Saturday, May 27, 2017

When Your Story is Too Short: Tips for Expansion

Do you remember when I first started writing The Brightest Thread back in 2015? The first draft was a somewhat flabby novella that I ended up shortening from almost 30,000 words to 20,000 words in order to follow the Five Magic Spindles contest guidelines.

Fast forward to 2017, and I'm taking that story I worked so hard to condense and expanding it into a full novel! Back when I was cutting words and soaking my keyboard in tears (slight exaggeration), I ached with the knowing that there was so much more story to explore, but no room to do it. I felt I could easily make it three times as long.

Well, now that I am actually trying to triple its size, it's a lot harder than it looks! See, my stories have always had the bad habit of exploding on me. Subplots crop up, character arcs get deeper or more complicated, and connections start springing up like dandelions in May. (Seriously, I look out my window and there's a sea of yellow.)

So things get . . . long. Short stories become novellas, novellas try to become novels, and standalones turn into series.  That's just how I roll, I guess.

But I know lots of young writers have the exact opposite problem. Their stories are too short. By the time they type "The End" their supposed "epic YA fantasy novel" is only 50k, more like middle grade than YA. If that's you, I can sympathize with you for the first time!

photo via Pinterest // graphic mine

So today we're going to be looking at ways you can lengthen your stories--and not just padding them with fluff, but adding meaningful length.

And we'll do it by re-examining the condensing tips I shared in Unraveling a Mess of Threads to see if any of them can be reverse-engineered. Perhaps the opposite principles will be helpful.

(And there will be random gifs, because why not?)

1. Streamline.

Nope, you don't want to reverse this one! Every scene still needs to carry its weight. Don't wander for the sake of extra words. That's when the reader starts yawning--or worse, decides to put the book down.

2. Cut dialogue.

Brevity is still the soul of wit, even if you're looking to expand a story, but you don't have to be quite so ruthless with your dialogue now. A lot can be revealed in a conversation: personality, motives, conflicts, plot, etc. Characters are crucial to any story, and quite often, so are their interactions. So when they start talking to each other, don't be afraid to dig a little deeper, and look for ways to add tension or conflict.

It doesn't always have to be conflict between the characters, either. A tense conversation can be about the imminent war or the urgent need for supplies . . . or it can just as easily be about smaller conflicts, like the fact their local diner stopped selling chocolate milkshakes and they're both upset about it.

The point is, add dialogue that does something. Treat conversations like mini stories: figure out what each person wants and what stands in their way.

3. Cut descriptions.

Now you'll want to add description! But no purple prose, please--your reader proooobably doesn't want to spend three pages watching a sunset unfold. Nor do they need to spend an agonizing amount of time listening to your protagonist navel-gazing.

However, if your story is running too short, there are probably lots of places you can beef up your descriptions. Use them to ground each scene. Intersperse them with action and movement. Engage all five senses. Strive to immerse your reader wholly within the world you've created! That world may never come out on the page 100% the way you imagine it in your mind, but get as close as possible.

If you're struggling to find a place to add description in a scene, stop and consider what's out of the ordinary about where that scene takes place. Yes, it might be in your protagonist's average little kitchen and not in some wildly exotic fantasy locale, but try to find something relevant and interesting about your setting. Maybe the dishes have piled higher than normal because the character's mom has been sick, and the plates are crusted in yesterday's lasagna. Maybe the little brother left a note on the fridge saying he left to search for his missing puppy, but the brother is only six years old and your protagonist starts freaking out about him wandering the streets alone.

But do take note: we don't need to know about the plates or the note if they don't a) further the plot, or b) develop the characters. Yes, you want to add words, but you want to add words that matter!

4. Make a list of scenes.

In the original post, I suggested doing this for the purpose of getting a birds-eye view of your story. That way, it's easier to spot which scenes aren't pulling their weight and need to be cut out. But this is also a great strategy for finding places to expand! Did the story jump from the hero departing home to his arrival at a tavern on the way to his goal? Well, perhaps the journey in between can offer some conflict. Take that boring walk you skipped over and throw some obstacles at him. Ogres attack! The bridge is broken! Bandits steal his food! He stops to help a wounded peasant who will later betray him to the villain! He injures himself climbing a precipitous road! The sky's the limit, folks. It may take extra work later on when editing to make sure your new scenes fit into the story's flow, but it can be done.

