Dear Story Nurse,
I recently finished the first draft of my novel—a mystery set in a pretty traditional fantasy land. The problem? When I did the final word count, it came out to 27K. I’m doing the first round of editing—well, mostly adding scenes that I missed the first time around—and at the rate I’m going, it’s going to roughly double my wordcount, which still won’t bring me to the 80–90K typical of the genre. And I definitely do want this work to be a novel, not a novella. Retooling it for the typically shorter YA market would involve excising a lot of themes important to the story. So how can I get my wordcount up without adding unnecessary fluff?
—Wannabe Novelist (he/him)
Dear Wannabe Novelist,
There are two ways to approach this dilemma. One is the philosophical approach: the story is the length it wants to be, and there isn’t much that you can do about that. The other is the engineering approach: there needs to be enough story structure to support the story’s length, or the whole thing will collapse and that will be sad. I’m going to get into the engineering approach a bit, but I want you to keep the philosophical one in mind, because there are very good reasons that most of the seasoned writers I know tend to end up thinking of story length in those terms.
An engineering-minded writer once told me that he builds a story the way he builds a table. So let’s talk about tables.
Your basic table has four legs and a top. The legs are there to support the top. Spindly legs that might support a smaller tabletop won’t support a larger one; either the legs will break or the table will sag down the middle. In story terms, that sag down the middle is the most common failure mode for a story that’s too long for the amount of plot and character development it has. The beginning and end may seem pretty sturdy, but the middle feels slow and boring and like you’re just pushing through it to get to the good parts. No one wants this, especially for a mystery.
The engineering of (most) mystery plots is somewhat more complicated than the engineering of (most) tables, but for your purposes the big concern is that mysteries often already suffer from saggy middles. The setup is full of questions! The ending is full of drama! In between you have to pace things very carefully to stay just the right amount ahead of your reader. If you try to stretch or pad that out, you’re going to run into trouble pretty quickly.
So you’ve got that saggy-middle table. How do you fix it? Two fairly straightforward ways are to run a crossbrace diagonally from the left front leg to the right rear leg, or to add another pair of legs in the middle. In story terms, the crossbrace is an additional plot, and the additional pair of legs is an arc conclusion that has both the satisfaction of an ending and the anticipation of a new beginning.
Your additional plot could be another mystery plot. It could be a romantic plot. It could be a political intrigue plot. It could be a second viewpoint character who has their own story that intersects the story of your original protagonist. There are lots of ways to do this. (Maybe you’re already thinking of some! If so, that’s a good sign.) This is a great way to go if you need to really bulk up your word count. How you weave that plot into your existing one is up to you, but don’t skimp on it! It’s holding up nearly half the words; it needs to be sturdy. This is how George R.R. Martin keeps readers reading through hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages of A Song of Ice and Fire: each of his characters has their own vivid and complex story, and he has lots of characters (despite attrition).
Mid-story arc conclusions are a little trickier, but can be pretty enjoyable both to write and to read. Take a minor plot or character from the first half of the story and a minor plot or character from the second half, and flesh them both out. Neither one needs to be a full story, but each one needs to have a satisfying arc-like feel. The first one should start near the start of the mystery plot and end somewhere near the middle, and the second should start somewhere near the middle and end near the end. It’s fine if they overlap, and they don’t need to be connected in any way, overtly or thematically. They just need to give the reader some grounding while the main mystery plot is still full of questions and uncertainty.
Keep in mind that when I talk about supporting the word count, what I’m really talking about is supporting the reader. When we say book middles sag, we mean that the reader’s attention drifts. Adding more story encourages the reader to keep paying attention, because there’s plenty (but not too much) to pay attention to. I talk a little more about this in my post on maintaining story momentum, which would probably also be useful for you.
You may have noticed that none of this is about how to make your core story longer. That brings us back to the philosophical approach, which I do generally subscribe to. The shape of your mystery plot is what it is. A skilled editor or beta reader might be able to point to places where it could be fleshed out, and it’s always possible that you’ve significantly underwritten it, but if you’ve got a draft that feels complete except for not having hit a particular word count target, then that story has said all it wants to say. It can be very frustrating when a story doesn’t listen to things that you know are important commercially, like genre expectations for manuscript length, or like you having a contract to deliver a short story and getting an idea that clearly wants to be a novel. But that’s part of writing, no matter how much of an engineer you are. Writing marries intuition to intellect, and sometimes the intuition part means you just know when the thing is done and no amount of hacking at it will make it not be done.
Fortunately, you can write more stories, which is what my suggestions amount to. You can also literally write another story: break your 55k into two parts, write another 25k, and call it a trilogy. Sometimes three little tables pushed together is the best way to make one big one. Or you can write another story in a different sense: learn all the lessons you can from this one, pat it lovingly, and put it in a drawer, where it will live quietly until the day you realize that what you really need is a fantasy mystery novella. In the meantime, find another idea that’s more suited to being developed into a novel.
Knowing what length a story idea wants to be is something that will come with time and practice. In the meantime, these things will happen. Don’t stress over it too much. Maybe your revision efforts will lead to a wondrous mechanical table that folds up flat or expands to seat twenty. Maybe you’ll end up with a pile of kindling. (Always save copies of your drafts before revising them!) No matter what, you’ll learn something important for the next project. And eventually, you’ll find some Goldilocks combination of concept and length that’s just exactly right for what you need.