I have written a first draft of what I want to be a novel -- aiming for 50-70K words. When the ending arrived I was at about 30K. So I essentially have to double the length. My list of notes scattered throughout the ms adds some scenes, but that's not going to fill the gap.

FWIW, I started with an outline (20 chapters). Some of the early chapters are a little thin and I can make it deeper there -- these are where the bulk of my notes are.

My questions:

  • Is there an effective technique for bulking up a story? I don't want to pad the length, I want to make the story bigger.
  • I have an outline for another novel that is not yet complete. How can I avoid falling short on the second one?
  • I like this question, because I generally have problems with story length as well. I've been trying to decide whether it's actually a problem, though. I like the way I write - I think it has a certain rhythm about it - but its similarity to poetry (meter, rhythm, repetition, etc.) makes it difficult to write anything that might be considered a novel.
    – Ryan Kinal
    Jun 15, 2011 at 19:16
  • 3
    I think you first need to answer two things 1) Why are you aiming for 50-70k words? 2) Why 30k is not enough?
    – Unreason
    Jun 17, 2011 at 10:21

6 Answers 6


Put it away for a while. Long enough to not have it in mind to the level of daily obsession any more.

Then, dig it out and look through it. You may find that magically somebody has replaced all of your rich, description, amazing detailed characterisation, fascinating dialogue and lushly abundant prose with stuff that is a bit thin, doesn't always make sense and fails to really put your point across.

If this happens edit from there.

If it doesn't the story is, I'm afraid, already at optimum length.

EDIT: This seems to have become a really popular question and, as someone who is never short of words, I have been thinking the matter over for the last few days. If you're happy with the original answer above this won't add much more and should therefore be regarded as an optional read for those who really really care about the issue.

The first thing to bear in mind is that you can make a short story longer and still have it captivate an audience... but only as long as the shorter story was captivating to begin with. The longer story will only be as captivating (or maybe a little more) as the original was. The reason for this is simple. If you have it in you to write one fascinating story the chances that you have only that one story and no more are pretty slim. Stories come from experiences, specifically your unique experience of the world. However long it takes to write a story is nothing compared to the vast amount of life you live that is not about writing that story. So you just need to mine out some more story stuff to put into the story.

There are a couple of techniques that aid sensible expansion but none of them are a magic bullet. What these amount to is you allowing yourself room to do other things. I shall explain as I go:

a. Write in the third person - a first person story allows for only a single strand. With a third person story you can have multiple lead characters and essentially interweave three single-point perspective novellas into one novel.

CAVEAT: As soon as you do that you need to juggle timelines, consider who is doing what and when and make sure that it all hangs together.

b. Write the villain's storyline - You may not end up keeping it in but really getting into the villain's head helps you to notice gaps in the hero's story (and vice versa). Also there is a tendency for stories to employ villainous action in the manner of a story requirement for complications to arise. The villain has a plan, a life, a motivation and will do things whether the hero is there or not. If you know what those things are it may give you ideas for relevant and intriguing incidents in the other story tracks.

c. Think like the ultimate motivational pedant. The number of novels I have read where the author has done a serviceable job but left gaps in the hero's motivation for certain actions is very, very high. A hero should have impeccable behaviour and, where they don't, the explanations for why not bear serious examination. Regard your characters through the eyes of some naive but emotional moral observer and see if anything your protagonists do could be viewed as a bit wide of the mark. It's those moments that may require expansion to explain motive.

d. Related to c. Ask if the beginning of the main story is really the beginning of the story. Maybe the main arc would be strengthened with tertiary action (such as subplots a relative of b.) or with background episodes. It helps to think of a story as a single moment:

Rudgath returned the Sword of De'ark to the Fires of Krynn. (Excuse the cheesy Sword 'n' Sorcery, quick examples require easily graspable story chunks)

Then there is the action that rises into that incident and the action that falls away from it.

Rising: Rudgath retrieved the sword from the Citadel of Unmak.

Falling: The sorcerer Kellior screamed with rage and attempted to murder Rudgath for his actions.

Then you think of events that rise and fall into those two incidents.

A story is a stack of incidents where the primary incident rises into a main incident or "plot point" and then another incident describes the consequence. The story is a tapestry of such incidents woven together to form a kind of conceptual pattern. The 30,000 words of your story form a pattern like this. As the author you can break those words down this way and attempt to weave in extra incident. All of these tips have been about this.

