5 Fun and Easy Ways to Lengthen Word Count

We see a lot of hype these days about books that are too long for agents or editors to consider. But what about books that are too short, in which we need to lengthen word count?

In comparison to putting a too-long manuscript on a diet, fattening up a story often feels like trying to create something out of nothing. There your story is—complete. What’s left to add that won’t feel extraneous, rambling, and even pointless?

This was the dilemma I faced after realizing a historical manuscript, which was supposedly “complete” at 80,000 words, contained a hefty subplot that absolutely did not work. I cut the subplot—and ended up with a puny 60,000-word featherweight of a book. What do to?

First thing I did was scream—a lot. “Finished” manuscripts with big holes in them are about as cheerful as alarm clocks at five o’clock on Sunday morning. Next thing I did was comfort myself with the usual panacea of Starbucks’ bold dark espresso roast and Belgian truffles. And then I got to work. I looked over the story and started making lists of anything I could expand.

5 Ideas to Lengthen Word Count in Too-Short Novels

1. Brainstorm Additional Plot Beats

List all your current plot threads, and then explore ways to expand upon them.

One of the plot threads I included in my story involved a character’s attempts to cover up her past. I started brainstorming ways I could expand upon this thread and came up with several scenes in which the character’s attempts are threatened or discovered, which led to further complications, more scenes, and—you got it—more words.

2. Deepen Connections Between Characters

Make a list of all the characters in your story and how they’re connected to the point-of-view characters. Could you add scenes to further explain or deepen these connections?

In the original version of my story, I hinted at the strained relationships between one of my characters and his siblings, which left me the perfect opportunity to add a thematically pertinent subplot exploring his interactions with them.

3. Add Characters

The more characters you have, the more you will lengthen word count. Never add characters just for the sake of adding them, but take a look at the needs of your story and sniff out any gaps where a new character could add dimension.

My story’s dark realism didn’t offer much in the way of humor, so I added a character who could occasionally lighten the mood. I made sure to tie him back into the plot by making him an accomplice to another character’s secret business.

4. Emphasize Important Character Traits

What are some of your protagonists’ most important, salient, or appealing characteristics? Do you explicitly illustrate these traits in scenes? If not, look for places where you can insert these important bits of characterization.

The friendship between two war buddies is crucial to my story, so I added an early scene that shows them watching each other’s backs while on a dangerous hunt.

5. Dramatize Summaries

Finally, once you’ve added all the feasible characters and subplots, zoom in on the nitty-gritty of your story. Are there any scenes where you’ve summarized (told) instead of dramatized (shown)? Can you expand upon your characters’ interior monologue? Can you flesh out the descriptions of your settings? Don’t go overboard with any of these insertions; remember balance is always key. But every word counts, and these little expansions add up quickly.

***

By the time I finished applying all these techniques, my story had transformed from a skinny novella to the optimum fighting weight of 100,000 words. Not only did I achieve my word count goal, I also ended up with a story whose characters, themes, and plot progression were deeper, chewier, and more memorable. I credit the success to the Starbucks and truffles—mostly.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written a story in which you had to lengthen word count? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Hmm, how to say this…yes!

    With the exception of my first WIP which hovered around 100k, I’ve found that most of my novels tend to be a little shorter (ok, a lot shorter). It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes they need some fattening up.

    Great tips–I’ll definitely refer back to these later.

  2. I usually love your advice, but this one had me screaming like the kid in Home Alone. Readers don’t need fluff, and that is what all but the first item suggests. I think those who like words for words’ sake, read poetry (or should).

    I’m glad you were able to recognize 20k of your novel didn’t work, but really? When the story is told, the story is told.

    Who knows. You may have had the biggest selling book club novel of all time, if you left it where it was.

    Just thinking out loud. (Dina always says I do way too much of that ;OP

    –Mac

  3. I’ve never put characters in, but I’ve certainly taken them out!

    But I’ve definitely gone back over character relationships to add extra dimensions. I never did it with the wordcount in mind, rather for the benefit of the readers and having characters with more substance.

    Still, if I had a novel stuck around 50k, you certainly offer some very good lengthening tips!

  4. I tend to be the sort that needs to slash and burn – but I’ll keep these in mind in case I ever come up short 🙂

  5. I had this very same problem, not because I’d cut any subplots, but just because my novel was 64K and my agent wanted it at 80K. Yep, I expanded scenes where I’d told/summarized things and could show, as well as two characters’ relationship/romance. I changed the ending. And I did expand on a subplot, bringing some of the action into the slower-paced first half of the book. Now it’s at 81K! I basically wrote another 1/3 of the book.

