When you write the first draft of anything, it’s always going to be bigger than the final product. Stephen King wrote in On Writing a lesson learned in a rejection letter early in his career: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.
Shortening a story and condensing it are two different things. When you shorten a story, you’re cutting out whole portions of it like film editors deleting scenes in the interest of time. When you condense, you’re taking either combining repetitive information from two or more scenes into one or you’re taking relevant information from a weak scene and putting it into a stronger one.
Regardless of how you feel about the franchise, the Star Wars prequels is a good example of shortening versus condensation.
There’s a sequence of deleted scenes in Revenge of the Sith concerning the early formation of what becomes the Rebel Alliance. These are great scenes with Bail Organa and Mon Mothma because they expand the story arena. They take the audience away from the drama of the Jedi drama and show there are other people dealing with larger threats to the galaxy, and it serves as great foreshadowing of the Rebel Alliance to come. But it’s cut because it ultimately takes away from the story of Revenge of the Sith, which is about how Anakin becomes Darth Vader.
There’s also a scene where Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Mace Windu privately talk about the Jedi’s relationship to the Galactic Senate. It’s combined with a scene in the Jedi war room where Windu says he senses a plot to destroy the Jedi. In the deleted scene, the characters do bring up valid concerns they have, but it feels like only three Jedi talking about a problem amongst themselves. Rewriting it in the war room brings in other Jedi, secondary characters, and lets the audience know this is a problem that frustrates the entire Jedi Order. It shows they’re considering options that might be interpreted as treasonous. Also, because the Jedi don’t speak their minds until Anakin leaves the room, it helps emphasize how strained his relationship to the Jedi Order is.
How you go about trimming the fat is really dependent on how you’re writing your story. If you’re flying by the seat of your pants without an outline, it’s going to be trickier to remedy because you’ll have to look beneath the layers of dialogue, description, and action in order to see the bones of the story. If you have an outline, even a simple list of scenes, it’ll be easier to examine that skeleton.
It’s been extremely easy with the novel I’m working on now because it’s a series of separate stories in a larger universe. Some of the stories – I call them primary stories – do need to stay because they concern important plot elements or involve characters with a larger arc. Others – I call them secondary stories – are there to add to the scenario and the story world. If they don’t grab and hold my attention, they can be removed without damaging the narrative as a whole.
In fact, this is probably the first time I’ve written a story where I can do some light editing in the first draft.