How to Increase Your Novel’s Word Count

Word count is the devil you have to love, or at the very least, respect.

This is a true statement if your goal is to be published (through traditional methods) someday. Those of you who don’t care about traditional publishing can leave the room now. Go play cricket or bake a souffle or save the whales. Then write about it. Use as many words as you like.

The rest of you, please select an abacus from the abacus cabinet and have a seat.

Unless you’ve already had significant publishing success or your last name is Rowling or King, you’re going to have to pay close attentionĀ to The Count. You’re picturing that vampiric puppet from Sesame Street, aren’t you? Now you’re thinking about vampires. Now you’re thinking about Edward Cullen. Now you’re either drooling glitter or you just threw up a little in your mouth. Can we get back on topic now? Thank you. (Go team Lestat!)

If you’re like most new writers, your manuscript is too long. You never intended it to grow to 150,000 words, but it just sort of took on a life of its own. Like a garden of beautiful wildflowers!

No, like a plague.

Well, if you’re one of these sorts of writers, you’re in the wrong classroom. Overlong Novels and How to Trim Them Like a Bad Mullet is in room 242 down the hall. Don’t forget to put your abacus back in the abacus cabinet on your way out.

The three of you who remain? I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news: you suffer from Anorexia Novelosa. You missed your goal of 80,000 words by 25,000, didn’t you?

There, there. No reason to cry. Well, there might be a reason to cry, but we won’t know that until after you try some of these ideas for increasing your novel’s word count:

Introduce a Brand New Character. Not just any character, but someone who is significant enough to throw your protagonist’s plans a little out of whack. Some stories come up short because they’re a bit too linear. Good guy pursues a goal. Bad guy interrupts good guy’s plans. Good guy overcomes bad guy. The end. But what if there’s another good guy pursuing the same (or a conflicting) goal? Or another bad guy who wants the joy of ruining the good guy’s day? Or someone who could be either good or bad depending on the way the wind is blowing? Yes, adding a significant character to a “fully operational Death Star”…er…I mean a “complete” first draft can really mess with the plot you so carefully worked out. One change on page 45 could have an impact on every page that follows. And some that precede it. But a brand new character can also add depth and texture (and words) to your story.

Give a Minor Character More Lines. You know that neighbor who appears once or twice because it gives your main character someone to talk to on the way out of his apartment? What if she had a bigger role? Look at each of your minor characters. Perhaps a couple of them are just begging for more ink on the page. Give it to them. Let the crazy uncle be even crazier. Follow the mother and her daughter into the train station instead of just observing them from a distance. Cross the street to find out why the dog is barking every night at eleven. Every character in your story has a full, complex life, even if all you see of them in your current draft is captured by a single sentence.

Fill in the Calendar. I’ll bet you have more than a few places in your novel where you write something like “three days later” or “later that night.” Sometimes there’s an entire chapter just begging to be written about the “three days” or the space between now and “later that night.” Note: I said sometimes. We don’t need to know what’s happening every minute. Choose these new scenes carefully. And be aware that any additions to your story will affect not only the plot, but also the pacing and rhythm. If an addition “feels” off, it probably is.

Further Develop a Subplot. Subplots are “sub” for a reason. They are meant to enhance, not compete with the main storyline. But some of your subplots might benefit from a few more words. Perhaps the rainstorm that never seems to end not only threatens the dam, but also floods a local school, forcing teachers and students to hold classes in a nearby abandoned train station. Maybe the grocery store clerk who is always singing to customers decides to try out for American Idol.

Beef Up Your Description. Let me give you the caveat first: don’t just add description for description’s sake. There’s nothing worse than having to slog through page after page of details that add little or nothing to the story. That said, there might be places where the story would be enhanced by more detail. Don’t just mention the fading color of the baseboard paint in the haunted house, tell me that the room smells like mold and dead mice and how the floorboards seem to cough with every step. Don’t just tell me there are wind chimes hanging on the back porch, tell me the song the protagonist hears when the breeze blows. Provide details that increase tension or reveal more about a character.

Find a Better Ending. I know, you already have the perfect ending. Or do you? What if the ending you have now is just a pause before the actual ending? What else could go wrong that might send the story in a (logical) new direction? Think about it. Or maybe there’s a “false” ending you forgot to write – one that fits rather perfectly in the timeline just before the actual ending.