5. Cut minor characters.

When every single word is measured, you keep your cast to the bare minimum. But when you're expanding, adding a few more minor characters can provide more conflict, more dialogue, more revealing of main characters, and more subplots--in essence, more words. Who could you add to your story to further complicate events? This leads into the next tip . . .

6. Cut subplots.

This goes further than just adding scenes and characters. This means tying those extra things into your existing storyline, which can be easier said than done. Right now, with every new element I introduce to The Brightest Thread, I'm worried that it will draw the focus away from the main storyline, or that I'm making the story worse, not better. (But at this point I should be in creative mode, and save those sorts of judgments for editing.)

But a new subplot can enrich your story like nothing else. At some point, you'll want to consider whether the subplot revolves around your story's central plot and theme (it should), but for now, take some time to jot a list of all the crazy, difficult, dangerous, beautiful, or interesting things that could happen within your story.

This is where it becomes all about connections! This is when you get to decide that your villain is actually related to your hero, or that trade between two kingdoms is suffering, or that the regular old sword the sidekick wields is no longer an ordinary blade, but a magical object that somebody out there would do anything to obtain.

Rather than bog the story down, a well-written subplot will add depth and complexity.

7. Enter each scene late and leave it early.

KEEP DOING THIS. Basically, start each scene when the important stuff happens, and end it before the tension drops. Don't waste time in getting things going or wrapping them up. This will keep those pages turning fast!

8. Cut unnecessary words.

Admit it, you have a collection of pet words that somehow manage to pepper every other page, no matter how much pet-word-repellant you spray your keyboard with. When you edit, please don't leave those pesky things there just to keep your wordcount higher. Keep deleting whatever's unnecessary. Pacing can be an issue on the scene level and on the sentence level.

Keeping that in mind, you can continue adding dialogue, descriptions, scenes, characters, and subplots. Just make them necessary. Tie them to the stakes of the story. Therein lies the key to meaningful additions.

To sum up:

When expanding a story, look for opportunities to:

  • Add dialogue
  • Add description
  • Add scenes
  • Expand the cast of characters
  • Create subplots

But don't forget to:

  • Keep it streamlined
  • And make sure every addition either furthers the plot, develops a character, or both

And that's all I've got! I'm excited about a certain (ahem, creepy) subplot I'm in the process of writing into TBT . . . it's definitely going to change the flavor of the book somewhat, but I hope it will be in a good way.

Discussion time! Have you ever tried to lengthen a story? What worked for you? What didn't work? Or if you're planning to expand a story in the future, which of these tips do you think will help you the most?


  1. This sounds so cool! Thank you so much for this post, I've been really worried about this for myself. My books always end up being so much shorter than I'd like... except for The King's Daughter, which just keeps getting longer and longer with no end in sight. Ahhhh. *sighs* I'll be using some of these tips to rewrite Watched for sure!
    Good luck editing The Brightest Thread! I can't wait to read it!

    1. I'm really glad it's helpful! Haha, it's funny how some stories just unreel page after page, and others stay stubbornly small. Best of luck with The King's Daughter AND Watched!

      Thank you, m'dear! ^_^

  2. Great post! I... don't usually have this problem. >.> *cough* My stories are the ones that are supposed to be short and end up at least twice as long as I wanted them. -_- HOWEVER I might need to do some of this for The Rose and the Raven, because I did cut a lot and kind of miss some of that and might want to re-expand it a bit... but I'd have to hit a halfway point of keeping the streamlined new quality, without feeling like I had to cut out deeper things like I did. Which is going to be hard, and is exactly why I haven't dared to attack it yet. XD

    It's always interesting to me to read posts like this, because I really don't construct my stories or "decide" things, I "discover" them. So seeing lists like "ask why" or "add things about this thing" or "decide if people are related"--none of these are things I can really do, at least not on a "I'm going to sit down and construct a story" level. It's all very organic and intuitive for me, and I guess that's why "how-to" writing tips are so foreign to me. I feel like they SHOULD be helpful and that I SHOULD try to implement them and try to make my story deeper, and I always admire people who CAN do all those things you mentioned like ask aaaaall the why's and get things twisty and surprising and streamlined. But... I just don't know how because that's not how I work, so I have no idea if my stuff is interesting or not. I just have to keep writing how the stories want to be written and figure things out and discover them while everyone else is off constructing their deep stories. XD

    ...No idea where that came from. Your posts have a tendency to bring out my thoughtful side! Which is a good thing! ;) AAAANYWAYS, thanks for this post, and it may be useful for updated my R&R story! :) Usually shortness is the opposite of my problem though. XD

    I hope all that BT editing goes well!!! *cheers you on* YOU CAN DO IT! Can't wait to see how it turns out! ^_^

    1. I think the discover versus decide is a P versus J thing (since you're INFP and Tracey's INFJ). I'm mostly INTP (with an INTJ side that pops up occasionally to argue with my more relaxed side), and I almost always "find things out" rather than "making them this way". (Tolkien was the same way, which is neat.) I get more into the why questions in the revision, but during the story itself, how the story wants to be written is the main judge of how things go.

