Last time I spoke about word counts, and what to do if your book is generally outside the appropriate range for a salable debut novel. In this post, I’m going to give some tips for expanding on stories that are significantly shorter than you want them to be.

A couple lines here and there:

Show don’t tell. Telling, at its absolute best, is a short-cut. By showing instead, not only do you make a more convincing argument for whatever you’re trying to convey, but you also tend to get a bit more story out of it. “Jack is a chill bro” is one sentence. Showing Jack acting like a chill bro garners a few sentences here and there, which begin to add up.

Edna, have you seen the setting? I could have sworn I left it right here.

Ground your dialogue. Check for talking heads. Long strings of untagged dialogue is not only hard to follow, but also presents a missed opportunity. Physical grounding lets you establish your setting and provide insight into the characters without large blocks of exposition. And, when you weave description into your dialogue, you’ll also pick up a few words.

Fill in absent descriptions. Go back and see if you’ve forgotten to describe anything. If there are important people, places, and (sufficiently unusual) things completely without description, weave in *a couple* of clues about how the reader should perceive them. Note that this is in the “lines” section, and not the “paragraphs” one. Description will serve your word count, but your main focus should be making it serve your story.

A few more paragraphs:

Brave sir, sally forth and slay the beast in as many words as possible.

Get in scene. Check for summary narration. This is when a few actions are summed up in a line or two. An example is: “Lucy decapitated the Raxgnor and looted its lair.” In some cases, such as transitions, summary narration moves along your story. In others, where important actions occur, you want to get in scene. This means showing each thing as it happens with specific, concrete details. So, to use the example, you would show Lucy winding up to swing her sword, any resistance from the Raxgnor, the killing blow, how the monster actually falls, the way she heroically sheaths her sword in its limp body, how she searches the lair and what she finds. Half a line can be expanded into several paragraphs.

Entire scenes:

Work with the plot and characters you have. Look for things that didn’t get a lot of development, or things that your readers have said they would like to see more of. These are places where you can expand a bit, either by making the scenes that deal with them longer or by adding a few extra scenes that allow you to develop your story. If you can write a scene that provides new information and gives the reader insight into the story, it probably belongs in your book.

Fill in scenes that you’ve skipped. If you’ve got any points where the story fades to black, minor time jumps, or other scenes that get glossed over, you may benefit from revisiting them. For instance, we see Jane follow Alice out of the party from Jane’s POV. The next thing that we see is Jane leading Alice back into the party. Whatever they said to one another does not appear.  If their conversation is important, consider writing it out and including it in the story rather than simply alluding to the fact that it happened.

Make sure that it’s sufficiently difficult for the characters to reach their goals. One reason your story may be short is because your characters don’t need to work very hard. Go back and see what happens if you make shit hit the fan a bit more often. Not only will this give you a few extra scenes in which your characters can develop, grow, and apply creative problem solving, but you’ll also up the tension and danger.

When I grow up, I want to be a fantasy novel. Or a tabloid.

Major structural changes:

Consider the scope. If you don’t believe that you could possibly add another scene and everything is as fleshed out as you can make it without explaining whether your main character is a boxers or briefs kind of guy, you may be having a scope issue. The scope of the story is, essentially, how big the story is. It’s difficult to tell a story spanning centuries or covering an entire planet in a piece of flash fiction. Likewise, it’s just as hard to stretch two characters sharing a quick cup of coffee into a novel. Consider how many characters you have, how big your world is, how much time the story covers, what the stakes are, and  how complicated the plot is.

Expanding the world, adding characters, or introducing subplots always makes the story longer. However, in order to add these things, you should be prepared to do major revisions. As with extra scenes, everything that you add to the story should provide new insight. If a character or subplot can be introduced without changing anything, there’s a good chance that it slows down the story without adding much.


Do not add filler. Filler doesn’t serve your story. This is the extra characters, fluff scenes, and meandering subplots that take up space without actually moving the story forwards. Filler will make your story longer, but it will also weaken it on the whole. In terms of craft, it’s never worth it to sacrifice quality for length.

Who writes short shorts? We write short shorts.

Your story may not be a novel, and that’s okay. Sometimes the scope of a story lends itself to a shorter format.  Sometimes a story belongs in a shorter format, is much stronger for it. If you have enough plot for a tense, fast paced novella—unless you’re under contract or else depending on this novel for your next paycheck—there’s no reason why you shouldn’t write the novella. The same for short stories. If you’ve got 5k and you want 50, don’t sweat it. Great things have come out of short stories. Write your story to be the length that it ought to be.

Come back Friday for Help! My book is too long!