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  • Writer's pictureKL Forslund

Need More Words?

What can you do when you are 400 words short of the word count requirement in a story? A writer friend asked that this week, so I took a stab at it and jotted down some ideas for him. The problem with giving advice, is whether you have enough information for it to be applicable. In his case, he didn’t think it applied, but he paid me a compliment by saving it for the next time he needed to expand his work. I’ve expanded upon the ideas I gave him, maybe they’ll work for you.

The Problem

I’m assuming you’re writing a piece of fiction, or a business document. They’re the same thing, except the protagonist is your company and your boss would like a happy ending. It’s got to be a certain size, and the work is a bit short of the goal.

Remove Unnecessary Words

I know this sounds crazy, you’re 400 short of 20,000 like my friend, and I’m telling you to kill more. It is easy to bloat your text with redundancy, purple prose, exposition dumping. I’m bad with over-writing. I’ll repeat myself by restating it. Saying the same thing a different way.

I did that on purpose, and you can see how I could trim it down. Why would I want to cut words when I need more? Because you will cut them eventually, and if you don’t, you’ll cross over to to 20,103 words, Then you’ll purge the chuffa and be back to 431 short of the goal and curse my name. Worse, it’ll be harder to find another way to inject the extra content because you’ve already reviewed everything and thought you found the solutions.

Outline your Story as is

An outline, or synopsis should hit each scene in a sentence or bullet. Now you can see the shape of your story. Does the progression make sense? Are you missing any scenes to transition to the next? It’s a good check to do anyway, and for a book, you’ll need a synopsis for an agent or publisher. If you find a plot hole, you can fill it with a new scene and spend that word budget.

Make it Harder for the Hero

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but I think readers like a character who has a goal, makes choices, faces difficulty, fails, learns, gets wiser, and finally tries again. I see that recommended in a lot of places. Call it a formula. I interpret that as looking at your scene and assessing:

  • Does the MC have a goal?

  • Do they take an action towards that goal?

  • Is the MC an active part of what happens next?

  • Does the MC’s situation change by the end of the scene?

I made those up from my head, but I guarantee you’ll see variations of it from top writing advisors. The gist is that the hero is trying to accomplish things, rather than having stuff done to them or being handed stuff for merely being present. What has that got to do with word count?

Look at those scenes I asked you to outline. How many of them sound like “Bob tried to cross the road, ninjas showed up, but he beat them, and finished crossing the road to the next scene.” I want you to make Bob fail to cross the road. I know, I just broke your story. But I also just introduced the opportunity to write more words. Believe it or not, you can totally make those ninjas steal Bob’s movie tickets so when he gets to the other side, he realizes he’s got 20 minutes to hunt down those ninjas and get the tickets back before his date meets him,

I made all that up, you, as a writer, are expected to be creative and figure out your version of ninjas stealing tickets, as it fits your story. That complication needs to make sense. If you can make it tie into Bob making a mistake, because of some personal flaw he needed to overcome in the story anyway, then you get extra points. Like Marty McFly getting into fights, he needed to learn when they weren’t worth it. Editors love theme and character growth stuff.

Also, word count just went up. Notice a theme here. My tiny post to my friend of five ideas is a goldmine of verbiage for a blog post.

The Five Senses

Look at all your scenes’ description, I don’t know how you like to write yours, but I tend to be light on flavor text. A little too scant, which is surprising considering how wordy I am. There’s many styles of introducing a room to the character and reader, but one tip is to utilize the five senses. If you only hit one or two, spend a few sentences to set the scene and cover not only the sound of tires rolling on wet streets and neon glare streaking on Bob’s raindrop splattered glasses, but the smell of popcorn and dreams from the theater across the street and the faint smell of ginseng for some reason that will be clear later. Apparently Bob has no sense of taste, like my prose, but there’s word count in that flavor text.

Emotional Reactions are Required Reading for Humans

I’ve drunk the kool-aid on the idea of Scene and Sequel. To recap what they are, the Scene is Bob crossing the street (with the ninja surprise). The Sequel is Bob’s reaction when he gets to the other side and realizes his tickets are gone, his date will be here in 20 minutes, the movie starts in 30 and oh man, what is he going to do. I know, he’ll follow the scent of ginseng, because even though we know sense of smell is tied to taste, Bob does not.

If you don’t have these emotional internalizations, your robot, i mean character will just be moving scene to scene. They might not even explain themselves to the reader. This also lets you add a breather to a stack of scenes and show the stakes as the character (or plural) process their feelings and decide a course of action. This will enrich your story, endear the more human protagonist to the reader and build up word count

Answer the Unanswered

We all know huge blocks of exposition are bad. That’s a ground floor generality for modern writing for modern readers, take it or leave. But a reason we write exposition is because we’re trying to explain the world to the reader. Assuming you cut as much out as you thought you could, what are the remaining questions you think a reader has about your world and characters. What are the answers, and where can you squeeze in clues or pieces to those answers? In the running joke example of Bob going to a movie date, thus far, the unanswered questions are what was the movie, who was the date, and how did it turn out. And why did the ninjas want his movie ticket? How did that tie into date night? How did they know where Bob was going to be? How did they get there?

In a real story, you answered most of those. But why did Bob have an anger problem that caused him to fight so hard in the middle of the street? He could have ran and bought a new ticket. Look at that, deep backstory childhood issues to bring up in the second half as Bob learns to chill the smurf out and tackle his ninja problems with his brain and not his fist so his date isn’t turned off by him.

Sneak those answers in sparingly, and not in a wall of text exposition like that last paragraph. Try showing it more as clues, indicators of reasons rather than a character or inner monologue telling the reader. Let them infer it and come to their own, guided conclusions. Leave them wanting more.

Stay On Target

In my friend’s case, he was aiming for Amazon’s 20K word boundary for pricing a novella. I’m working on a piece that the submission limit is 6K. A publisher may want only 80K for a writer’s first novel, because words cost money. Even if you self-publish, you’re advised to get an editor, and that costs money per word. Bigger isn’t always better. Research and know what your goal should be.

Look at all Those Words

I told you I was verbose. There’s nothing wrong with extra words if the reader enjoys the ride. My original post was 192 words and I’ve milked it for 1300. Okay, I got a bit wordy, but for a good cause. If you save a copy of your current draft, there’s nothing harmful in trying the ideas here, and see if they add to your work, in not just word count, but good story-telling.

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