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. (like a 50K NaNo novel that needs to be 70 or 80K for the market ) 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, check a few things 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? Motivations are solid, readers can understand why characters are behaving as they are. Stage direction is good, readers can follow what's happening in a scene. Dialog tags are good and there's no confusion over who is speaking. There's enough back story to inform the reader about the significance of events. (a lot of times 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 the reader fill in the blanks, but you end up with flat and lifeless worlds that way. 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.
Are you in your POV's head enough? You know why your protags act as they do, but are you getting that all on the page? Pretend you know nothing about them or their history. Are the things you need the reader to know clear? Short novels often have lots of action, but the emotional aspect is missing.
And the flip side, are you in your POV'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.
Okies, so 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 four major events in a novel.
- 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 protag didn't win, or things didn't go in their 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 things take longer. Look for places where the stakes will also go up if the protag fails instead of succeeds. Or places where you can edit to raise the stakes if they fail. You always 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.
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 you started to go off on a tangent but reeled yourself back in? Those might be spots that your subconscious thought would be fun paces to go, and there might be opportunities lurking there. Potential subplots could come from here.
Back Story Check
I know, sacrilege for me to even suggest it, but is there an element of the back story 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 flashback, but a memory of something might cause a different action or response somewhere and take the story to a new place or offer a new obstacle to overcome.
Stuff You Probably Shouldn't Do
Fleshing out a plot usually isn't easy, and it's tempting to do things to make that process easier. Think long and hard if you start considering...
Adding 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.
Adding 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 doesn't bring out something that was 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 stuff that frequently gets 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.
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?)