Last week, I discussed how to trim lengthy manuscripts. Today, I’d like to take a look at the opposite problem—manuscripts that are too short. What happens when you’ve fallen far short of your target word count? No one wants to add unnecessary scenes or fluff that would ruin the story. But manuscripts do need to be at a marketable length, so how can you flesh out the story in order to make it work?
This is a problem I’ve personally experienced before. I tend to write short first drafts—meaning, I often write down only the essentials the first time through, and my revision process involves adding more details and nuance, developing the setting more fully, adding scenes that were skipped and lengthening those that were rushed, etc. Because it’s a tendency that I’m aware of, I’m usually able to spot the areas that need more development in the first draft. But if you’re not used to this kind of revision (and even if you are), it can feel overwhelming.
So, here are my tips for fleshing out your manuscript:
- Assess your plot
If your manuscript is falling way short of where it needs to be, it’s possible that you’ve skipped some crucial steps along the way. Make sure that all of the key plot elements are there. Is there anything you’ve left out? Are the stakes being raised? Does the conflict get worse after the inciting incident? Are you giving your characters choices? Are you making those choices too easy? Is your protagonist succeeding too often or too soon? Be careful here—you don’t want to add scenes just for the sake of adding scenes. But look for ways to improve upon your plot by raising the stakes and continuously moving the story forward.
- Work on worldbuilding
Lack of detailed worldbuilding is usually a culprit when manuscripts run too short. Even if you’re writing a contemporary story, the worldbuilding is important. How can you improve the sense of setting and give your reader a better idea of what kind of world these characters live in? How can your setting directly affect the story? Are you including enough details to make your world fully realized? Again, don’t just add things in order to add fluff, but include details that are relevant to your story. Make your reader feel immersed in this setting.
- Check for internalization
This is a common issue in a lot of manuscripts I see. The narrator simply describes what happens without really diving deep into the POV character’s head. This is more important in first person than in third, but it’s a crucial factor regardless. Make sure that your protagonist’s thoughts and emotions are on the page, not just their actions.
- Add action
Alternatively, it’s possible to have too much internalization or dialogue and not enough action. By “action,” I don’t necessarily mean fast-paced action scenes; I mean having your characters do something. And to be clear, I don’t mean that you should add pointless action scenes just to make something happen. Anything that you add should be an organic part of your story. But be careful not to skip or shorten the action scenes and spend too much time on dialogue and emotion. A balance between the two is needed to make the story work.
- Watch the pacing
Yes, it is possible to have pacing that moves too quickly. This is often a major problem for me in my early drafts—the story moves forward so quickly that the characters never have a chance to catch their breath or reflect, therefore neither do readers. To revise these drafts, I often identify the places where it’s possible to add some quieter character moments and internalization between action sequences that would slow things down a little.
But adjusting your pacing isn’t simply a matter of adding new scenes. Consider how many pages it takes for certain plot points or events to occur. If your pacing is too fast, it isn’t just that you have too many action scenes (although that can be an issue), it’s that you’re rushing from one event to another too quickly. The scenes that you have may need to be fleshed out with additional worldbuilding, internalization, characterization, etc. And speaking of characterization…
- Consider characterization
It’s possible that the characters in your head aren’t quite making it onto the page. Are you including characterization in every single scene? Are you focusing too much on plot? Can your plot events reveal something about characterization? Can readers connect with your character? This is a tough one to assess on your own, so it might be helpful to ask a critique partner or beta reader.
- Look at transitions
Where are you beginning and ending your scenes? Are you jumping from one scene to another too frequently? Are readers able to ground themselves in each scene from the beginning? Does it cut off too abruptly? Even something as simple as adjusting the transitions at the beginnings and endings of your scenes can increase word count significantly.
What do you think? Do you tend to write short drafts? How do you flesh out your manuscripts? Let me know in the comments!
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