You’ve typed ‘The End’ but your story falls short of the required word count. Now what? Author Kris Bock shares her insight and offers tips on how to expand the length of your story.
Welcome to RU, Kris!
I write concisely. See that sentence? Direct and to the point. That comes from a combination of natural style, training in journalism, and years of writing for children, where you often have to write a story in only a few hundred words. In general, tight writing is a good thing. Stories automatically move faster without unnecessary wordiness, and many of my educational publishing contracts require me to pack a lot of information into a few pages.
However, there are times when less is not more. For example, several years ago I developed a series idea for middle school kids about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show and try to help the ghosts. My first manuscript was a tight, action-packed 20,000 words. An editor at Aladdin/Simon & Schuster said he loved it, but it needed to be 35,000 words to meet their standards for paperback series for ages 9 to 12. Yikes! I blogged about the process of expanding that book in detail here and here. It became The Ghost on the Stairs, the first novel in my Haunted series.
Then, after years of writing for children, I decided I needed a change. Since I’d mainly been reading romantic suspense in the previous year, I took that as a sign of what I should write. In many ways, writing novels for adults is not that different from writing novels for children. But in one major way it is – most of my children’s novels are 35,000 words. A category romance is 60,000 words, and other titles are typically 80,000 words and up. That’s more than two children’s novels! I was afraid I’d write a draft and wind up far too short.
Over the years, I’ve become more of a plotter and outliner. I understand the appeal of “pantsing” it, but story planning and outlining saves me a lot of time. So for my first “grown-up” novel, I started by developing a detailed, 15-page outline. I estimated how many pages each scene would take. I added plot twists and complications until I thought I had enough material for an 85,000 word novel.
It actually worked. I couldn’t have done this when I started out, but I guess I learned something from 20 years of experience and writing more than a dozen novels.
That’s not to say Rattled is perfect. It’s definitely action-packed, but I focused on plot twists over relationship development, so it’s really more of an action-adventure with a romantic subplot than a true romantic suspense, where the romance is as important as the action. In my following novels, I practiced slowing down, allowing the hero and heroine more time to bond and letting other relationships develop. I think I’m getting the hang of this complicated thing called writing.
People have their own processes, and you have to do what works for you – though I’d encourage you to experiment, as what you did in the past may not be the best thing for the present. I couldn’t outline successfully until I had enough experience with story structure to understand what would work. But if you have a problem with writing novels that are too short, or if you are about to experiment with a longer format, or if you need to expand a work in progress, here are some tips.
- Spend some time brainstorming and planning. If you feel that you simply can’t work out the plot until you start writing and get to know your characters, that’s fine. Just take a break before you get too far along and think about the plot. You don’t have to come up with a detailed outline. Consider using plot turning points, as in The Hero’s Journey or scriptwriting formula. These provide a lot of flexibility, while making sure you have enough big scenes and plot twists.
- Understand structure. We have thousands of years of storytelling experience behind us, and people expect certain things from a story. If events seem too random or disjointed, or if the story is weighted improperly – with a climax in the middle, for example – the story won’t satisfy readers. I first started my romantic suspense Whispers in the Dark 15 years ago. I wrote a 35,000-word draft, which was much too short. When I pulled it out again a few years ago, I realized I had a decent draft of two-thirds of a book, but it ended without a major climax. Developing a solid climax not only made the book longer, it made it much more exciting.
- Add plot twists. How easily does your main character solve her problems? Can you make each situation more difficult, by requiring more steps or adding complications? Can you turn small steps into big challenges? When the hero and heroine in Whispers in the Dark finally confront the bad guys, it takes almost 30 pages of challenges and complications to resolve the situation.
- Make sure the complications are dramatic. If someone can’t get where she needs to go because she’s caught in conversation with a boring neighbor, that does not add drama. If she’s in a fight with her best friend, it can. Even better, make her choose – if she leaves now, she risks losing the friendship. If she stays, she risks not meeting her very important goal.
- If you have similar scenes, add twists so they feel fresh. Then order them from the easiest to hardest challenge, or add increasing stakes, such as time running out. Save the biggest confrontation for the climax. In Whispers in the Dark, the heroine is an archaeology student doing research at a remote national monument in the Southwest. Early on, Kylie hears strange sounds in the night and sees lights in the canyon. Later she follows the voices and realizes what’s really happening – but she gets trapped in a dangerous spot in the dark. If she’d simply heard voices in the distance throughout the novel, it would have gotten old and boring, or readers might have wondered about her mental health.
- Use subplots. Secondary characters and subplots can help you expand a manuscript while providing a more interesting and believable world. In my romantic mystery What We Found, a young woman stumbles on a murder victim in the woods. People aren’t happy about her bringing the crime to light, and she finds herself drawn further into the case. But she also has to deal with a mysterious young man who handles falcons, a 12-year-old brother who wants to play detective, a controlling mother, and coworkers at her new job. Extra characters like these can add complicating subplots or send the main plot in a new direction. They can also provide red herrings for a mystery or suspense.
- Analyze what you have. I developed a system that I can use to analyze an outline or a rough draft. It helps me step back and see the story as a whole – what is actually on the page, not what I intended to put there. You can download my “plot outline exercise” from my Kris Bock website blog page, or it’s in my book Advanced Plotting with extra essays on how to fix problems.
- Find or design your own tools. You can take my Plot Arc Exercise and adapt it for your own needs. You can also find many other tools to help you analyze your plot. If something doesn’t feel like a good fit, don’t give up on the idea – try some other methods. Be patient with the process. It takes time, but the results are worthwhile.
Here are several sources for analyzing your plot, which may give you ideas for ways to expand. Even if you don’t have length problems, these tools are also great for reviewing a manuscript for other issues.
- Advanced Plotting includes a tool for analyzing your plot, plus articles on fast starts, developing middles, plot points, cliffhangers, and more advice on making your work stronger
- The Plot Arc Exercise is available as a free Word download
- Christopher Vogler explained how novelists can use the archetypical structure of The Hero’s Journey, and you can find many examples of those stages online
- The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet lists 15 plot points. (See also his Save the Cat books, directed at scriptwriters but interesting for novelists as well)
- For more story analysis, visit Doug Eboch’s Let’s Schmooze blog on Screenwriting.
- Darcy Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis offers another way to inventory and analyze your novel
- Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer, has several books on plotting and structure
- Caroline Starr Rose offers an example of plot mapping
- Molly Blaisdell provides links to more helpful plot tools
Do you tend to write too long, too short, or just right? How do you control or adjust the length of a manuscript if necessary?
Author Kathleen Collins presents the Business Side of Writing on Friday, March 21st.
Whispers in the Dark – archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins – is on sale for $.99 through March 21.
Bio: Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. Counterfeits starts a new series about stolen Rembrandt paintings hidden in a remote New Mexico art camp. In What We Found, a young woman finds a murder victim in the woods. Rattled follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Read excerpts on her website or visit her Amazon page. Connect with Kris via Pinterest, Goodreads, Facebook and twitter.
Chris Eboch writes novels for ages nine and up. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. To learn more about Chris, visit her website or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.
- Before You Climax by Chris Eboch
- Dirty Little Secrets
- Weekly Lecture Schedule – March 17th to March 22nd
- A Case For Story Structure by Adrienne Giordano
- JUST DESSERT: why a whole book can’t be a happy ending with Damon Suede