating up, or I need more intensity or emotion.

    And I’ve never bought the “kill your darlings” idea. It should be, Be merciful to your darlings, love them, but do send them to their room for another day if their presence makes a mess of the living room.

    • You must have kids. 🙂
      I don’t. But I do have many phrases in my manuscripts that need a time out.

  3. So funny. I think a LOT about the analogy between writing and other arts, and I generally think of sculpting as the one that’s truly different, because all else aside, once you’ve removed some marble, you’ve removed some marble. (imagine Michelangelo’s angst) In writing, you can remove, add, reshape, and so on-all valid exercises, in my humble opinion.
    I was humbled by there quote, “The flaw of an amateur is to assume what’s in our head is what’s on the page.” If I’m going to be honest, my use of sensory detail is probably as follows; 75% visual, 10% auditory, and 5% each to touch, smell, and taste. Hey, at least I can name the senses…

  4. Good advice, Kris. I spent many years in a critique group in South Florida in which one of the members had a great approach to “kill your darlings”. He would ask, “Give me three reasons why that exists.” Rarely could anyone come up with one, much less two.

  5. I’m dealing with this now too, and it’s not easy. You’re so right. In the first book of one of my series, my editor made me cut an entire chapter, and rightfully so. For book two, I snuck parts of it back in, because I think it fits with book two and adds to emotion of the harrowing experience. I’m waiting for edits to come back now. We’ll see if she makes me take it out back and shoot it again. From this post I’m guessing it never gets easier to kill your darlings.

    Thank you for including a link to Poe’s Unity of Effect. As a Poe fan, I found it both fascinating and helpful.

  6. When I was a novice writer (not sure if I’m still that or something else), the moderator of my critique group told me to cut my first chapter–in three different projects. Talk about killing darlings! I loved those pages. But she was right. They didn’t belong for various reasons.

    I think beginnings are hard for new writers because they want to establish all the backstory before they dive into the real story. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but a vital one.

  7. Could I be any later to this party?

    Excellent post, Kris. And I really wish you had photos of the Dixie cup sculpture! In college I stayed up all night in the theater workshop with my best friend who had had all semester to build a set piece for her final grade. She built a coffee table and painted it fabulous shades of pink and green. I think she got a B.

    I am so guilty of what David M warns against–Particularly in my first drafts. I won’t tattoo it, but it goes on a stickie on my computer desktop.


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