How to add words to your story without adding fluff.
So you have a killer story and want to send it to a publisher who you know will love it. Only they insist submissions be a few thousand words more than what you have in your book.
Here are some ways of adding in words without making your story feel like it’s been padded. The order you apply them depends on how you write, but this is the order I use.
First look at your plot outline. Are all the parts there? While many people talk about starting your book too early, almost as many people start their book too late. Beginning with action doesn’t mean beginning with your inciting incident. (That’s the thing which irretrievably sends the MC down the road to the plot.) If you start with the inciting incident you’ve missed the chance to let the reader get to know your character. This is the place where you show ‘the normal life’ so the reader can contrast it with the rest of the book. This does not mean walking the reader through a normal day from waking up to the alarm to going to bed. It means developing your character as they interact with the world around them. Here is where you first hint at the inner strengths which will make a hero, but also the flaws which will cause them pain. Don’t go overboard, we just need to know it’s there.
Continuing with your plot outline, do you have a balance of action and introspection. Even superheroes have moments where they stop and think about what is going on. The introspection lets the reader rest and lets you show the spiritual/emotional battle within the character. For each major piece of action, you should have at least a little downtime to assimilate the consequences of the action.
Last thing with the plot. Did you skip the middle of your book? This isn’t as silly a question as it sounds. The middle what I call The Swamp. It is both the most difficult and most important part of the story. Tempting to skip over it and go straight to the big finish, but if you do, the finish will fizzle.
Go through the book scene by scene. Have you placed the reader into the scene through description? Do they interact with their surroundings? Shifting from simple description to the characters walking through touching, smelling etc will add words. The advantage of interaction is the setting becomes part of the plot, instead of stopping the action while we look around.
Show vs Tell
Again looking at your scenes. Do you have your balance of narrative summary and showing right? Showing is using action, dialogue, internal thought to create a scene. Narrative summary is talking about the scene. Showing takes more words, so converting a few key scenes from narrative to showing will add words and depth. The trick is to pick scenes which will deepen your characters and plot, so don’t expand scenes which are repetitive or don’t have any weight in the plot.
Now, dialogue. If you’re like me, you get typing those words so fast you forget to add speech tags-that is ‘he said’ etc. I once added a thousand words just with speech tags. Then I took them all out again and used beats. Beats are lovely sentences which show expression, emotion, setting, action and more. In one review of an early book of mine, they made the comment that my dialogue became talking heads a couple of times. Beats will prevent talking heads from overtaking your book.
While we’re on the subject of beats and emotion, work your emotions on several levels. The first level is the words the character says. Next are the things the character thinks. Deeper yet are the physical sensations of the emotion.
Say you have a character who is sad. Having them say ‘I’m sad’ works in some contexts, but it doesn’t connect us to their feeling. You could have them say. ‘I’m fine.’ but think I wish someone understood me. This difference between thought and speech sets up a dynamic tension. Take it even further by giving the reader the physical sensations.
“I’m fine” I wish someone understood me. John’s stomach sent a stab through his body, but he’d perfected his ability to hide all pain from the world.
Rewriting your book
While I’ve put the suggestions in order from foundational plot and character work to more scene by scene work, I’ve saved the most radical solution for the end.
Rewriting your story will allow you to do all of the above things, but it will also let you expand characters, add subplots and more. My most recent release Generation Gap started as a short short, about 1000 words. Over the years I worked on it until it totalled about 35k. Not happy with that wordcount, I took a NaNoWriMo and effectively rewrote it, ending up writing about 50k to end up with about 67k. At one point I had two more chapters in the beginning, but I cut them as they didn’t add to the plot.
In the end I had a much higher quality book.
Last piece of advice
Decide if your story needs expanding. It could be the length it needs to be.
You might be thinking that I should have put this first, but part of the assessment of the need for adding words is to go through all the steps above. If you story doesn’t need words added, it should be because plot is solid, description is active and intriguing, dialogue is sparkling and the emotions are rumbling under the surface.
If you have questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you.