Recently, a correspondent wrote to me expressing concern over the fact that she had finished her book: it was aimed at a particular publisher but it was too short. This is not unusual; a number of publishers stipulate a minimum word-count. The old adage that a story is as long as it takes cuts no ice where minimum and maximum word-counts are concerned.
However, no reader wants to wade through prose that’s there for no good reason, words that do not serve the story.
So how can you actually add words without resorting to padding? Well, you could try one or more of the following suggestions:
1) Have you got a sub-plot? Most novels are sustained by the presence of one or more sub-plots. These can involve minor characters or the protagonist’s circle of loved ones. The sub-plot has to move forward too, however, and may even heighten the conflict for the protagonist. If you haven’t done so, think about injecting a sub-plot.
2) Is the sub-plot adequate? So you’ve got a sub-plot (or more), but are they doing enough? Does the sub-plot have the same depth of emotion and intensity as the main plot? Is it raising the suspense or threat to the protagonist? Add more depth, maybe.
3) Characters’ descriptions. Some writers – and readers – are happy to go with minimal or no character description. Yet description helps create character. The way they look, the clothes they wear tell us something about them. And description helps the reader get immersed in the story, ‘seeing’ the images better. This doesn’t mean you have to opt for a shopping list, showing what the protagonist and others are wearing, though that can work from a certain character viewpoint (say, an observant detective). Clothes, complexion and eyes – all add colour in the mind’s eye of the reader.
4) Emotional responses. Our characters are all emotional creatures; they respond to what happens to them: or should. Too often I’ve read an early manuscript that throws many an obstacle at the protagonist and all he or she does is ‘sigh’. Emotional responses involve an internal and an external physical manifestation, whether that’s the empty feeling in a stomach or the sweat of palms.
5) Scene descriptions. If any kind of interaction between characters is involved in a particular scene, then the reader should have a mental image of that place – be it a room, a railway carriage or a stagecoach. Have you done enough scene description? Can the reader ‘see’ where the characters are in relation to each other? This is particularly important in fight scenes.
6) The senses. We all know we should use all our senses when characters experience their world. But do we? Have your characters done so? Besides adding depth, using the senses adds another layer of believability, and further involves the reader.
7) Dramatic scenes. I’ve come across more than a few scenes that lend themselves to dramatic interpretation, but they’re over before they’ve begun. Of course you can’t describe every scene in a dramatic context. But where two characters conflict verbally or physically, then ensure that you’ve gleaned all you can from this – the protagonist’s emotional responses, any additional conflict that arises from counter-arguments or blows, and so on.
8) Show, not tell. There are times when the story needs to move forward faster, usually past those boring bits, but don’t ignore the fact that by showing the reader how your protagonist feels in any given situation involves the reader more than simply telling what the character feels. Dig into your character’s emotional responses to the events they encounter.
9) Enliven the flab. There may be some flab that’s necessary to describe what’s going on. Bring these sections to life with metaphor, improved choice of words, and perhaps by personalising the description from a character’s point of view.
10) Examine the ending. In many instances, the endings can be rushed. You’ve got to the end and you want to be finished with the story. Don’t rush it – but don’t linger longer than necessary. But ensure that you’ve employed all the above ploys in the ending; in other words, be certain that you haven’t skimped.
All of the above suggestions will increase the word-count. But these extra words have to work too. The writing has to remain tight, where every word counts – towards a story of clarity, where character and scene live for the reader.
That’s the long and short of it.