All writers fall into one of two categories: overwriters and underwriters. Editing as an overwriter can be pretty agonizing, as you have to line up your darlings against a wall and get out the shotgun. Underwriters don’t have it any easier, though. By the time you’ve wrapped up your story… it’s done. So what if your “novel” came in at 40k?* The story is done.
If you’re an underwriter, first, know that there is no inherent shame in short work. It’s okay if you thought it was a novel, but it turns out it was a novella. There’s nothing superior about a huge word count–especially considering that most novels with epic wordcount could stand to hit the gym, even the ones by brilliant authors.
But if you’re getting feedback that your stories are rushed, thin, or you suspect you need to unpack (or you’re writing epic fantasy), here’s how to expand your story without setting yourself up for major rewrites:
* PS. 40k words is technically a novel, according to the standards for most professional awards boards… Hugo, Nebula, Paris, RITA, BFA, etc.
1. Don’t add filler.
This is always the wrong move. How do you know it’s not filler? Check the scene and make sure it ticks all three of these boxes:
- It reveals new information.
- It moves the plot forward.
- It illuminates character.
Every scene you write needs to do all three of these things, otherwise it’s not pulling its weight. Either axe it, or combine it with another scene.
2. Show, don’t tell.
As far as writing advice goes, I think this one can be wildly abused, especially by overwriters–but for underwriters, it can be very helpful. Look for places in your manuscript where you briefly summarize an event or a conversation. Not all of these things will be significant enough to unpack, but you’ll probably find a few in there that you rushed past in favor of the upcoming plot point you were excited to get onto paper.
Here’s a few lines from my novel, A Sword for Chaos, modified to suit an underwriter’s style:
A gate guard woke Gideon at midnight with news that there was trouble at the tower. Gideon rolled out of bed and rushed down the stairs, pulling his armor on as he went.
And the unpacked version:
Someone shook Gideon awake just after midnight. He opened his eyes with a start, reaching reflexively for his sword.
A militia soldier stood by the bunk, lantern in hand. The light cast the man’s long shadow against the gatehouse wall. “Milord, something’s happened at the tower.”
Gideon was out of the bunk in seconds, pulling his shirt on over his head. “How many?”
“How many?” The soldier’s thick eyebrows drew together. “I don’t—”
“Dead. How many dead?” Gideon shoved his feet into his boots and snatched his sword from where it lay on the bed. “Did she kill any of her guards?”
The soldier shook his head. “No, no—it isn’t that. The tower guard flashed us the signal for an intruder not half a minute ago. I know nothing else, but I don’t think she’s killed anyone. We’d know, wouldn’t we?” The man’s eyes were wide. “If she killed someone, we’d know?”
Gideon buckled the sword to his belt and slid into his black leather cuirass, leaving the shoulder strap dangling. Who would be mad enough to make an attempt on the tower? There were many with reason to wish Serahvyn dead, perhaps enough to risk facing her guards. But enough to risk facing her?
Grabbing his white Guardian cloak from a peg on the wall, he slung it about his shoulders and descended the gatehouse stairs three at a time.
We just added a good 200 words to the scene. Not bad. In addition to that, we got a bit of worldbuilding in there, and a little more information about what’s going on–which is almost always a good thing. On your reader, a confused expression isn’t a good look. “What the hell is going on?” will never serve you as well as “What will happen next?”
Not every summarized event is going to warrant being unpacked. There are few things more tiresome than a writer going into detail about every single mundane event, regardless of significance. When you’re editing an underwritten manuscript, examine each summarized event and consider… can I use this as an opportunity to reveal new information about the world or the characters involved?
And this leads us to our next point:
3. Set the scene.
A scene or chapter break usually includes a jump in time or place, so at or near the beginning of each scene, you’ll take a line or three to orient the reader to where and when the events are taking place. If you’re a very concise writer, you probably do this very quickly and efficiently.
Here’s the first paragraph from a scene in A Sword for Chaos, edited to suit an underwriter:
Vadry’s funeral was held the next morning. When the ceremony concluded, Gideon and Taylem waited outside the mausoleum gates as the other Guardians dispersed to their morning’s tasks.
“Have they announced Vadry’s death in the city?” Gideon asked.