    Wow–you got to 100K. Congrats!

  6. When revising, I tend to both add scenes, and cut scenes, depending on how they affect the flow of the story.

    BTW: “Outlining your Novel” arrived recently. I think it’s exactly the book I’ve been looking for all these years. Thanks so much for writing it!

  7. @Ava: In my experience, it’s much easier to cut words, but much easier to maintain the story’s flow when you’re adding words.

    @Mac: Definitely not advocating fluff. But “completed” stories aren’t always at their maximum weight. Think about expanding a short story into a novel. Obviously, scenes will have to be added and characters explored in more depth, but, if done right, very little of it will be fluff. If you have a strong plot and interesting characters it shouldn’t be hard at all to find more of worth to say about them.

    @Miss Cole: The opportunity to deepen the characters and their relationships turned out to be one the most enjoyable and fulfilling parts.

    @Mshatch: I’ve been there, done that too!

    @Carol: Whoo! You go!

  8. @Gideon: Great! I hope you enjoy it!

  9. Good post. These are great ideas of how to expand a novel in a NON-FLUFFY way, if more length is needed (this is often a problem of mine–I tend to write 60k books in the first draft)!

  10. Adding words can actually be a lot of fun, since it allows you to more fully explore interesting facets of your characters and flesh out plot details and beats. The key, as we’ve said, is to add flesh not fluff.

  11. Great post! I’m in the middle of a rewrite now, and to be honest, I don’t know if I need to add or trim and won’t know until I finish this rewrite. But these are all wonderful tips.

  12. Maybe you’ll get lucky and won’t have to do either!

  13. Great advice, KM. I’m working on a children’s novel (it’s 15,000 but I need to get it to at least 25,000 – eeek!) but I can see your suggestions will help a lot (without any fluff too!) Thank you. 🙂

  14. Adding words without adding fluff has always been a challenge for me. Glad you blogged on this today. You gave me new ideas to explore.

  15. Ten thousand words can seem like an insurmountable mountain, but once you find a few worthy tangents of the story to expand, I bet money you’ll find it breezes past.

  16. @Lorna: Glad it came in handy! The whole adding words experience was a new one for me with this book. Usually, I’m more likely to have to chop words.

  17. My novel is currently sitting on 60,000 words, and it was even shorter when I wrote the last page. I think I am definitely going to be one of the people that have to add words rather than cut lots out. I don’t tend to add stuff in that isn’t important. However, your experience of having to remove an entire sub-plot because it wasn’t working is interesting. I do know I have two scenes which pretty much duplicate each other and one of them has got to go.

  18. Thank you! I can now die happy! I am surrounded by writer friends who’s books are long, very long, too long sometimes. Writer’s who sympathize with each other about having to cut scenes that aren’t pertinent and worrying that they’re rambling on too long. Then I look at my own works that are “Finished” at 40,000 and I don’t understand. I beg them for help, but they’re confused, because they’ve never written anything shorter than at least twice that length. I was beginning to think I was the only person in the world who’s novels were too short rather than too long.

    So, thank you! I’m apparently still sane, well, as sane as a writer can be, and now I have a very good idea of how to fix the problem that no one else can see.

  19. @Adam: In my case, the problem with the subplot was that it was taking away from the story’s main thrust and failing to support the thematic arc. It’s always a painful decision to cut words (especially multiplied by 20,000!), but when the old gut instinct insists something’s got to go, it’s got to go!

    @Katie: I used to be one of those people who were at a loss for how to help folks flesh out shorter works. This is the first book I’ve written that’s ever been underweight. So it was a new and interesting experience for me to have to figure how to add meaningful words. I’m happy I’m able to share my experience and what I learned from it with other Wordplayers!

  20. I tend to write on the short side, so word counts haven’t been a problem. There’s a natural slimness to writing for kids, which is what I do.

    I do have a hard time reading contemporary adult books now because they seem bulky and sluggish, although I enjoyed your Outlaw book and love classic lit. (i.e. Austen, Dickens, Montgomery).

    : )

  21. I’m glad you enjoyed A Man Called Outlaw (that officially makes you my Favorite Person of the Week! ;). As a reader, I really don’t have a druthers between short and long books. I want to read whatever is necessary for the author to tell the story appropriately. But, in general, if the book is well written and the characters interesting, I’d rather the author let me explore them in depth, rather than pulling me away too soon.

  22. KM, I think that’s the crux of the matter (for me, anyway and I bet I’m not Robinson Crusoe here.
    It’s so easy (when writing a story) to rush it through to get to the end. And hence the benefit of careful re-writing – expanding it and exploring characters and plot (and that goes for children’s novels too), rather than pulling the reader away too soon. 🙂
    Why do I always learn the hard way?

