Mar 26 2012

13 Ways to Develop a Story That’s Too Short

Published by at 10:40 pm under Plotting,Writing Articles

If you haven’t yet reached your word-goal for your novel (probably 80-100,000 words for a professional-length manuscript or 50,000 for NaNoWriMo), here are some ideas for making your book longer without just dragging it out.


1. Add a new complication. If something goes wrong with what your characters have already done or are doing, it will take them time to resolve the complications. I would recommend using this extra space to develop characters and/or advance the plot and/or raise the stakes. For example, in the Hunger Games series, the main character (spoiler) survives a Rollerball-style death match, but her new fame makes her a symbol of a brewing rebellion and puts her family at risk of government reprisal. Before, (only) her life was at stake, but it gets even worse for her.


2. Add intermediate scenes, ideally fleshing out character development and/or smoothing out the plot with necessary details. If you’re inserting a scene between A and B, it should add something you didn’t have before.


3. Add another goal or a change of goal for a major character.


4. Expand scenes you’ve glossed over. For example, if Silence of the Lambs had been shortened by paring back the conversations between the main character and side-antagonist Hannibal Lecter, the plot would probably have been much less interesting. In this case, additional material with a side character developed a main character and gave the main character a few tantalizing scraps of information with which to accomplish her goal (find the main antagonist before he killed again).

5. Let the villain make a major play, affecting the heroes’ plan and/or prompting a response by the heroes. For example, if your team of superheroes is trying to find Dr. Nefarious, what is Nefarious doing in the mean-time? Especially if the team has made a major choice, you can use the villain to show that there are consequences to the heroes’ actions. (For example, maybe the team decides to look for him in mainly City X, but he actually attacks City Y, causing the team’s leaders and/or residents of City Y to second-guess the team and/or become a lot less helpful).


6. Add a side-arc. In superhero stories, popular examples include romances, notable inter-group conflicts, anything major going on in the heroes’ day jobs and/or daily lives, and any other character goals besides saving the world and/or beating up the villains, etc. As always, please develop characters and/or advance the main plot with this space. For example, the ambiguous romance between the two main characters in the Hunger Games novels affects their ability to survive and draw support from outside sources.


7. Complicate the villain situation. Instead of just one villain and perhaps his henchmen, maybe we have multiple villains vying for power, antagonists that aren’t actually villainous, a major conflict between a hero and a non-antagonist, a villainous mole on a superhero team, etc.


8. Add side-characters and/or spend more space on them to develop the main characters and/or the main plot. For example, in The Incredibles, Edna develops the setting by showing us how superheroes in this world think and work. (She says no to a cape because it’s impractical and will lead to gruesome accidents). She’s hilarious to boot. If side-characters don’t develop the main characters and/or the main plot in some way, they’re probably diluting the story (which, by the way, isn’t a huge problem for now–just finish your manuscript and then worry about perfecting it).


9. Make the supervillain’s plot more complex. Some aspects you might consider:

  • There are multiple steps to the plan, possibly with connections that don’t necessarily make sense to the heroes. For example, if a villain has broken out of prison and has assassinated two people, the heroes might want to figure out who else might be on the hit list and/or what the villain’s goal is.
  • The villain has framed somebody (a hero, a side-character, or another criminal) to conceal his guilt and/or create a conflict between the hero and a third party.
  • The villain uses a former associate or a dupe as a fall guy. This could be to help the villain survive and/or avoid the attention of the heroes/police and/or to wrap up a loose end that would have been inconvenient for whatever reason.
  • The villain makes use of some other red herring, causing the heroes to run down false leads because they don’t know what the villain’s actual goal is.
  • Betrayals! Not just for Risk. For example, maybe you put your villain in a situation where an associate is too much trouble to save and/or is suddenly not worth saving. In the X-Men movies, Magneto casts aside Mystique after she gets de-mutated, which leads her to give some useful information to the authorities.
  • Maybe there’s a social component to the villain’s plan (like sowing discord among the heroes). That will probably be more complex and involved than if the villain just rushes in like Doomsday.
  • A villain wavers. If a villain has second thoughts, it will probably take extra time to resolve his doubts one way or the other.
  • The villain forces the hero to make a difficult choice and/or struggles with a choice.


10. Add a noncombat scene between the hero and main antagonist. If so, please make this deeper and more interesting than the villain threatening, the hero standing tall and the villain slinking away, okay? If your first thought was to have the hero ask “Is that a threat?”, I’d recommend checking out Dostoyevski, Kafka, Silence of the Lambs, Watchmen, maybe Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 12 Angry Men, the Batman/Joker/Harvey Dent triangle in Dark Knight, any story where the conflict is mainly social rather than physical (e.g. Mean Girls), etc.


11. Maybe the plot prompts characters to try something new, either temporarily or long-term. For example, in Jump Street 21, the jock cop (rather than his nerdy partner) takes advanced science courses. There’s probably more dramatic potential here than there would be for the nerd because the obstacles are harder for the jock to overcome.


12. Develop something unusual about the background and/or setting. For example, Arkham Asylum is one of the most memorable places in Batman’s universe. Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley helped introduce readers to Rowling’s world of wizards in an impressively immersive way. Besides Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University, where else could you find a Head of Inadvisably Applied Magic or an Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography?