What if you consider all these ideas and nothing seems to work? It’s possible your novel is un-expandable. Perhaps 55,000 words is exactly the right length for your manuscript. If so? Confidently shop it around to agents and editors. A great story is a great story is a great story. If it’s really just right at 55,000 words, a savvy agent or editor will realize this. I’ve seen more than a few novels get picked up for publication because they were “just right,” even though they fell outside the word count guidelines.

Okay. That’s all for today.

Class dismissed. Don’t forget to return your abacus to the abacus cabinet. I know you didn’t use them. I just wanted to write “abacus cabinet.”

Have a nice day.

[This post is 1103 words long. On purpose.]

22 thoughts on “How to Increase Your Novel’s Word Count

  1. Thank you, thank you! I’m actually under contract with a traditional publisher and at this moment find myself edging near to the end of a too-short novel. You have given me ideas that will help. I’m printing out your post and pinning it to my bulletin board. –kd

  2. I’m sitting in front and staying after class. Excess or irrelevant content annoys me, probably too much, so I over-correct by writing condensed books. Don’t want to scare away a great potential agent with the “40,000″ figure on the cover page, so I’m grateful for your help.

  3. I enjoyed participating in your class so much! Thank you for this flood of inspiration! Best wishes from Germany (as an excuse for possible mistakes ;) !)

  4. Hey. Dude. Thanks. I’m like, thirteen, and only at around 16000 words and this helped sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much. My story is not one of the failures that I threw in the corner that I never bother to clean up anymore. IT’S ACTUALLY GOING SOMEWHERE.

    So thanks.

    1. That depends. First question: Is the story complete at 40,000 words? If so, it’s a novella, not a novel. This isn’t a bad thing if your plan is to self-publish. But if you’re targeting agents in hopes of traditional publishing…it might be a problem. Not many are keen to represent novellas. But don’t fret yet – a first draft might only be 40K, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of other words in there somewhere – stories you haven’t uncovered quite yet. See what appears on the second draft.

  5. Hello! Thank you so much for your help. I am a young, aspiring writer and I really needed help beefing up my word count.

    My ‘novel’ comes in a just under 14,000 words and I still need more help. Do you think you could elaborate on how to write a subplot? It would mean the world to me.

    Thanks for you time! :D

    1. Sorry I’m so late responding to this. I just missed it somehow. What you have there is…a short story. It’s possible that the story you’re writing is destined to be a short story. And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course. If your story feels complete, perhaps it is.

      Like a short story, a novel is all about conflict and resolution, obstacles and overcoming those obstacles. If your protagonist isn’t being tested enough, that’s one way to grow the story. Add more challenges. Subplots are those little stories that support or surround or intersect with the protagonist’s primary quest, but are mostly separate from that quest. Study your protagonist (and antagonist) a bit – look for depth you haven’t explored yet. Try following some of the secondary characters to see if they have stories that matter. Make it so their actions put the protagonist’s quest in peril or distract him from his quest. It’s hard to generalize about such things, because as already noted, you may have a complete story in that 14K words. Try outlining it and then take the outline apart and put it back together with new branches – actions, obstacles, challenges, surprises, introduction of new characters, and so on. Then put pen to paper and see where those subplots take you.

  6. Thanks so much.

    I had an idea for a more complex story line already. I ‘found a better ending’ . Instead of having the characters avoid an impending war by the skin of their teeth, I’m going to have them fight in the war, and eventually become victorious. But there are going to be some losses, so that adds some tragedy to the story too!

    If after the war, there still aren’t enough words, I’m definitely going to add some subplots.

    This post was really helpful. Thanks!

    -Grace

  7. Thanks for this, I am the original lean, succinct writer. Years of honing articles, I guess. The idea of writing 100,000 words for one book amazes me.

    1. I feel for you as I am the same way. I love to find better ways of saying things using more but less colorful terms. Good Luck!

  8. I was one of the three who stayed behind! My book was at 40,000 and I just couldn’t get it to 50,000! Introducing a new character was an excellent idea. The flow of things were still the same, and it didn’t change the entire context of the story! Thanks!

  9. Thank you so much for your help.
    When my story nagged to be written, I didn’t realize how many words it took to make a book. Your ideas will help me get over my “less is more” attitude.

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