3 Ways to Compress Your Story Like Les Misérables

courtesy Universal Pictures

Therese here. Today’s guest returns to Writer Unboxed with a timely article about my favorite flick from 2012: Les Misérables. Joe Bunting is the founder of The Write Practice, “a community for writers who practice,” and Story Cartel, “a service to help authors get book reviews.” He’s with us today to share some thoughts he developed after viewing said awesome movie. In his words,

I find the act of creating art from art fascinating. As Cormac McCarthy said, ‘The ugly truth is that books are made from books.’ I also believe life is art. All writers take the raw stuff of life and compress it into story filled with meaning. This is what is so fun about writing! I wanted to combine these two ideas, art from art and life from art, into one theme: compression.”


3 Ways to Compress Your Story Like Les Misérables

Like much of America, in the days after Christmas my family and I went to see Les Misérables. If you’ve been alive in the last month you’ve heard some of the reactions to it, and ours, I’m sure, were nothing new. We were all very moved, it had been a long time since I left the theater feeling like that.

That is the amazing thing about stories. You can take a 1,200 page novel, compress it down to a three hour musical, and it’s still powerful.

All Art Requires Compression

Personally, I’m not surprised that it’s possible to turn an epic novel like Les Misérables into an afternoon’s entertainment. Do you lose things by compressing the story? Of course. But that doesn’t mean it won’t work as a story.

The ugly truth is that all art is made through compression. 

To write a book, whether it be a novel or a memoir or a biography you have to take the complicated, mess of life, weed out all the meaningless parts, and compress the it into language.

How to Effectively Compress a Story Like Les Misérables

However, compression comes with a cost. When I saw Les Misérables with my family, one person in our group, who is from Brazil, wasn’t impressed. Unfamiliar with the storyline, she was bored and confused. “I didn’t get what was going on,” she confessed afterward. She wasn’t alone. When the original musical was released in 1985, one reviewer complained that it was “like attempting to pour the entire Channel through a china teapot”.

This is the danger of compression. Some people might love it, but others won’t get what’s going on at all.

How do you take a doorstopper of a novel and turn it into a three hour play? For that matter, how do you take a lifetime and turn it into a novel? Here are three suggestions:

1. Choose the Right Moments

Robert McKee said, “The mark of a master is to select only a few moments but give us a lifetime.”

When I edit the work of writers, I almost always have to convince them to cut significant sections out of their stories. King might call this “killing your darlings.” I call this getting rid of the boring parts.

Often, in our efforts to “show, don’t tell” we show irrelevant scenes that would better be summarized in a few sentences. Just as frequently, in our fear of melodrama, we race over sections the reader wants to dwell on.

Which moments of your story have the most drama? Which moments develop the character’s pursuit of what she  wants most? After you’ve found those moments, cut or summarize as much as you can. 

2. Combine Characters

Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t have too many characters. The center of gravity should be two: he and she.” And Stephen Koch says, “The warning sign of a story that is growing disorganized is likely to be too many characters, and the solution to that problem is likely to be the discovery of the one character—your protagonist—whose fate matters most.”

This was done brilliantly in Les Misérables, both the novel and the film. By all rights, it’s highly unlikely that Inspector Javert would be continually transferred to stations that would put him close to Valjean, and yet to create a coherent plot, Hugo brought Javert into every situation he could.

Similarly, anytime the story required a scumbag, Hugo manipulated the plot so Thenardier could take the role, and to further simplify the ensemble, he cast Thenardier’s son, Gavroche, as the street urchin and Thenardier’s daughter, Éponine, as third wheel to Marius and Cosette.

Do you have too many characters? Is it possible to combine similar characters into one?

3. Write a Good Story. Then, Cut.

Stephen King once received a rejection slip that changed his life. “Not bad, but PUFFY,” the note said. “You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

Every writer has to cut sections of their story, some more than others. Hemingway said, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

As you revise your story, which sections most need cutting? 

How about you? How have you used compression as a tool to make powerful art?

Readers, you can learn more about Joe on his website, and by following him on Facebook and Twitter. Write on!



    • says

      Of course, but what the producers of the musical did wasn’t just editing. They created something wholly new. When a screenwriter adapts a novel for film, it isn’t just editing. And when a novelist takes a lifetime and turns it into 300 pages, that’s not just editing. That’s the kind of compression I’m talking about here. Editing is certainly part of compression, but I think there’s something else at work as well.

  1. says

    I finished my first novel in just under 50,000 words. I queried 15 agents, and the only comment I got was “too short, add another 20,000 words”.

    • says

      Interesting that the market dictates the amount of compression required. You can compress a 1,200 page novel into 3 hours but not 45 minutes.

  2. says

    Sage advice, Joe. I cut 23,000 words from my first novel and it still weighed in at 103,000 words. I should have cut more. Thanks and welcome to Writer Unboxed.

  3. scott says

    I crtainly agree with compression or editing, most novels have too much fluff, whichever you wish to call it, but Les Mis? A musical? Barf. What’s next? Is touting A.L. Weber as a musical genius next?

  4. says

    Great thoughts, Joe. I liked your ideas about choosing the right moments, and I think linking it to a movie as an example is a great visual reference that really works. I find it awfully difficult to hone in on the melodramatic moments, so you hit it on the head with that point. Yet, when I have a watched an epic movie or a particularly sturdy drama on tv, I find that I am inspired to be braver with the dramatic moments. We need a push to be braver sometimes, don’t we?

    • says

      Thanks Yvette. :)

      Of course. Courage is essential. Melodrama is different than drama, though. Hone in on the drama, and leave melodrama (which I would call drama without the guts) for the soap operas.

  5. says

    We just went to see it this last weekend, and were both moved. My friend spent most of the 3 hours crying. :P I was a bit weepy too because it just reminded me of my childhood spent singing those songs ;)

  6. says

    More often than not we find ourselves coming up with more ideas than we can write! This probably stems from our early years of reading the Redwall series, by Brian Jacques. We loved the stories so much that it was sad when a book came to an end. In our minds we would carry on the story and the characters to see what would happen to them in the future.

    In the world of writing, such flows of creativity can be a good thing, as long as it is curtailed with a healthy dose of common sense. You may want to add one more compelling scene, but think: is this interesting, or merely boring? However, always make sure you keep these “deleted scenes” because, just as directors have their “director’s cuts”, authors should have their “author’s cuts”, at the very least for your own personal amusement.

    Do any of our fellow commentators fondly dream of all the things they could add to their novels?