      I don't think there's a one way to get to the final product, the good book you're trying to write. Tolkien didn't really plan LotR, and the plot swept him off his feet and went in a direction he wasn't thinking of going. It was a messy first draft, but you'd never know it now, because he revised it (and revised and revised and revised) so thoroughly. The first draft is kind of like gardening, to go with your 'organic and intuitive" phrasing.
      Dunno if that makes any sense.

    2. @Deborah: I never had this problem until now, either! Either I'm too wordy, or my plots get too big. Or both. XD So I feel ya. BUT YOU JUST NAILED IT ON THE HEAD--the reason why you're hesitant to attack "The Rose and the Raven" is precisely the problem I've having with "The Brightest Thread." I *want* to keep that lean, streamlined prose, but at the same time I need to add stuff in?? >.<

      @Deborah and Sophia: That reminds me of the post on Go Teen Writers a while back about organic vs. mathematical writers. And just because your process is more intuitive does NOT make you less of a writer or your stories less deep! I guess I *am* more of a mathematical writer (and I love what you said, Sophia, about P vs. J personalities), but I think the N in INFJ makes me somewhat of a hybrid. Because I'll discover these "writing principles" as I go along, and then my J side grabs them and likes to make little lists and formulate a Plan of Action for how to use them on purpose next time.

      Meanwhile, as I'm writing, I'm not ALWAYS consciously thinking, "Okay, this is the next element I need to add in, and then I need to think about this..." It's both sides of me working together to get a feel for what's needed, and then to analyze how to do it.

      SO. All that rambling to say, I think it's awesome how organic your writing is! I love the idea of discovering everything as you go along and following the characters where they lead. (I do that as well, but it's a mix? I don't know.)

      Plus you're in good company with Tolkien! I cannot fathom how he didn't plan LOTR. O.O If I was writing it, I would get halfway through Fellowship of the Ring, throw my hands up, and start over with an outline. XDDD I'm amazed at how someone can write something so epic and then have the patience to revise it like crazy to make it actually cohesive.

      Love that gardening analogy, Sophia! And I love this discussion! It's awesome how every writer does their thing differently. ^_^

  3. I struggle a lot with writing long stories, I did, however write my first novel this year, 50k for camp nano! Too bad that story stinks... :(
    But I'm really bad at not making things too short, I need to work on it. Thanks so much!
    -Gray Marie

    1. Congrats on the Camp Nano victory! I've never done Nano (camp or otherwise), but it sounds pretty common for the stories produced to be a little slapdash. That's where revisions come in! :D

      I'm glad it was helpful, Gray! All the best with your writings!

  4. This is an AWESOME post! I...don't usually have this problem, though. XD Like you said about yourself, novellas become novels, and standalones become series. It just happens and it can't be helped. :P Still definitely bookmarking this page for future reference!

    Also, good luck on your TBT editing!! Yay!! ^_^

    1. Haha, thanks! I know, me neither--until now. XD I hope it'll come in handy someday, and I'm honored you've bookmarked it.

      Thank you!!! I had a pretty good writing session this morning. (Just ask my siblings. I was so excited about the scene I was writing I had to give them a play-by-play. XDDD)

  5. I have expanded just one story a significant amount of time after the first draft. I changed it from being a secondary-world military thriller to being a Gunpowder Fantasy and added dialogue and details to take it from 1,500 words to 3,000 words. I recently added a few pages to a short story within two weeks of the first draft by studying the location (the story was set in the real town of Rockwood, Michigan, a place I have never been) and by added tons of extra interiority. Normally I write very short, but I think my bigger problem is that I don't finish longer stories rather than that I finish my stories too short. You've got good advice here. Over the course of time, I've learned how to write longer, richer, more complex compositions of both fiction and nonfiction (though I haven't actually tried out the theory much for fiction or even too often for nonfiction).

