Confession time, I’m an underwriter. I write my first drafts fast, so they tend to resemble orange concentrate. They’re strong, sugary, and if sculled, they’ll make your eyes water. However, my second draft is all water. This draft is about threading in multiple POVs (if applicable), subplots, descriptions and sensory details, all of which increase the word count.
(If you’d prefer to watch the video version of this blog, click this link)
To keep things in perspective, long books are not necessarily good books. In fact, many beloved classics are skinny minnies. The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein, The Stranger, The Metamorphosis and Slaughterhouse-five…so it goes… are lean mean fighting machines. So, don’t get too hung up on word count, maybe your story is just a short(er) story.
But, if you suspect that there is room for improvement, and there’s always room for improvement, give some of these suggestions a whirl.
Although this blog is geared towards genre fiction, I do have one suggestion for the literary folks among us. If your masterpiece is running on the thin side and you’d like to increase the word count, find a few contemporary literary works that are similar in theme, structure or moods to your WIP. (I say contemporary works because we are living in the here and now and not 18th century England.) Start deconstructing these sister novels and examine how the author has organised events, handled pacing and the overall plot structure. Congratulations! You now have a nifty mud map (or several) which you can use as a guide for the crafting of your own project.
Note: I’m not encouraging you to plagiarise a Pulitzer Prize-winning plot, this exercise is all about gathering clues as to how you could improve the structure of YOUR novel.
Now, on to genre fiction!
It’s unlikely that all of the below suggestions will be applicable to you, but if your manuscript reads a little hollow, consider filling it up with at least a few of these goodies.
Subplots are the most obvious antidote to narrow novel syndrome…hence why I made this the first suggestion. 😉
If your first draft resembles orange concentrate, it’s probably because you were super focused on nailing out your major plot points. And that’s fine, but a story is not literally one story, it needs layers. Your cast of characters can’t be striving for one goal and they can’t be juggling one single problem…because that’s not juggling, it’s just holding…
Basically, other shit needs to be happening.
Subplots are a great way to give your minor characters something to do and this can assist in the drawing out of tension. Let’s say the protagonist has been abducted by the antagonist, rather than having them escape within a couple of pages, you can drag out the tension by including scenes where the minor characters have gone on a quest of their own, seeking the knowledge or weapons they need in order to save their friend.
If you’re writing crime, fantasy or adventure, consider including a romantic subplot and if you’re writing romance, consider giving your characters a problem to fix. This will improve believability as readers will see your couple working and strategizing together, and well… they’re gonna have to put their pants on at some stage and if you want to keep your reader engaged, the couple needs to be doing other interesting activities.
Ideally, rather than being its own distinct narrative, a subplot should support or complement the primary plot. For example, let’s say the hero falls for the love interest while out on their quest. It’s totally okay to include some lighter scenes and smooches, but it can’t be all sunshine and rainbows. By falling in love, your once loner hero now has something to lose, and as the writer, you need to take advantage of that. Which leads me to my next point…
Add more obstacles and turn the protagonist’s life into a living hell
If your story is coming up short, maybe you haven’t included enough obstacles. A character arch should be comprised of multiple obstacles that challenge the character physically, mentally and emotionally. It is in the overcoming of these obstacles that your character grows and develops. It also makes their successes that much sweeter, because there ain’t no sugar in easy victories…the protagonist needs to climb mountains, slay dragons and defeat giants before he can have a break and munch on his kit-kat.
Explaining key concepts or plot points
If you’re an underwriter, chances are you’ve ploughed through that first draft at lightning speed dedicating mere sentences to the explaining of key concepts and plot points. How did the detective know that the protagonist was abducted? How did they know they were being held hostage in a flea-bag hotel? Why does your hero even like the love interest? Do they have anything in common, besides being total babes? Read through your manuscript, or enlist the help of beta readers, and search for scenes that require additional information. Fast pacing is good for tension, but there’s nothing good about gaping plot hole, shallow characters or confused readers.
Add another point of view
If you’re writing a first-person narrative, this obviously isn’t going to be relevant to you, but if you’re using close third person or omniscient read on.
Even if you’re using close third person, you can still tell the narrative through multiple characters. When I initially wrote my novel, it was all from one character’s perspective, then I realised that the novel would be more interesting and complex if I included a second character perspective. Now the novel is split 60/40 with alternating viewpoint chapters. Obviously, if you are using an omniscient viewpoint, then this step is even easier. Consider reading through each scene slowly, and look for opportunities to include the interesting observations, opinions or reflections from your extensive cast.
