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Whenever I write any story, even with ideas that could constitute a novel, and with as many as three subplots, it always comes out to, at most, 30 pages, and a portion of that 30 pages often consists of loads of uselessly deep descriptions that add virtually nothing to the story itself. Even then, it always seems very slow-paced. My current record for length is roughly 20,000 words. Professional authors would take the same ideas, and create novel-length stories off of it, all while maintaining the pace with respect to each individual scene.

I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong in this context. I'm aware that word count isn't everything, but I would like to increase it regardless. How do you stretch ideas to such a length as 60-100,000 words, while not making it feel bloated or overextended?

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  • 4
    Have you tried analyzing a random chapter of one of your favorite books to see what's in there? (I've never actually tried it myself, but it might be informative to see how much of it advances the main plot, how much advances subplots, how much is character development, how much is world description etc.)
    – user54131
    Aug 18, 2022 at 10:00
  • 1
    Frame challenge: Does your idea need more than 30 pages to get across? Just because a story is longer does not mean it is better. There is nothing wrong with writing novellas and short stories. And in our modern culture of short attention spans and desire for quickly digestible content, it might even be more audience-appropriate than full-length novels
    – Philipp
    Aug 18, 2022 at 12:26
  • But to help with the actual question being asked: Your question is rather general. People have written whole books on how to structure a novel. Perhaps it would be more constructive if you showed us an example of an idea. Then perhaps we could tell you how we would utilize our page budget for a novel. Or you could link to a short story you wrote, and we could tell you where we would have elaborated more.
    – Philipp
    Aug 18, 2022 at 12:47
  • There are many examples where a writer wrote a short story, then later wrote a novel with the same premise. Finding such examples and reading both the short story and the novel could perhaps help you analyse the difference between the two. As another example, the short story "Wandering Earth" by Liu Cixin was adapted into a much longer film with the same title, the same premise, but completely different characters and scenario. I suggest reading that short story, then watching the film, and then analyzing how they differ and why.
    – Stef
    Aug 18, 2022 at 15:22
  • A novel is more than just "an idea". For instance, "a character is stuck in a tree and must climb down" is an idea. But it's not a novel. To make it a novel, you need to add more things. Perhaps a second character is throwing stones at the first character, and a cat is also stuck in the tree, and the character's love interest is waiting for them on the ground, and if the character doesn't climb down fast enough, a demolishing company will raze the tree down, and while climbing down, the character notices that the tree is sick...
    – Stef
    Aug 18, 2022 at 15:25

5 Answers 5

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It sounds to me you are writing intellectually, and not emotionally. And it sounds like you are doing a lot of "telling" instead of "showing".

It doesn't take many words to get an intellectual idea across. It takes many words to put a character in a situation that shows the character's traits without ever telling the reader her traits. Start with that rule, you cannot ever describe a trait of your character. If in your mind Kelly is brilliant and good looking, you cannot just tell the reader that. You must show it, in some situation.

You must describe a scene (or two, or three) in which the reader will understand Kelly is brilliant and/or good looking, without anybody, including the narrator, ever explicitly saying either one.

Stories are told indirectly, by helping readers imagine scenes. What you are writing, at 10K-20K words, is likely an outline of the story.

I imagine you are not helping readers visualize the scenes and the mindsets of the characters. You are just delivering a bunch of facts for them to memorize.

Fiction writing aids the imagination of the reader. If you aren't describing scenes and situations, emotions and behavior, if you are just trying to push some information or theme or moral of yours across to the reader, you will end up with one information dump after another.

An information dump is something you, the author, expects the reader to memorize and recall when referred to later. But that is not how human memory works.

Human memory is built through scenes. We remember characters by their reactions and emotions in normal and trying circumstances. Telling somebody that Jack is cowardly has near zero impact. Showing somebody that Jack is cowardly, in a scene, like a robbery, or is too fearful to save a child and lets them drown to save his own skin, That has visual and emotional impact and readers will remember it. You never have to say "Jack is cowardly". Just build a scene where he is, where most people would not have been, and the reader will conclude Jack is cowardly.

That's the trick of writing.

A 20K word story that should be a novel is more like a screenplay. In a screenplay, you do still need emotional scenes and reactions, but you don't have to describe them in detail; that is the director's job. Most of the screenplay is short (three line) sparse descriptions of settings (that the director and others will "fill out"), dialogue, and similarly sparse descriptions of action. A screenplay is like a blueprint, it describes the bones and structure of the story, but the "builders" are the dozens of professions that write the music, build the sets, and use their imagination of what it all looks like. You seldom even describe the actors other than generically, which might suit your style. He's a businessman. She's a homeless woman. She's a medical school professor. He's a 22yo college student. Casting is not your business, neither is specific set decoration.

But that still requires emotional scenes, in fact it depends more on them, than does a novel.

