The other day I wondered if I might lengthen a few of my existing short stories. These were originally written as character sketches, brief prequels to the world I had created for my novels. Two of those short tales are posted under my fiction tab. But if those stories could be longer, fleshed out to become more compelling, it seemed to me that they might serve as the start of a novel-length anthology of stories.
So, my question was: What’s the best way to lengthen a short story? This question led me down a google-hole of blogs and articles describing word counts for different kinds of fiction, sorted by length.
INDUSTRY STANDARD WORD COUNTS
We have flash fiction (up to ~ 1,000 words), short stories (~1,000 – 7,500 words), novelettes (~7,500 – 19,000 words), novellas (~19,000 – 50,000 words) and novels (~50,000+ words). These word-count lengths are considered ‘industry standard’ and they arise, in part, from a financial analysis. The longer a book, the more it costs to print, the higher the sticker price and the smaller the profit.
Thus, thinking holistically about the above and all else being equal, a 400,000-word novel might be less likely to find a publisher than a 100,000 word novel. (Capitalism!) But in addition to any price-point analysis, different labels help us set expectations. If we order a novel online, we expect the package that arrives to have a certain heft.
HOW LONG … SHOULD A STORY BE?
My google-surfing then led me to all manner of online discussions regarding appropriate story length. Some say a story should be exactly the length it needs to be. In other words, books should not be defined by their length, but by their arc. The construction, the characters’ journeys, and so on—word count be damned.
Eventually I came across the idea that it’s always possible to shorten a piece of fiction. Maybe a querying writer has a 220,000-word epic fantasy, and they’ve found an agent who’s interested, but that agent needs a thirty percent reduction in length. Amazingly, the writer pulls it off. How? By collapsing characters or subplots, removing extraneous words or dialog tags, taking out entire scenes and chapters. The flab goes onto the cutting room floor and gems are left. ***Magic happens.*** The agent signs the author, sells the manuscript, and bim bang boom, everybody’s fabulously wealthy.
There’s plenty of advice online about tightening a piece of writing (I could, for example, eliminate the preceding two paragraphs wholesale), but today I’m wondering about growing a story. Can a good writer take a classic short story (as an example below let’s use Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, because I suspect we’ve all read it), and develop it into a novella? Or a novel, or even a Netflix series??? And what would that look like?!?
Yes. It can be done. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, pulled it off. In 1977, Ender’s Game was published as a roughly 15,000-word short story in Analog magazine. Orson Scott Card went on to develop this story into a published novel of the same name (1985), later revised into another edition to incorporate 20th century history more closely (1991), and then serialized with additional novels to expand characters and develop additional plot-lines. The movie Ender’s Game was released in 2013, and no doubt more adventures await. But it all began as fifteen thousand words in 1977.
So it can be done, and I’ve now set myself the task of breathing more life into my short fiction. A good way to begin, I think, is with an understanding of a short story’s existing structure. The plot, the themes, the characters. Then, in a balanced way, deepen those elements, throughout. If entirely new elements are brought in—characters or subplots or anything else—they should support the central frame or theme of the existing story.
STRATEGIES TO LENGTHEN SHORT FICTION
At that point in my research, I started scribbling down specific approaches. I ended up with a list that my critique partners found useful, so I decided to post it here as well.
- Enhance existing plot points.
In practical terms, a logical start to expanding a short story would involve having an outline of the story at hand, one that identifies an inciting point, a ‘dark night’ moment, a crisis and resolution and all the rest. Google around on ‘beat sheets’ for more ideas about this. (Or, see my favorite book on story structure, which identifies best scene types to accompany each plot point: Writing Deep Scenes.)
Any of these plot points could potentially be ‘bigger’ in our work. Each can build (or release) a greater degree of tension. Potentially, each can raise the stakes to a greater degree than currently stands.
The inciting incident in The Tell-Tale Heart is already incredibly strong:
I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
It’s hard to imagine changing any of those amazing sixty five words to enhance tension (or stakes, for that matter). They’re good. But Poe was a master of tension, so of course he nailed it. In our own work, we might look for ways to accentuate each pivotal plot point. More build-up, more cost, more aftermath.
- Develop sensory details.
Short stories are lean. The Tell-Tale Heart primarily stays within the crazed mental space of the main character. That’s effective. But in terms of senses, Poe limited the story to sight and sound. Had he wished to develop this work into a longer piece, he might have delved into smell and touch, which could have been quite effective as well, given the story’s gruesome setting.
Drawing on the primary senses of smell, taste, touch, sound and sight to make a story more immersive will develop a story, but ‘senses,’ when writing fiction, can also include time, as experienced by the characters. Going forward and back within the lives of our characters makes them feel more real. The Tell-Tale Heart has no backstory, and it has no real sense of where the main character would like to be in a year. Its plot is entirely immediate. (Hey, it works, no complaints.) But longer works are free to indulge along the axis of time.
- Accentuate the setting.
Setting includes geographical elements and landscape elements, but also weather, time of day, number of people and their activities and energy levels. Building an impactful setting reinforces mood and theme.
A character alone in a stifling room is very different than a character riding Space Mountain at Disneyland. Possibly, settings within your (or my) story can be expanded upon, to deepen themes, goals, and motivations.
The Tell-Tale Heart intentionally opens with a highly claustrophobic and dark setting—two characters alone through the bulk of the story, until the officers arrive. The officers change the setting by their mere presence. The emotional state of the main character immediately shifts, into something reminiscent of a cornered animal.
We can examine our own fictional settings for ways to strengthen our work.
- Add new characters (or develop existing characters).
This can be a great way to add dimensionality. Developed secondary characters, with their own life-goals, makes the world of the viewpoint character more real. Make those goals complementary or oppositional to the protagonist’s, while remaining true to the intent of the story.
This might mean adding new scenes or new viewpoints. Or, it might not. If it does, the word count naturally rises. Write a few scenes centered on a secondary character and play with incorporating those scenes. It might work nicely.
(Imagine if a neighbor showed up in Poe’s story, just as the victim is being suffocated. Hmm.)
- Add a subplot.
Give a side character their own journey, and in such a way that it impacts the main plot-line. Romance can provide a nice subplot. Family conflicts, told within a multi-family story, are often intriguing. Giving a character a job that influences the main character’s journey can lead to a nice subplot.
Subplots can contrast with the main plot, or mirror it, or complicate it. Subplots are less commonly used in short fiction, due to its nature, but in longer works, they reinforce what already exists.
It’s hard to imagine going from a 3,000-word story to a 40,000-word story without another subplot or two. So this approach will likely be a staple in any effort to build out a story.
- Examine emotional content.
This is my favorite idea, drawn from the craft book The Emotional Craft of Fiction. The exercises in this book really help a writer get into the heads of their characters, to increase immersion and interiority. Try a few of the exercises in this book—they’ll increase word count without adding flab, and lead to a more rounded set of characters
Growing a story does not mean adding words. It means understanding characters and motivations and accentuating the most impactful aspects of what already exists. If a deeper dive by the author into the lives of characters helps a reader invest in the story, then added length pulls weight. The story becomes heftier, and the reading experience more satisfying.
And so, onward—I have a story or two I need to grow.