Revising for Length 108-02

If a finished draft is too long, or too short, the first step is to create a fresh outline, from scratch. This ensures the outline is accurate, and helps you to review the story as a whole. Ideally you should create multiple outlines at different scales. First, describe each scene in 1-5 sentences. Then, if the story is a novel, describe each chapter in 1-2 sentences. Last, identify the 2-5 key moments in the story.

For example:
1. A child realizes they are different; with strange abilities or attributes. They want to understand who they are and where they come from.
2. The child encounters someone else like them. The stranger offers them a few vague answers.
3. The child confronts their parents and learns about their origins.
4. The child chooses to go on a journey to find answers, and perhaps others like themselves.
5. The child finds answers and discovers a community of others like themselves.

Revising to Reduce
Start with the most basic outline, the 2-5 key moments. Which represents the biggest change in the character’s life? In the example above that would be #4, when the character chooses to leave their home and family, and embark on a journey.

Next, look for places where something can be cut or combined. In the above example, #2 & #3 could be combined. Remove the stranger, and instead have the parents exclusively provide answers, or remove both 2 & 3, and jump straight from the discovery that “I’m different” to the search for answers.

Revising to Increase
When increasing the length of a story, there are two options; complicate an existing plot, or add an additional subplot.

Complicating an existing plot is all about adding obstacles. What if the protagonist has no idea where to go? That requires research. What if friends or family don’t want the protagonist to leave? Now the child has to sneak away without being discovered. What if there’s a storm, and the roads are blocked? Instead of a clear path, the child is forced to travel through dense woods, or over a mountain. Just keep asking “what could go wrong”.

Subplots stem from the status quo. Characters have a life before the story, a status quo, and this conflict is disrupting the status quo. In the example, the child might have chores, homework, plans with friends, as well as vague dreams for the future. This “journey” would disrupt all of that. Depending on the character, the child might resist or welcome the change. Friends and mentors might unintentionally interfere, help, or come along.

Consider Fellowship of the Ring. At first Frodo’s goal is to get to Rivendell. The story could have ended there, but once he arrives Frodo learns that Rivendell was only one step towards a much larger goal.

Another example is Ender’s Game. It began as a 15,000 word novelette, but was later revised to be a 100,000 word novel. The original short story is the equivalent of chapters 10-14 of the book, with a simplified main plot, and no serious rivals among the students at the school.

Next Time…
Labeling Your Story

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7 thoughts on “Revising for Length 108-02

  1. Interesting post. I haven’t had to lengthen a story, but I’ve certainly had to reduce one – back from the old pantser days when I could write the most beautiful irrelevant tangents. Ha ha. Outlining has saved me a lot of headaches and heartaches. 🙂

    • In the beginning I think we often focus on reducing the length because a shorter piece is more palatable to publishers. But many well established authors have stories of how a publisher asked them to turn a novella or novelete into a full novel.

      • Yes, there were pretty strict genre guidelines about what is/was considered publishable. I worked with one writer who ruined his book by cutting it down to meet the “acceptible” word count. Not that changing the length of a book is a bad idea, but it needs to be done carefully.

        One of the things I like about the changes happening in the publishing world is that specific word counts aren’t quite as stringent. Within reason, a book can be as long or short as it needs to be. The Harry Potter series is a great example of books that blew away the YA standard of 70,000 words. Could be one of the reasons Rowling had such a hard time finding a publisher.

      • That’s one of the reasons I think it’s so important to keep writing. If you can’t get one story published, try another. And if you do get one story published, they often want another toot sweet.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’ve found that when I have to increase length, it’s usually because I have not fleshed out scenes enough in each chapter. When I need to decrease length, I not only look at the plot points (as you do with the outlining) but I also do a close line edit for repetition which is my one big weakness when writing early drafts. When I cut out all the repetition (words, phrases, sometimes whole paragraphs), it’s amazing how the length decreased!

  3. Pingback: Writing with Length in Mind 108-01 | Write Thoughts

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