FINAL CAVEAT: What everyone has said about padding is utterly true. Part of being an author is learning to tell the difference between relative moments and irrelevant padding.

William Goldman author of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride (among many other movies and novels) talks about a story really being about one thing, a spinal concept, the core of what the author is trying to communicate. Those things that contribute meaning to the core are relevant additions, those that do not are padding.

Hell, it is entirely possible that your current 30k has padding in it.

Screenwriters approach the telling of a story this way (or at least screenwriting courses often encourage them to). The story is a number of flash card "scenes" each of which comments upon the story:

"In this scene we discover that Rudgath is driven to complete his mission because the forces of Kellior slaughtered his brother during the Aeon War."

"In this scene we explore the depravity of the sorcerer Kellioth as he orders seven captured Badger Women of the Sordax Plains to be slaughtered so he can have a fur coat."

As the existence of movies like Transformers 2, X Men 3, the Star Wars prequel trilogy and Terminator: Salvation attest this is not a foolproof method of writing a story but then what is? The one thing this does do is help you gain a view of your story as a communication of tidbits of information which the audience needs in order to make sense of your story, know who to root for, and what outcomes they should want out of the story.

It is entirely possible that your story has information gaps, or places where clarity can be improved. If so, that's the information you want to put in.

You may also find there is "extra" or "irrelevant" information. That has to come out unfortunately.

I guess this is a fascinating and popular question because there are no guarantees. But these are some concrete things you can do to attempt to add real story value to extra wordage and a short guide to things you should be looking out for. Hopefully you, and others find it helpful.

  • It's been on the shelf for a while, the magic replacement has happened. (See my note about the early chapters being thin.)
    – bstpierre
    Jun 15, 2011 at 13:23
  • Well that's where to start then.
    – One Monkey
    Jun 15, 2011 at 13:39
  • Wow, thanks for expanding your answer. I am doing (a), have some of (b) but need to make it deeper, and (c) needs some work. As to "Hell, it is entirely possible that your current 30k has padding in it.", I will confirm that it does. Like I said in my question, I'm not looking for padding, I'm looking for ways to increase the depth of the story. Between your expanded answer, some of the other answers, and the notes I have, I see where to go from here. Thank you for taking the time to answer.
    – bstpierre
    Jun 17, 2011 at 12:46
  • lmao "seven captured badger women" Mar 21, 2012 at 0:14

Composition rule #13: Omit needless words.

Whereas Strunk was referring to sentence structure, I believe this applies to overall word count. Adding content in a story just to make it bigger is literary bra stuffing. Keep in mind that "Of Mice and Men" is commonly published at around 100 pages and it stands as one of Steinbeck's more potent works.

However, if you feel the need to expand it because the content feels thin, consider Orson Scott Card's treatment of his short story "Ender's Game." He decided to expand it to novel length as a precursor to Speaker for the Dead. To do so, he had to begin the novel years before the short story. He also added the plots of Ender's siblings and their activities on "the nets." By doing so, he did not dilute the content of the story but rather enhanced it.

I recommend never adding to a story just to make it longer. Though I love Les Miserables and consider it a brilliant novel, I still find Hugo's diversion into the history of the battles of Waterloo difficult to get through. Something you could try is adding content and letting someone read it. If they get bored with it and put it down at those added parts, try again. In Bag of Bones, Stephen King wrote several pages about Mike Noonan's volunteer work when he was experiencing writer's block. His wife hated it and asked why Stephen had to bore the reader with pages of content that doesn't relate to the story. He cut it out and made it better.

Another rule I've remembered in writing this: Second draft = first draft - 10%. Sometimes you need to add stuff but the rule of thumb should be taking stuff out.

  • Thanks for the ideas. The 10% reduction is about what I usually see too, which is why I was asking about how to grow it. Between your answer and One Monkey's I may end up leaving it short. I'll see how the editing process goes.
    – bstpierre
    Jun 15, 2011 at 13:26
  • 2
    +1 for being bang on target. A story is perfect not because there's nothing left to add, but because there's nothing left to take away. Jun 15, 2011 at 15:05
  • Orson Scott Card's comments on expanding short stories were my first thought after reading the question! He talks about going back and digging deeper into character history and motivation. He may have brought Flowers for Algernon as an additional example; it would certainly be apropos.
    – Standback
    Jun 15, 2011 at 18:35
  • 1
    Conversely to @PortableWorld's advice for a reader to suggest things that are boring to be cut, have a reader read it to see where they'd like it to be longer or to add more information. Comments like "Oh, I wish you had gone into more detail about Jake's mother's arrest" could give you the extra length you need. Jun 15, 2011 at 21:35
  • @Ralph Gallagher makes an excellent point that I should have included. Makes me think of JRR Tolkien. He could have cut out a great deal of The Lord of the Rings just by sticking to the plot. However, the majority of his readers adore the people and places he exhaustively described more than the events. Jun 15, 2011 at 23:27