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  • Good answer! However, with regards to stageplays (screenplays); back when I did theatre we seldom, if ever, paid much attention to the instructions. The dialog was what mattered. If it didn't show who the characters were, what they were doing, and why, it risked getting cut. We didn't always treat the plays (even those by Shakespeare and his friends) with all that much respect... if it didn't fit the production... tough luck.
    – Erk
    Aug 22, 2022 at 22:13
  • @Erk Stageplays are not screenplays. Screenplays contain scene descriptions for the director, and are chosen by the writer to reflect mood and emotion (or contrast it). Even in a stage play, they DO pay attention: If the scene happens in a bedroom, the director shouldn't put it in an office setting or an airport. If the action says Joan slaps Cindy, the story isn't the same or as powerful if Joan doesn't slap Cindy. I guess if you want to produce weak tepid tea with no impact, go ahead. But don't blame the writer.
    – Amadeus
    Aug 23, 2022 at 0:54
  • making assumptions about what productions I've been involved with, are we? Screenplays are more often created in coordination with both directors, producers, and even actors. Once we have classic screenplays that have been around for centuries, my bet is they will be treated the same way. Now, if the lead actor doesn't like what the hero or heroine does in scene 11, they send the script back for adjustments. And besides, in the choice between staying religious with the script or doing what works on stage/on camera, the choice is simple. And we're none the wiser.
    – Erk
    Aug 23, 2022 at 2:46
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Scenes

As others have mentioned, it seems like you may have written a synopsis rather than a full-blown novel.

That's a great first step and a skeleton for your story.

If you haven't already, divide your story into scenes. A scene is usually something that takes place in one location, at a specific time, with a set number of characters (a few may exit or enter, but too many and you may have a new scene).

At it's core a scene consists of this (among other things scenes can do):

  • A main character with a goal
  • A POV character (usually the one with the most to lose in the scene—most often the same as the main character)
  • Opposition, usually from an antagonist or several
  • Then most scenes should end in some kind of setback
  • All scenes should turn

Just adding opposition to your scenes will expand them. When the main character doesn't get what they want immediately, the scene will take longer, but opposition also adds drama and makes it interesting to the reader.

Having opposition also means you need to explain it. Characters opposing each other for the sake of opposing is problematic. Telling the reader "Q opposes W because of R" is not going to go over well with the reader. You may have to add scenes that show the reader why Q opposes W instead.

Having the scene end in a setback is also a sure way to expand the story. When going from A to B has to be done through C, D, and E, the story expands. After all, if the character goes from A to B with no problems or issues the story reads more like a project manager's success story than a dramatic work of fiction. (Imagine what would have happened to world literature if Homer had just done "After the trojan war, Odysseus went back home. There his loving wife waited for him with a hot meal and a stiff drink. End of story.")

Always ask, what could go wrong here? How can I thwart the main character's ambition? How can I send them astray?

Doing that will generate a bunch of new scenes. Getting the main character back on track again (to B) will generate a few more scenes... (Unless, where the story is going now is way funnier than going to B, then you may have to go with the flow instead... perhaps you'll eventually find your way back to B or someplace that is B-equivalent anyway...)

Having a scene that turns, if you didn't check the linked page, means that it introduces some kind of change. Once the scene has played out, the world, the characters, the story, or all three have changed somehow. If the scene previously did not turn, you're likely having a couple of problems you need to write yourself out of now...

Visualize

Once you have a scene with a goal and opposition, it's time to visualize it.

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine the scene playing out in your mind.

See the characters as they act, talk, and move. Pay attention to:

  • Actions. What are they doing? How do these actions help the main character get closer to their goal and how do they help the antagonist thwart it?
  • Reactions. Then look at reactions. Never have an action without a reaction. Just like you should never have a reaction without an action. How do characters react? Does that send them spinning out of control? Or do they try to keep that control so much that they have to do something extra? Get a drink? Put a pin in it and go meditate? Etc.
  • Setting. How do they interact with the setting? Do they pick things up? Lean on things? Brush things off? Shield themselves with objects? Wield them as weapons? Where in the room (or place) are they? Standing? Sitting? Lying? Moving? Stationary?
  • Dialog. What are they saying? How do their voices sound? Do they say what they mean and mean what they say or do they have subtext?
  • Body language. What do they do with their hands? What are their facial expressions? Eyes? Mouths? Foreheads? Jaws? Necks? Backs? Legs and feet?

How do these factors change when the scene progresses? How does the main character react when they meet opposition? How do the antagonist act when they oppose the main character?

How do these factors differ among your characters? How expressive are they? How verbal? How active?

Do you have all that?

Good, now put it down on the page. Get it all down and worry about overdoing it for the editing. You can always cut something that is on the page. Not so much the other way around.

Also, don't worry too much about explaining it all. Not right now. In editing, you could always figure out what that twitching foot really was all about and may find you should add or remove something to make the emotion of the character cohesive, but right now you can just play with it and have the characters try their bodies, the setting and the scene out.

Speaking of editing, I've found these variations of how to do that:

  • Edit each chapter after you've finished it
  • Stop at 10 000 words and do an edit
  • Edit each time you've written 10 000 words
  • Write the whole draft, then edit it

Did you also ...