  23. I think the vast majority of us have to learn the hard way! On the other side of the word count coin, I remember, in writing my last book (which ended up 60k overweight), thinking, Oh, I’ll just write this subplot, and if it doesn’t work out, I can just cut it. But it’s a whole lot harder to cut a subplot after it’s integrated into the first draft than it is to just not write it in the first place. Same goes for adding words. The book will be much more organic, with much less effort, if we can get it right the first time. Alas, it doesn’t always work that way.

  24. If my first draft is too slim, whichh is my type of problem, i treat it like a detailed outline ( now i have learned how useful it is from your book) and expand it by rewriting and editing. I thought that editing can only make things slimmer, but for me it’s been the opposite so far.

  25. That’s a great way to look at it. As I discuss in the book, outlines and first drafts often have much in common anyway.

  26. My novels are typically about 10k short, but that’s because I’m focused on plot when I’m writing the first draft. Revision time is where I add character depth, scenes that provide more interpersonal connections, and more descriptive detail. I love your list, and plan on making a copy to have on my desk. I think it’ll help me organize into steps what I already do.

  27. When I read the title: “5 Fun and Easy Ways…” I thought the tips would be flimsy, e.g., “state the color of every single thing you describe,” lol, but these tips are invaluable. They’re perfect ways to expand a story in meaningful ways. Thanks so much for sharing, and being an editor too, I loved your impeccable grammar. 😀

  28. @Angela: Glad you found the list useful!

    @Lauren: Well, not that stating colors isn’t a good thing, but I think there are better ways to add words faster! 😉

  29. This post was super helpful. Most of my stories end up being way too short (30,000 words average). I’ve written one that went just over 50K, and the longest was 68K, but I recently cut it down to 65K. I’ll definitely be trying this out though!

    ~ Chy

  30. Writing stories of the correct length is largely about planning the story ahead of time and getting into the habit of filling in (and not filling in) the appropriate amount of detail. Once you get the hang of it, consistently hitting the target word count usually isn’t a problem.

  31. argh. This is always my problem. Your suggestions are perfect, and I find if I use a few beta readers to tell me what they’d like to read *more* about, that helps. Otherwise, put it away til it’s “forgotten” and then take another look.

    Good stuff! Thanks, KM~

  32. I personally usually enjoy books that are a little shorter. I like to ready tight and gripping stories, and I almost can’t bear to read through low points in a story. But maybe I’m just too impatient in that way.

    Not to say that any book at 100k will automatically have boring spots. If you managed to expand your manuscript and keep it interesting, then more power to you! Then, when it’s published and we buy your story, we’ll get more page for our buck.

  33. @LTM: Good addition! Beta readers are invaluable for offering objective opinions about where more weight is justified – and where it’s just fluff.

    @Jacob: As a reader, I like a good mix of short and long books – but I probably lean more toward the long ones. I love it when an author can skillfully delve deep into the exploration of the characters and the plot. I’m often frustrated with the lack of detail in shorter works.

  34. I was about to say I haven’t had this happen yet… then I remembered. My 2009 NaNo project is sitting at about 53K… short by 40 – 50K! I took a lot of shortcuts while outlining and drafting this project, and I know I’ve got lots of room to flex. Hopefully draft #2 will end up on the high side, so I can shave it down to the right size. 🙂

  35. Having both shaved and padded manuscripts, I can say both experiences come with their own sets of pros and cons. I may be prejudiced, since I just came off the padding version, but I think it’s the more enjoyable of the two. And I think it produced the more seamless of the two manuscripts. The shaved MS required a lot more work afterwards.

  36. Great tips for beefing up a shorter manuscript.

    Personally if it is a complete story, then it’s fine with me, even if it is short. Of course, those pesky word count guidelines just ruin all the fun. 😉

  37. I agree with you. When possible, it’s best to let the story determine its own length. In my case, not only was my story underweight as far as the word count was concerned, but it was also incomplete at 60k, so fleshing it out was an important step.

  38. My book is way too short. I’ve been revising it and adding to it, and getting closer to my target word count. This post gives me new ideas on how to expand. Thank you!

  39. You’re welcome! Happy revising.

  40. I have just realised I have a subplot in my unfinished wip that is going nowhere. So reading your blog has given me courage to reduced my sense of isolation in facing a major re-write. Thanks for sharing.

  41. Those unfinished subplots are often a goldmine of added words. They’re great for fleshing out the plot organically.

  42. I always fall short. Always.

    Thanks so much for the tips – am currently trying to fatten an ms as we speak!