    1. I've never heard of Gunpowder Fantasy until now! That sounds really neat. Ah yes, good point; research is another great way to add words to a story.

      Actually finishing a long story IS another issue entirely. Just keep on keepin' on!

  6. Wow! This post is awesome! I'm planning on expanding a certain novelette of mine into a novel someday (whether sooner or later I'm not sure yet), so I'll be sure to keep this in mind. :) Good luck with expanding TBT!

    1. Thank you, Lucy! Oooh, sounds like a fun project. Best of everything with that! TBT is sitting at 34,000 words and counting... :)

  7. TRACEY. This was not only a tips of expansion post, but like a How to Write 101 post. O_O Seriously, this whole thing was BRILLIANCE. Suuuuuch a wealth of information for the writer.

    It was genius how you took all the elements of your post about shortening a story and flipped them around. Have I mentioned you are brilliant? BECAUSE YOU ARE BRILLIANT.

    "Short stories become novellas, novellas try to become novels, and standalones turn into series. That's just how I roll, I guess." <---LITERALLY ME. I...never, ever need to lengthen my stories. Ever. Well, I say that, but of course Burning Thorns became a full novel, like what you're doing with TBT. But I ended up making the novel a bit longer than I meant to. XD stories never eeeend!!!

    But like I said, this whole post has so much fantastic advice for writing novels PERIOD. Thank you so much for sharing with us!

    (Also, I'm soooo curious about this creepy subplot for TBT!!!! O_O I LOVE CREEPY FAIRYTALES. *flaaaails*)

    1. ACK, I'VE BEEN PENSLAIN, CHRISTINE. Thank you! I'm delighted to hear it's that helpful! :D

      Reverse-engineering the old post was one of those ideas that pounces right when you're drifting off to sleep. So there was very little deliberation on my part. XD

      JOIN THE CLUB. I need to go back over The Prophet's Quest (for the millionth time) and try condensing some things, and adding a few elements I've realized are missing... but later, not now. :P Oh, but Burning Thorns was the perfect length! I don't remember the exact wordcount (was it over 100k or not?) but it didn't FEEL long. It felt just right!

      (I should just email you because I need to spill these crazy subplots. O_O I am so excited about them AND a bit nervous.)

  8. Argh!!! This is like my BIGGEST struggle!! (Or... my SMALLEST struggle???) My novels are just wee babies that need to be so much bigger to deserve the title of "novel" at all!!

    So this was the perfect post for me! I don't even know if it was on your list (I'm too lazy to scroll back up to check???), but this post got me thinking about WHY my stories are always so short and something kind of leapt out at me - I DON'T HAVE ANY SUBPLOTS.

    So! Thank you so much for writing this post/making me think about this/getting some ideas flowing/solving my issue!!!

    1. "Or my smallest struggle," lolzy! At least you won't have the problem of too much padding or slow pacing! ;)

      But I'm glad this was timely/helpful. Yes, subplots were on the list--and I'm thrilled to hear that it's something you can use! Go write them subplots!! :D

    2. Definitely not! My novel is like a tiny ball of explosions...


  9. "So things get . . . long. Short stories become novellas, novellas try to become novels, and standalones turn into series. That's just how I roll, I guess." I know the feeling. After all, we're exploring people and worlds when we write- that's no small thing.

    These are fantastic tips though, for writing in general!

    1. Exactly! There are entire WORLDS and RACES and CULTURES to explore! How can we skim over them? Especially when it comes to fantasy... I take comfort in the fact that fantasy readers usually *want* more worldbuilding. (Although that's still no excuse for poor pacing, but you know what I mean.)

      Thanks, Blue! Glad to hear it! :)

  10. This is exactly the post I needed, you have impeccable timing. I'm trying to lengthen Bleeding Roses, and it's been pretty difficult.
    I am so excited for a full length version of 'The Brightest Thread'

    1. Oh, really? That's awesome! BLEEDING ROSES, I REMEMBER THAT ONE. I can sympathize with expanding troubles. *hugs* Hope it takes a turn for the better!

      Aww, and I can't wait for you to read it, too! :D

  11. I'm actually in the process of expanding a story right now! I need to get it another 4.5K longer, so this is timely! I've used a lot of these techniques. ^ ^

    1. No way! Sounds awesome! Which story is that? (If it's all hush-hush because of publishing pursuits, I understand.) ^_^