Other things you may or may not have in your manuscript that would expand it:

  • Descriptions of characters. You should have at least one paragraph for each character the first time we see them, but then you might continue describing changes in their appearance. Maybe some of them are so colorful they need some description every time they enter the page...
  • Descriptions of settings Each scene should begin with at least one paragraph of setting description, and then you stay aware of the setting as the scene progresses for instance by characters interacting with it in different ways.
  • Character arcs. An arching character is someone that evolves and changes with the story. Having character arcs add the need for scenes to show this change or characters to help or thwart this change. Character arcs are also a fundamental element of story and in essence, either your main character changes or they causes other characters to change. A story without character arcs often feels thin.
  • A three-act structure. If you count the three acts of the three-act structure as beginning, middle, and end, it can be said all stores have them. If your story does not have all the elements of a structure like the three-act structure or other structures it could feel half or uneven. With them, you need to add scenes for instance for plot points, the normal world, the new normal, etc. The three-act structure can also help pinpoint where a story might need to expand.
  • A subplot. Subplots can do many different things from adding romance, theme, deepening character, etc.
  • Theme. The theme of the story can come to you later or be part of the initial idea. As long as it's weaved into the story subtly it will add depth. Having a theme might raise the need for a subplot, add substance to minor characters, and may help to expand the story via story questions. You could also use motifs to show theme. Using motifs may also add the need for descriptions, even characters, settings, or scenes.
  • Voice. Working with your narrative voice as well as character voice will most likely expand the text some. (See "VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing" by James Scott Bell).
  • Characterization. Working on deepening the characters will most certainly add both scenes and text to existing scenes. When you start writing about not only what the character does, but also how and why, things start adding up. (See "Writing Unforgettable Characters: How to Create Story People Who Jump Off the Page" by James Scott Bell)
  • Dialog. Deepening and sharpening the dialog will likely expand it. Reading up on dialog may also give you ideas on how to use dialog instead of narrative description. Dialog is one great way to show instead of telling. (See "How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript" by James Scott Bell)

Keep things complex, not complicated

Another way that may or may not expand the novel is to do all of the above while not making the story complicated.

You could think of a story as "complex" or "complicated". We want "complex", we want to avoid "complicated".

In essence, complicated is when you have many different threads and pieces and they don't fit together, but rather go off in all directions.

You could think of your story's elements as cogs and cogwheels. "Complex" is when all the wheels connect and you're still able to make them turn. "Complicated" is when they do not connect, or connect in such a way that they cannot be turned.

Making a story complex could involve adding elements to make the parts connect. It may also mean cutting some things out.

Keeping an eye out for complex vs complicated is a great way to coordinate all additions. If it makes the story more complex, great. If it makes it complicated, you may have to reconsider.

Further reading

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Learn to differentiate between a story and an idea and a situation.

Stories start with situations and can be based on an idea. But a story can be characterized as a character with a goal (Goal), a reason to want that goal (Motivation), and something blocking that character from achieving their goal (Conflict). You can read about this in detail in the [well-storied blog.] 1

To evaluate your proto-story, Write it at its lowest level of resolution. This is just one, or maybe two sentences -- no cheating. This is also called a log-line, a short description of the story that is meant as part of a pitch to sell the story to agents/publishers. It is important that it embodies all three story elements G-M-C.

For instance, a hungry man wants waffles because he hasn't eaten for months, but his toaster is broken.

This story idea has all three elements, but it's kind of a dud.

Another log-line, God said let there be light, hilarity ensues. While some people believe this to be the greatest story ever written, presented this way we can imply the character's goal, but conflict and motivation aren't shown. The result is that the specific direction and arc of the story aren't available to be evaluated. So not a great story idea, in this form.

Once you have your premise -- (M-G-C) -- and a log line you are happy with, then you can iteratively increase the resolution of your work. Next might be a paragraph, summarizing the story. Then, increase your resolution to breakdown of Acts, Chapters, and/or Scenes. The goal is to develop your confidence that this story is one you want to tell and that is has enough meat under its belt to be a good story.

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If any scenery, details or incidents gets told in a novel but then leave no explained, impactful or imaginative experiences, will likely make the reader disappointed if not angry, they'll feel like they trusted you with their time but you took for granted.

What you're looking for is the age old question, "How to create content ?". A book idea seems very encouraging and reasonable at the beginning when it first comes to mind, but without filled gaps or complete analysis or reflection will be just a sentence.

To answer your question directly, you need to connect the dots and via this connection fill every meaningful relevant information. If you cease to think of any, take from your own life. Content creating isn't making things out of nothing, but making a new combination that of pre-obtained elements that says something else. So, take out whatever you saw during your time and cook something new with it, it might be tasty.

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The key to your problem is research. Many novelists assume they know everything about what they are writing about. They write and then just run out of words because they run out of ideas. It's not hard to write a 60,000 to 100,000 novel if you have done plenty of research into your plots and characters. Research opens the door to new ideas, new characters, and twists you haven't thought of before.

It could add a new element to a mystery, another chapter to a chase, or some interesting background to character development. You will find that research will help you when you draft your narrative and then it's a matter of filling in gaps and details to get to a substantial novel.

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