Is your novel too short?

I asked some members of the #writingcommunity what they’d like me to research for this month’s Writer’s Corner and this came up as a problem someone was struggling with. I know, I know! Most of us have the opposite problem, having to trim our verbal outpourings and kill off our darlings left, right and centre.
This particular author’s debut novel, released last year, is a quick read but a highly satisfying one and it’s done very well, thank you, including winning prizes. They’re concerned, however, that their new release is too short for its genre and are there ways to fix this without ruining the whole thing? For those of you worried about the same issue, here are ideas to help. And I would add that it’s worth a read even if that’s not your problem, because some of the ideas here apply to all of us.

Do you need to fix it?

The first question to ask if you think your novel is too short.
Genre word ranges are flexible, although there are rules of thumb. Epic fantasy is unlikely to fly if the word count is 50k. Similarly, a romcom at 100k is a tad on the overload side. It seems that around 65-70k is a nice, safe minimum target across most genres, apart from children’s. So, assuming you need to add a few thousand words, what can you do about it?

Image by Angela Yuriko Smith from Pixabay

The basics

As a first step, take a close look at these elements:

Description

Without describing every teaspoon in the cutlery drawer, are you giving your readers a sufficient sense of place? Sometimes, especially when writing dialogue it’s too easy to have our characters talking in a vacuum. Or to have action going on with no indication of where it’s taking place. Small touches, such as a mention of curtains blowing at an open window, of a view beyond that window, or of the gloss on the table where the speaker rests their coffee cup, all help to ground the reader in the world you’ve invited them to share.

Dialogue

As well as reviewing dialogue to ensure it’s not too abrupt, make good use of action beats which can be phrases or even whole sentences. These stand in for ‘he said, she said,’ or no dialogue tags at all, and not only add words, but help the reader see the character, what they’re doing, how they’re reacting in the situation.

Character back story

We are, wisely, advised not to information dump our characters’ lives to date, but there may be elements we’ve been too skimpy on. A little extra might help the reader follow the character’s development over the course of the story. Was there a specific incident which explains a lot? Have we dealt with it too cursorily?

All of the above is fine, so what now?

If you’re still short, perhaps you need more scenes, which will need to fit in seamlessly and not look as if they’ve been stuffed for the sake of word count. They must do their job as scenes on their own merits.

Structure

A good way to start is by examining your novel structure. There are many templates and much advice out there about how your story should progress. Personally, I use a rule of thumb of major turning points at about 10%, 25%, 50% and 75%, with the first section being the introduction of the characters and their dilemmas, and setting the scene.

Have you rushed the beginning? Perhaps you could take more time on the set up, without the dreaded information dump.

The ending might offer opportunities too. Do you have subplots where you only hinted at their resolution? Now might be appropriate, near to the grand climax, to put them properly to bed.

More conflict

A further opportunity for additional scenes can also work to create heightened tension and hence faster page turning: have the character(s) fail to get what they want the first time round, or have to struggle more to do so. Make them suffer! Readers will love it, once the suffering is over.

Secondary characters

Finally, review your secondary characters and their stories. Can they be fleshed out more? Can their links with the main plot be deepened through additional action and hence scenes? Are the threads sufficiently interwoven so these stories actively support the main plot and are seen to do so at the right time?

In summary

Check the basics of scene, dialogue, and character back story

Add in more scenes to
– better ground the reader at the beginning
– create more problems and tension
– resolve sub-plots
– build out secondary characters and their importance to the main story.

And have fun!

To read more about how to write effective dialogue, click here.
Find out how to create characters readers love in this post.
Making sure your scenes are the best they can be? Find help here.

There’s a new writing tip in each month’s By the Letter, so if you’re not signed up to my mailing list already, take a look here.