I recently got into a discussion on Twitter about transitioning from short fiction to writing novels. The person I was talking to had difficulties, because by the time they wrote a one page synopsis, they basically had the entire story on one page, from beginning to end. They’d become so used to writing short stories and articles, that writing anything longer was impossible.
I remember struggling with this myself; years of writing short stories for school and 4-H made it hard for me to do what I really wanted, which was write novels. Even now, I usually have a shorter first draft (40-60,000 words) which is then expanded in revisions.
If you’d like to make the jump but keep find your manuscripts end up short, here are a few tips.
Look at your main characters, supporting cast, and antagonist. Do they all have their own set of strengths, weaknesses, and motivations? Or is your main character’s best friend falling flat on the page? Supporting cast members should be there to, well, support the protagonist, but they shouldn’t exist solely to follow their whims. They need to have something to contribute to the plot itself.
I know, I know. I just said we were going to add to the manuscript, not take away. If, for example, your main character uses their sister as a sounding board, while their best friend usually only shows up to make some kind of funny one liner, then maybe you’re better off combining the two of them. Now that your new character has the attributes of both a compassionate listener and a sense of humor, maybe you can look at them a little more closely. What are their personal goals? How do they align with the protagonist’s goals? What kind of tension exists between them (no matter how much we love someone, there is always that one thing that causes tension).
On the flip side, look at your antagonist. Why are they opposed to the protagonist achieving their goal? Conversely, why is the protagonist bent on stopping them? When you treat your characters like people and not cardboard cutouts, you end up with richer dialogue and characters that are easier for the reader to connect to. Not to mention a longer story.
Plot & Subplot
You, as the author, are now the embodiment of Murphy’s Law. If your story is wrapping up on page five when you were hoping for fifty, then clearly things were too easy for your protagonist.
There need to be challenges. A story about someone who goes to the grocery store to buy milk, finds it exactly where it’s supposed to be, pays, and leaves isn’t very interesting. But if our shopper misses their bus and has to walk only to get mugged on the way, then it becomes interesting. One thing that has always frustrated me with urban fantasy, though it’s my favorite genre, is that the main characters tend to spend more time fighting evil than they do at their invariably boring day jobs, and yet still always manage to not only pay the mortgage on their large homes in big cities, but they can afford to fix their car for the third time in six months after a troll sat on it, or to replace the window and the carpet after elves shot flaming arrows into the living room.
The point is, while the protagonist is saving the world (or whatever it is they do in your story, whether it’s finding a lover, getting the job of their dreams, or catching a serial killer), real life is happening around them. Their neighbors are going to complain about the loud, strange noises coming from their apartment in the middle of the night, and the landlord will make a visit. They’ll argue with their spouse or significant other about the placement of the toilet seat, and the cat will barf in their dress shoes five minutes before they have to go to a meeting. They might trip on the stairs and sprain an ankle, and show up to the final boss battle on crutches.
Life happens. Don’t forget it.
How does your character respond to this? Are they angry? Do they throw something? Curl up in a ball and cry?
What kind of tall tale do they feed the landlord to hide the dragon hatchling curled up in the fire place? Is the toilet seat issue a symptom of a larger problem in their romantic relationship? Do they have to pick a new outfit to match their only other good pair of heels, and wind up ten minutes late–just in time to witness a bank robbery?
Structure, Voice, and Other Sundry Details
In most fantasy novels, you’ll find there is a particular structure. Usually the hero has to face the villain three times before they can win. At the first encounter, they may or may not realize who the bad guy is. At the second encounter, they invariably get their ass handed to them, and have to regroup before facing them a third time, and ultimately saving the day.
This comes from the three act structure. If you’re having difficulties expanding your story out, then take a look at this. A hero who save the day the first time out of the gate isn’t very believable, and readers will have a hard time connecting with them.
Let’s face it; we all have our weaknesses. When a hero has weaknesses, it helps the reader to relate to them. Everybody likes an underdog.
When the deck is stacked against the main character, it makes the story more interesting. Take a close look at your hero and the story, and decide where the main conflict is. Is it internal, or external? Can you add a secondary conflict?
Take our businesswoman for example. While running late to work, she witnesses a bank robbery. The robbers know she’s seen them and can identify them, therefore, she has to be eliminated: external conflict, classic man v. man (or character v. character).
But, when she finally gets home, instead of sympathy from her longtime partner, they get into an argument about that damn toilet seat. Again. For the third time this week. Is it really about the toilet seat, though? Or is it about his lack of understanding, or the fact that she’s not home to make dinner? Either way, she’s got some soul searching to do, to decide if this is a relationship she wants to save or one she wants to end. It’s an internal clash that might distract her from the fact that she’s in mortal peril at exactly the wrong moment, giving our antagonist an in for that first major conflict.
That brings me to my next point: stakes. If your protagonist isn’t risking everything–or at least something of great value to them–on that final struggle, then is it really a story worth telling? Remember, going to the store getting milk isn’t very interesting. Going to the store and getting mugged is.
Lastly, look at your voice. We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell” in writing classes, online forums, and in textbooks. Don’t just tell us the room was bright or the noise was loud. Make us feel the sunlight searing through our eyelids as the curtains are drawn back, or the rapid thump of the car’s bass as it pounds through the main character’s chest. You’re not just adding words–you’re adding to the experience.
I hope this has been helpful for you. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below, or you can ask on Twitter. There’s a link in the sidebar, or you can find me as @knotmagick.