What can you do when your novel is too short?
First, let's clear up what "too short" means for this discussion. Stories tend to be as long as they need to be, but what I'm talking about today are manuscripts that are aiming for a particular word count for a particular market and wind up short of that count, such as that 50K-word NaNoWriMo novel that needs to be 70 or 80K-words for the market you want to publish in. You don't want to add fluff words to hit your goal (smart folks), but you know the story isn't going to be marketable at the length it is.
Do a Diagnostic
Before you do any revising, analyze the manuscript and determine if you have a sparse manuscript that needs some fleshing out, or a novel that's short on plot. A sparse novel may not need any macro work, while a short-plot novel will need some major additions.
Is everything clear? Make sure the characters' motivations are solid so readers can understand why characters are behaving as they are. Check to see if the stage direction is good and readers can follow what's happening in a scene. Are the dialogue tags clear so there's no confusion over who is speaking? Also make sure there's enough back story to inform readers about the significance of events--often this gets left out because we're terrified of having too much.
World Building Check
This is true for real worlds as well as crafted worlds. Have you done enough with your setting so the world feels real? Real word writers--have you used enough specific details to make your setting come alive? It's easy to say "New York" and let readers fill in the blanks, and then end up with flat and lifeless worlds. And if your world is created, then you might find some confused readers who feel ungrounded, especially if you used a lot of made up words for things.
(Here's more on painting your story world)
Are you in your point-of-view character's head enough? You know why your protagonist acts as she does, but are you getting that all on the page? Pretend you know nothing about her or her history. Are the things readers need to know clear? Short novels often have lots of action, but the emotional aspect is missing.
And the flip side, are you in your point-of-view character's head too much? Are you telling or summarizing what's happening and not letting it unfold? Strange as it sounds, action scenes can be boring to write, so it's easy to scrimp on them to get to the more interesting emotional stuff. But it's the balance between head and heart that make the story work.
(Here's more on finding the balance with your stage direction)
Where are you now? Have you fleshed out enough to hit your word count goal? No? Then take the next steps.
Look at your plot. Is it too easy to go from inciting event to resolution? Traditionally, you have at least four major events in a novel (though I like to outline using nine):
- The "holy cow, this is gonna be a problem" moment
- The "oh crap, I had no idea it was this bad" moment
- The "There's no way we're making it out of this alive" moment
- The "okay, if that's the way you're wanna play it" moment
Each step requires multiple steps to get to, and the stakes will get progressively higher as you reach these steps. If any of them are skipped, that could be a reason why you're short.
If you haven't skipped any, are there any events that might need a step or two more to accomplish? Places where if the protagonist didn't win, or things didn't go in her favor, you could tack on a scene or two and add more conflict? Be cautious here though, because you don't want to just have tasks take longer. Look for places where the stakes will also go up if the protagonist fails instead of succeeds. Or places where you can edit to raise the stakes if she fails. You want to maintain that sense of things getting worse and worse or you'll end up with a lot of "stuff" happening that doesn't move the story forward.
(Here's more on strengthening your plots)
Take a peek at your subplots. Are there any spots on your main plot line that can be made more complicated by braiding in your subplot? Can you deepen any of them to give something else in the novel greater meaning? Can they affect the stakes in any way?
Look for spots where decisions are being made. Are the choices too easy? How can you make them harder? And not just physically harder, but emotionally tougher as well.
Were there any spots where you started to go off on a tangent but reeled yourself back in? Those might be areas your subconscious thought would be fun paces to go, and there might be opportunities lurking there. Potential subplots could come from here.
I know, sacrilege for me to even suggest it, but is there an element of the backstory that might be dramatized or illustrated to shed new or better light on something already in the novel? You don't need to add a full-on flashback, but a memory might cause a different action or response somewhere and take the story to a new place or offer a new obstacle to overcome.
Things You Probably Shouldn't Do
Think long and hard before you:
Add a Subplot
This seems like the easiest way to add words, but unless it's connected to the main storyline and woven in with the same skill and relevance as the other subplots, it often ends up feeling tacked on. Sometimes a subplot is the way to go, but make sure it fits and improves the whole story.
Add a Character
Ditto here. Adding someone new throws all kinds of wrenches into the mix, some good, some bad. A new face might give you plenty of places to add some extra lines, but what do they add to the story? If that new characters don't bring out elements that were already there (but hidden) then you may just want to leave them out.
The whole point in adding words to a short manuscript is to make it more interesting, not add words that are frequently skimmed by readers. Unless you have a novel that is truly sparse on description (and this happens, I do it all the time), don't load up readers with unnecessary details.
(Here's more on getting what's in your head onto the page)
The key thing to remember when you're bulking up a novel is to be true to the story. Look for ways to tell that story, deepen those characters, and keep the reader guessing what will happen next.
Do you have a sparse novel you want to flesh out? Was it a NaNo novel? Do you typically write sparse and then flesh out, or write long and cut back? (or do you usually hit your word count?)
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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