13. As a last resort, maybe spend more time developing a character’s capabilities? Just make sure you advance the plot and/or develop key character traits–the capabilities by themselves are probably not terribly interesting. 

  • Mental activities, particularly in a story heavy on investigation and/or searching.
  • How does your Peter Parker go from a neophyte with superpowers to the sort of guy that can plausibly web across town without splattering himself on the pavement?
  • Training scenes? Ideally, keep the stakes high and, as always, advance the plot and/or develop key character traits.  For example, you could use training scenes to develop conflicts between teammates. That will also help develop the traits which led to the conflicts.

In the last Hunger Games book, a character is perturbed by a tactic that is brought up in training. When a similar tactic is used to kill a loved one, the character wonders whether the murder was actually carried out by ostensible allies. The training scene raises questions in our mind about what actually happened during the murder and helps develop a contrast between the character in question and his/her allies.

16 responses so far

16 Responses to “13 Ways to Develop a Story That’s Too Short”

  1. Matton 27 Mar 2012 at 11:00 am

    I’m working on revisions for a novel right now. It’s a little shorter than I want it to be, and I’m using several of these techniques to fill in some of the gaps.

    The real danger here is just “adding filler” to stretch out your story. I think what B. Mac had to say is important: these extra scenes should be used to develop a character; they should say SOMETHING about your protagonist and supporting characters.

  2. crescon 27 Mar 2012 at 5:01 pm

    Excellent post. I recall some instances of Conan taking time to learn how to throw weapons, initially knives, then battle axes. This training led to a side story where he resolves a conspiracy and takes a new skill away with him. He also downs a guy with an axe from horseback; wow!

    More recently in the video game Arkham City while doing the Altered Reality missions. It has nothing to do with the main plot but it shows you some of the tools the protagonists uses to resolve conflicts.

  3. YoungAuthoron 27 Mar 2012 at 7:13 pm

    @Cresc- Arkham city!!! 😀 😀 😀 i just bought that game and I’m using it to work with one of my characters fight scenes.

    I personally have used almsot all of these in my story (minus some of the complex villain ones.) I find that they do indeed make the story much longer and in fact much more interesting and sophisticated.

    Happy writing and be sure to check out my review forum 🙂

  4. Nightwireon 28 Mar 2012 at 8:45 am

    Terry Pratchett is exceptionally adept at #12. I always adore his world-building ability.

  5. Grenacon 31 Mar 2012 at 7:44 pm

    This list is very useful for (among other things) NaNo, to up the wc without it just being meaningless drabble.

  6. Anion 10 Apr 2012 at 1:19 pm

    This is a very interesting list, but I have the opposite problem, due to my writing four parts to a chapter, each from the POV of one member of a two or three person team, my story is REALLY long. I am 30K in, and, well, I have yet to have any of them meet. This thing is going to be really long, probably a little over 100K.

  7. B. McKenzieon 10 Apr 2012 at 1:44 pm

    100,000 words is fine for a first draft. When you have the first draft completed, it will be easier to see which scenes do not contribute as much and can be removed. My initial impression is that I’d be more concerned about main characters which take more than 30,000 words to meet* than whether the story might get a bit over 100,000 words.

    *If the characters aren’t interacting together, it could raise coherence issues–does it feel like these characters are part of the same story, or are they just off doing their own thing?

  8. Anion 13 Apr 2012 at 9:28 am

    They’re not independent of one another, all of their stories affect everyone else’s stories, and actually, one of the stories is the quest to find one of the other characters. It’s hard to explain, but according to people who read it over as I go, mostly because I like the feedback, it makes sense and is easy to follow. So *shrugs*. They’ll all be meeting soon, but I still have a bit more to add before they do.

    It’s definitely all the same story though. *nods* Definitely. That’s the one thing I was worried about the most when writing it. I think it’s just the four POV characters, they tend to have stuff they do that is all very important, so it’s hard to cut back on it. Oh well, that’s what second drafts are for.

  9. YellowJujuon 16 May 2012 at 9:29 pm

    Hi, I’m new to writing so I don’t know the basics yet. I know this thread is about making stories shorter but what I wanna know is how to make them LONGER. In my book I havent written that much (like 2600 words) but I feel like I’ve gotten far in the story.

  10. YellowJujuon 17 May 2012 at 7:58 am

    How do I prolong what I’ve written?

  11. B. McKenzieon 17 May 2012 at 8:13 am

    “I know this thread is about making stories shorter but what I wanna know is how to make them LONGER.” I don’t understand… This article is about how to lengthen stories (and how to write material which will add to the story). I think this is the article you’re looking for.

  12. YellowJujuon 17 May 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Sorry. I am so fail. I thought the title said how to shorten…forgive my epic failure.

  13. B. McKenzieon 17 May 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Heh, no worries. Right around the same time I wrote this article, I wrote a complementary article (How to Shorten a Novel Manuscript Which Is Too Long)–if I were scanning through search results, I could definitely see myself confusing the two.

  14. YellowJujuon 17 May 2012 at 4:40 pm

    Oh! That’s the one I saw but I posted on this one! haha

  15. Anonymouson 15 Nov 2013 at 9:18 am

    Thank you! i have a relatively short book this will most definitely help.

  16. Andrewon 26 Sep 2016 at 1:40 am

    This is very helpful. I’m gonna make note of these

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