Thursday, May 4, 2017


There's no magic formula, and it won't work for every story, but sometimes it's possible to turn what you thought was just a little tale into a much bigger deal. It all depends on whether you can make it happen organically; there's nothing worse than a novel that's wordy for no reason.

A few years ago I wrote a short story for the middle grade market. It happened to be a market that took 4000 words, which is rare. But fitting my story into that generous length was a major struggle for me. It should have been a warning: maybe I wasn't writing a short story after all.

The editor I sent it to very kindly rejected it with comments, which is also rare. She said she got the feeling I was trying to cram too much into my 4000 words.

I set about finding ways to expanded the piece. It didn't take long to find 30 chapters where once there had been one. The novel is fully outlined and about a third drafted at this point, and I feel like it's going well. Maybe one of your stories could use that sort of rethinking. But how can you tell?

Warning Signs

Keeping within a maximum word limit is a normal challenge for story-writers. But if you’ve cut out all the fat in the verbiage and streamlined in every possible way, yet your story is still not getting shorter, that's a sign you might be working on a bigger piece. 

Another thing to watch is reactions to the story, like I received from that editor. Do your reader’s eyes spin in her head when she finishes? Does her lip quiver as she admits there are too many characters to keep track of? Be honest: she’s reacting to issues you were subconsciously aware of. Listen to yourself and listen to your critique group or whoever sees your stuff before you submit it. Unlike a cat, which can sit in any box it believes it fits in, a story needs the right-sized vessel.

Also be aware as you're writing the story of a feeling of sadness, or a longing to tell the main character’s story more fully, or to flesh out a minor character. Or maybe you love the world you’ve created, and you really wish you could spend more time there. These are symptoms of novel-itis. Celebrate! Expand! There is no cure. But what to do now?

The Garden of Your Plot

Think of the story as a handful of seeds. Expanding it should be like watering and giving nutrients and sunshine to every element of the story. Just like a plant. No matter how big it grows, there is no "extra." Everything that exists is necessary to the plant. And every part of the story will need to grow and multiply: plot, subplots, dialogue, settings, characters.

If you can tell your story in 1500 words, and it doesn’t feel rushed and the characters don’t feel one-dimensional, then pat yourself on the back and start submitting. But if you feel like you’ve barely grazed the surface, then experiment with expanding in two ways:

1. Grow what’s already there. 

Take a sentence or paragraph, and see if you can imagine it as a chapter of, say, 600-1000 words. Mary walked her little brother to the store. That might do in a short story, but you could expand it. 

First, there are basic details you might add: Is she holding his hand? Do her sandals make a funny noise on the pavement? Is she thinking about something significant?

Then, there are added actions: Does she get distracted by something that delays her arrival at the store? Or maybe her brother runs off? Ooh! Now you have a scene, and Mary can wend her way back to the store eventually.

In other words, you want to find all the points in your story where things happen, and figure out how to enrich them. Don’t just make them longer; give them bigger and better purpose and meaningful new details.

Just be sure there’s a reason for the expansion. This takes planning. Why does the brother run off? What will it have to do with the overall plot? At first, you can just scribble whatever comes into your head, but eventually you’ll need to tie it all together. I’m a big advocate of outlining (some call it planning vs. pantsing) because it helps assure I don’t have loose ends in my novels.

2. Add stories to your story.

Consider writing related short stories about the same characters and setting. But you can’t just glue a bunch of stories together and call it a novel. There must be one or more over-arching storylines to keep the propulsion going and allow the whole thing to make sense. This approach means that your original story will become the first chapter or two or three, and you’ll extend the plot from there.

Even better, insert stories within the existing story, instead of after. This allows the original goal of your plot to remain the goal in the novel. Have your characters do something that they didn’t get a chance to in the original. And create new characters, letting them interact with the original folks. You’ll need to give them subplots that either bring about important actions or reveal something important about your original characters and their motivations. Again, I can’t do this without lots of planning, but I find it an effective way to open out the story.

Long story short (or in this case, short story long!), if you have a story that’s bursting at the seams, don’t be afraid to pick one of those stitches loose and let the words pour out until you have a novel. Your characters will thank you, and so will your readers.

About the Author: 

In addition to being a Rate your Story judge, Anne E. Johnson writes fiction in many genres. Her works include the middle-grade paranormal mystery Ebenezer's Locker (MuseItUp), middle-grade historical mystery Trouble at the Scriptorium (Royal Fireworks), and noir sci-fi series The Webrid Chronicles (Candlemark & Gleam). She has had dozens of short stories published in magazines and anthologies, and many of them can now be found in her book Things from Other Worlds: 15 Alien and Fantasy Stories for Kids. Visit Anne's website to inquire about professional critique services or to learn more about her books and stories. 

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