  43. You’re welcome! Just feed that manuscript lots of carbs, and you’ll be fine. 😉

  44. thanks for the advice, I will print this out. I write for children, but have recently tried writing stories for adults and have the problem of writing enough words. I need to fatten up my manuscripts and have a hard time doing that, but with advice and help from people like you, I am getting better.

  45. Once we get into the habit of writing “short,” it can be quite a challenge to learn to flesh out our word counts. Kudos to you for working at it! I’m so glad the tips were helpful.

  46. I’m 40,000 words in and my goal is 50,000. My description is great (setting the scene, describing body language, sharing my characters thoughts). I added an entirely new scene with a new chapter and a few more small side scenes. That only upped my word-count 5,000 words, so I’m really looking for ways to get another 10,000 words in (I’m really aiming for that “novel” length). Your tips are great, but I wish you had more.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      You know sometimes I wish I had more tips on this subject myself. 😉 But these are the ones I’ve personally found effective in creating meaningful added content.

  47. Great article. I’m always coming up short on a novel and since many publishers have rules on word counts, it’s always quite tough to just let a story be finished if the word count comes up short.

    I always find I’m 20-30k short! (I know, right? Crazy) Even if I have lots of characters/plot/detail in the planning. Obviously I need to get into that nitty gritty a little bit more!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Whenever I find myself coming up short in word, I find that it’s usually the result of either too little happening in the plot, or, more likely, not enough internal narrative on the part of the POV character. Those are always the first places I look.

  48. Thank you so much, I’m at 190 pages and I need 225 for the publisher and I got serious writers block, this helped a lot, and once again, thanks

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Nothing more frustrating than realizing you’ve told your story – and it’s just not long enough! But it’s also fun to get to dive back in and flesh thing out.

  49. thank you! This was exactly what I was looking for! I do not at all think its adding “fluff.” Many publishers seem to want at least “x” amount of words and when you fall short, you need to reevaluate whats keeping your story from being a novel. I think this is a wonderful list of ways to force yourself further into your story.

    Once again. THANK YOU!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Stories need to be the length they need to be. But there are almost always legitimate ways to ease them toward a word count goal.

  50. Hello. Excuse me, but I’m a young writer interested in writing fantasy and dystopian style novels… I was wondering if you had any tips? Thanks in advance if you do.

  51. Oh, yeah. I have a cat burglar thriller that I thought was “complete” at 65K words. But when I went to shop it around I found out quickly that it needed another 20K words. What I did was to take a scene from book three in the series, another heist, and fold it into the original story, which then gave me the opportunity to have my protagonist get in more trouble, even getting set up for a murder she didn’t commit. My story ended up stronger in the long run– and it was a whole lot of fun to rewrite!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of the good things about writing a series is that they give you a lot more fluidity in word count, since you can often move certain events from book to book without affecting the flow of either story too much.

  52. Viola June says

    This is pretty much the post I have been waiting for my entire writing career (Or, preliminary practice to writing a decent book, call it what you will). All of your posts are extremely helpful, but this is by far my favorite. Thanks so much!

  53. Sara Baptista says

    Thank you for the tips, I am definitely going to “Deepen connections between characters” and “Dramatize Summaries”

    I remember reading this post 2 years ago, when my dark fantasy novel was in 70k words. Then I rewrite it, make it to 90k, the plot sucked, I rewrited again, and now is an anorexic story with 60k. At least, I prefer to fill up a story then shave one ^^

  54. Halle King says

    Oh boy. I’m not so good at writing (still in high school, but I’ve been told I write better than my English teacher who he was in college) and my books come in at a meager 10k words (ack!). I love writing and I wanna go somewhere with my stories. This really helps me.

  55. I so appreciate your advice, realism, and humor in this article. Fleshing out my novella doesn’t sound as scary now. Thank you so much!

  56. Yes, I ended up cutting out a terrible subplot and a chapter that really had no point off being there.

  57. This is my biggest problem. I listen to authors who have to cut liberally, and I’m short on word count. I tend to write my first draft sparingly, and then have to go back and put in the meat. Another area I find I’m often short on is description. As my editor says, “I don’t know what anyone looks like.” (which can also be tricky to do without intruding!) The points you’ve highlighted are spot on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The good news is that adding description can drastically increase your word count.

Trackbacks

  1. […] polishing, and revising, and that, as they say, is another story, and another posting. See also : 5 Fun and Easy Ways to Lengthen Word Count ; Why Word Count Goals Can Be […]

  2. […] are a few tips from writer  K. M. Weiland. She suggests adding characters. Not for the sake of filling space. You want the characters to […]

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