Even at 50k-70k words, you would still have a pretty short novel in your hands and there is nothing wrong with that. If your novel is 30k words of pure literary bliss, adding anything to it is probably going to be a step backward. If it still needs work, you have to ask yourself whether it's because of the length, because it probably isn't.

My best suggestion is to have somebody (or multiple somebodies if possible) that you trust to read it over. Have them tell you what confused them, what they would have liked to see more of and, of course, what they didn't like. This is will be the best places to fill in the gaps (or maybe cut, if that's the best way to fix the issue).

I wouldn't worry about the length as you start your next novel. Hopefully, the length that is appropriate will become evident as you work your way through it.


You need to have another good look at the structure of the novel. Without knowing the genre, I can only guess. Look at the main characters struggle- could you make it harder? So if the hero is searching for alien artifacts in the Amazon, could you have him clash with a group of local smugglers? Such that he is now battling not only the government, but the local mafia as well?

If the hero is trying to catch a killer, maybe the killer hides in a foreign country? Then the hero not only has to catch him, but avoid the attention of jealous local cops? And win the love of the police chiefs daughter? This is not padding the plot, as you are adding to the main story line.

I faced the same problem, but I find that one can always add stuff by making life difficult for your hero. Theres no reason he should have it easy!

Edit: Based on @bstpierre's comments below:

This is a tech/thriller- how about if the geek faces physical danger as well(something he isnt used to dealing with, as he's only a IT nerd)- the terrorists track him down and send a hit team to take him out? At the same time, the FBI suspects him, and also sends agents to arrest him?

Another thing you can do is, have parallel story lines- so, the hero's girlfriend is kidnapped by the terrorists. The 2nd story line will her trying to escape, and in the main story, the hero is trying to find her, while dodging both the FBI and the terrorists. Don't make her a helpless damsel in distress, have her actively fighting the bad guys, and later on, teaming up with the hero to crush them.

And why stop there- the hero's brother is dying, and desperately needs a kidney transplant. The hospital is waiting for payment. But the hero cant pay, as his account has been frozen, and everyone is after him. The sooner he catches the real bad guys, the sooner he can pay for his brothers operation. This way, not only do you have extreme tension as to what will happen, but the story length will grow as well.

Like I mentioned before, I have faced(& still face) the same problem, but the answer always is to make the heros life difficult, to make him really work on his problems. Just as he fixes one problem, another takes its place, and he has to keep running just to stay where he is.

Also, the rules of writing still apply- backup your current work, then start banging on the keyboard. Dont worry where the scenes will go, or if they clash with the older ones. Just keep writing till you have your target wordcount, then come back to edit it.

  • Genre is thriller/tech -- terrorist causes mayhem through Internet attacks; geek saves the day. Your answer is the angle I started looking at last night, along with PortableWorld's reference to Orson Scott Card and going back to add background/depth to the characters and plot.
    – bstpierre
    Jun 16, 2011 at 11:34

I would suggest asking someone else to read it and see if there any parts you have not made clear. A one sentence might be clear to you as you've had a scene planned for ages but other people might not picture it the same way.

Have a look at big patches of description and see if any thoughts/dialogue could break it up and add a more personal touch. Vice versa breaking up dialogue presevents conversations ounding like scripts.


One of the things that can work for this sort of story is more background on the characters, especially the geek, in terms of their normal day-to-day life. Setting the perosn in a normal, boring life provides even more contrast with the excitement to come. In general, the more you know about the characters, the better, even - maybe especially - if they have very boring lives.

I would echo others thoughts about why you feel a need to extend the length, especially by this amount? If you have a good and well written story as it is, then doubling it in length is liable to make it a long and drawn out story, and not as good.Think about the number of novels you have read that would have been improved by reducing the size. And how many do you know that would have been improved by increasing the size?

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