Show don’t tell
I’m not going to describe the difference between showing and telling, because you’re a bad-ass writer and you probably already have this tattooed on your forearm. However, if you suspect that this may be one of the issues in your manuscript, then consider printing out your novel and highlighting all instances of telling. Obviously, there are instances where telling is better than showing, but if your highlighter has run dry by the end of this activity, then we got a problem.
Setting the scene
If you were super focussed on “getting the story out” during the drafting phase, you may have skimped on the setting. You don’t need to include an establishing shot at the start of every scene or chapter, but your reader does need to know where your characters are and have some sense of where this scene fits into the timeline; you can do this by including phrases such as later that day or a few hours later.
If you’re writing a fantasy novel and the story takes place in an alternative world, then you need to describe that world. But for the love of Tolkien, do not spend twenty pages describing gardens and building or religious beliefs and political systems. If you haven’t heard, our attention spans are shortening and no one likes an info dump. The learning curve within a fantasy novel can be steep, but if you thread relevant information organically and in bite-sized chunks, you’re less likely to overwhelm the reader.
Descriptions are important in all contemporary genres, but because the narrative is set in this world, you don’t need to describe everything. If you hate description, you can use this to full advantage by setting your scenes in super ordinary, mundane and familiar locations. For example, you could have one of your scenes set on a plane. You don’t need to describe the pale grey trays, rowed seating or the teeny tiny bathroom, because we all know what planes look like! You don’t have to describe the location in detail, but you do have to situate the reader by telling them that the character is on a plane.
Hooky first sentence and nail-biting cliff-hangers
This step may not add that many words, but if you apply this strategy to every chapter it will have an accumulative effect, plus it improves narrative tension. As I’ve already mentioned, our attention spans are shortening and with so many entertainment options at our disposal, our job as writers is to do everything we can to keep the readers’ attention. By starting each chapter with a great hook and finishing it with a nail-biting cliff-hanger, you are building some killer narrative drive that is going to keep the reader buckled to their seat.
This is probably the biggest tip! The best way to pull your reader into a story is to ground them in the character’s body using sensory description. Sight is the easiest of the sensory details and you’re probably including plenty of visual description anyway, so I’m not going to unpack this one. Try to include the other sensory details like sounds (not dialogue), tastes, touch, and smell. Dean Wesley Smith says he rotates through all five senses every five pages, that’s one sensory detail on every page.
Zero in on the feeling of different textures, gravely roads, silky jackets, a warm mug of coffee. Include sounds from the surrounding environment, traffic, nature, music, silence or even ringing ears. Taste can be a harder one to pull off if your character isn’t eating or drinking, but you can do it. If your character is in a fight scene they could get punched and have the metallic taste of blood in their mouth. If the hero is making out with the love interest, you could describe the taste of tobacco or beer…your hero is pretty kick ass like that.
Include second level action
Consider increasing your word count by inserting elements of a subplot into a scene that is focussed on the central narrative. Imagine the hero is about to enter an epic battle and their love interest decides to reveal some massive secret, “So, remember how we bonded over being orphans? Turns out we’re actually siblings. I mean, what are the chances?” Not only will this add to your word count, but it will elevate tension, add complexity to the scene and raise a whole bunch of new questions.
Alternatively, you can use the environment as your second level action. Maybe you have a scene where two characters are strategizing over how to solve a particular problem. The dialogue may be engaging, but imagine how interesting the scene would be if you shifted it out of the safe environment of a library and into a motorcycle rally. Your characters can be dodging bikes and feeling the burn of unwelcomed stares as they hunt down the gnarly dude who sells nifty maps of the underworld.
Work on your characters
Do your characters feel real? Do they have depth? Are they complex? Does the reader have any real sense of who they are? Do you? If you haven’t taken the time to construct character profiles for your cast…consider doing that…right now. If you need a little help getting started, check out this blog and video. Once you start including character details like mannerism and relevant internal expositions, your word count will start to increase real quick.
There you have it, ten ways you can fatten up your manuscript. Now, go forth and start shovelling spoonfuls of delicious and nutritionally dense words into your skinny manuscripts gullet. Hmm, that was kind of gross. Sorry.