That does its job. The significant part of this scene is the interaction between Gideon and Taylem, not the funeral itself. However, this isn’t the opening scene of the book, so beginning in media res isn’t critical, and a scene that begins with very bare summary can have a very vague, ungrounded feeling. We know we’re at a mausoleum, and that it has a gate, but that’s pretty much it. You don’t need to describe the engravings on the stonework, or the exact color of the soil next to the mausoleum where the runoff from the roof has spilled down (though if you’d like to, I won’t judge)… but it’s generally a good idea to at least sketch out a physical location. Give your reader something concrete to picture.
Here’s the same scene from A Sword for Chaos, with a bit more scene-setting:
The next morning dawned quietly beneath the thick haze of a persistent fog. Tendrils of mist curled about the Keep mausoleum like a damp shroud as a line of Guardians gathered to consecrate Vadry to the Lady. Moss and crawling vines clung to the dark, damp stone. The domed ceiling was held aloft by pillars, and iron braziers flickered around the base of each one, casting long shadows and cutting through the morning chill.
After the ceremony concluded, Gideon and Taylem stood solemnly beside the mausoleum’s wide iron gate. The other Guardians departed to their duties. A handful of Brethren arrived to prepare for the interment of Taylem’s Watcher, the only recent death that had come about by natural causes.
“Have they announced Vadry’s death in the city?” Gideon asked.
That added about a hundred words to this scene, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you take the time to briefly set the scene every time you change locations, that wordcount starts to add up.
The exception to this is when you’re starting out in the middle of action. A Sword for Chaos has a scene that opens as someone is in midair, literally falling off a cliff. To stop at this point and comment on the color of the leaves and the specific time of day would be a little ridiculous. Use your judgement, and when the story allows it, paint a picture–even a brief one–for your reader.
Now, if you’re a gamer, like me, you’ve immediately started to think how to maximize your scene-setting…
3. Add locations
Two things, more than anything else, will add significant wordcount to a manuscript–more characters, and more settings. Assuming you’re just trying to plump up a sparse manuscript, and not looking for a major rewrite, adding new settings is going to be a lot easier than adding a new character.
The point isn’t to create entirely new scenes in order to populate these new locations, it’s to take scenes that are set in familiar or nondescript settings and take them somewhere new that makes sense within the context of your story. Phone conversation in the car on the way home from work? How about a grocery store, instead? Two characters having an important scene back at the apartment you’ve already described? Try a restaurant. The more new locations you introduce (rather than going back again and again to the same ones), the more opportunities you will have to make your novel feel more vivid and real… and get a few thousand extra words while you’re at it.
Obviously, you don’t want your character to seem like she’s running around like a maniac, so these location changes need to feel natural to both character and story. You will most likely need to reuse some locales–people don’t tend to move house or change workplaces every day–but even when you’re returning to a familiar place, you don’t want to omit the details altogether. Take a line or two to remind your reader of where you are, and what that place looks like.
If you originally described someone’s apartment as being a complete mess (in more words than that, hopefully)… have your character kick aside an empty Chinese food carton when she returns, and maybe shove over a pile of unfolded laundry before sitting down.
If you’ve described the inside of the wizard’s tower in an earlier scene, with a crow on its perch by the window, a shelf full of old, dusty books, and a table full of alchemical equipment–just briefly remind us by having the crow caw at the viewpoint character as they enter the room, or make note of some dark liquid bubbling in a vial over a flame.
Now, I want to warn you… this is all going to feel a little weird when you first start doing it. The sentences and paragraphs will feel a little too long. And they might be. You might have blown past Hemingway and gone full Faulkner on your manuscript. Chances are that you haven’t, but since you’re used to writing short, any extra wordage is going to feel unnatural at first. For this very reason, keep this step as part of the edits, rather than trying to fold it into your drafting process. Get the first draft out just as you normally would, then look for the following:
Summarized events or conversations you can unpack.
Scenes you haven’t set.
Boring or too-familiar locations.
Pay attention to how authors you admire handle scene-setting, and how far they unpack their events. Eventually, you’ll get a feel for these things, and you’ll start writing them in the first time around, instead of ending up with a first draft that skipped leg day AND arm day AND all the other days…