Seven Signs Your Book Is Going To Be Too Long or Too Short...
1. Your outline calls for 3 scenes of set-up, but it’s turned into 9 scenes…and you hero has still not even answered the call to adventure yet.
2. Several scenes you thought would take up whole chapters each have turned out to work better as a paragraph or even a line of summary. (“The mule caravan arrived at the ford by spring.”)
3. A new character turned up who wasn’t in your outline.
4. A minor character has proven more important than you realized.
5. You added or dropped a subplot.
6. Your scenes are running a lot longer or shorter than you expected.
7. You’re halfway through the outline of what should be a 70,000 word book but only have 10,000 words.
...And How To Fix It
Now let’s get to solutions. Not surprisingly, Too Short and Too Long are mirror image problems, so the solutions are interrelated. Length is primarily controlled by five things.
Is your hero driving the story or sitting around passively waiting and worrying about stuff? After your hero accepts the call to action, your hero should be constantly driving the story toward the main goal.
If Your Book Is Too Short: If the story is moving toward the end too rapidly, in a boring and linear fashion, you might need more Sub-Tasks. These are things your hero needs to do to reach the final goal. However, they must be exciting and important in their own right, not superfluous distractions. Brainstorm more Sub-Tasks as needed and add these to your outline to make sure they fit into the larger story arc before you commit to them.
A related problem is that your protagonist might not be interesting enough. Show another side of her through a Subtask or Subplot (more about those below).
If Your Book Is Too Long: If the story is meandering and the hero is not making progress toward the main goal, you may have included too many Sub-Tasks. Does the hero really need to find all Seven Magic Gems? How about only Three?
Look for things to cut. Candidates are any scenes which don’t directly contribute to the main story goal, journey scenes and “boring” scenes.
There are two kinds of Subplots. In one kind, the protagonist is pursuing another goal in addition to the main story goal. For example, the hero’s main goal is to win an Olympic race. A subplot is his goal to win the heart of a runner on a rival team. Or take the governess hired to look after the daughter of a duke. The main plot is heroine’s winning the romantic affections of the duke. The subplot is the heroine’s winning the familial affections of his daughter.
The other kind of subplot involves characters besides the protagonist. For example, the hero is an eremitic monk who has come out of his ascetic solitude to play detective and exonerate a fellow monk accused of murder. The subplot is story of the Venetian princeling who hired him to marry the daughter of a political rival and avoid assassination by his rivals. In Initiate, the first book of The Unfinished Song, the main plot revolves around the heroine’s attempts to pass her Initiation and become a Tavaedi (magic warrior-dancer). Subplots involve the hero’s exile, a mother trying to protect her daughters, and a mysterious woman who lost her memory (told in flashbacks).
The key to effective subplots is that although they seem irrelevant at first to the main plot, they always tie into it by the end.
If Your Book Is Too Short: Add subplots. Add a McGuffin, a mystery or a relationship. Count up how many characters your protagonist has important relationships with so far. If it’s only two—the romance and the villain—or less, then there’s room for more. The relationship doesn’t have to be a romance either. It could be a friend, a roommate, an ex, an authority figure. To make sure you’re not just filling pages with Yawn, give the other person in the relationship a conflict with your protagonist. Use this relationship and this conflict to show another side of your protagonist.
If Your Book Is Too Long: Subtract or contract subplots. I know it’s hard, if you’ve set up also sort of delicious side-stories, to snipe them out of the picture. Here’s the secret to painlessly cutting Excess Subplot: Keep It For Later. A later book in the series, a new set of characters in some other series, a stand-alone short story, a novella tie-in to your main book. Nothing need be lost. Keep telling yourself that…then cut.
Scene and Summary
Scene is “showing.” Summary is “telling.” I won’t elaborate here because you can find lots about the difference between these too. If you’re not sure of it, definitely study up, although be aware there’s a lot of dumb advice around “Show Don’t Tell.” Sometimes it messes you up more than it helps.
If Your Book Is Too Short: You may be conveying too much of your book through Summary rather than Scene. Look over your novel and see if you’ve skimmed over any potentially juicy scenes. It’s also possible that you’re writing too many “white room” scenes that are almost entirely dialogue, with no sense of setting.
If Your Book Is Too Long: You may be conveying too much of your book through Scene rather than Summary. Believe it or not, sometimes it IS better to Tell than to Show. See if some scenes can be reduced to a line or paragraph of summary at the beginning of the next scene or somewhere else, and cut the fat. You may also be overexplaining. Do you tell the reader what your going to tell them, show them, and then tell them what your going to tell them? Do your characters plan their actions in one scene, worry about whether their plan will work in the next scene, carry out the actions as they planned or fail they worried, and then talk about it or think or fret about it afterward? If so, you can probably cut all but one of those scenes. Don’t bore your reader with repetition.
Cast of Characters
It’s a simple rule: The more major characters you have, the longer the story needs to be. This is especially true if you have multiple PoV characters.
If Your Book Is Too Short: Add a character, or give a minor character a bigger role. Adding a character has the benefit of usually involving more Subtasks or Subplots.
If Your Book Is Too Long: Remove a character, reduce a major character to a minor role or combine two different characters into one. Cutting a character is often the easiest way to cut excess Subtasks or Subplots.
Passage of Time
The more time passes in your novel, the harder it is to flow smoothly across chapters. That’s because scenes take place in a sort of imagined “real time,” which isn’t real at all, but necessarily contains a certain heft and pace. If you skip ten years between chapters two and three and another year between chapters nine and ten, it’s going to be tricky. Skilled writers can do it, and some stories require it, but be aware it can play havoc with the wordcount of your novel as you wrestle with it. This is related, but subtly different from the problem of Scene vs. Summary.
If Your Book Is Too Short: Are you skipping too much time? Do you skim over long intervals of things like, “Over the next six months I learned fluent Spanish and earned black belts in five martial arts. At last, I was ready to take down the Yakuza gang that killed Grandma.” Consider showing some of this time in Scene.
If Your Book Is Too Long: Do you have your characters onstage too often in an effort to show time passing? Waiting, studying, journeying, empty dialogue, waking up, going to sleep, eating at feasts where no one is poisoned, these may all show the passage of time, but not in a good way. Skip more.
Whether your book is too short or too long, it can benefit from cutting boring scenes. Even the shortest book is too long if it’s a drag to read.
Boring scenes are usually there because the plot “requires” them, for info-dumping, setting the mood, reaction shots or moving characters around, but they are… boring. Target scenes that involve nothing beyond your protagonist worrying, waiting, travelling or planning. Look for the nugget of necessary information or action contained in the scene—the reason you allowed it into your manuscript or outline in the first place. Then extract that nugget and place it into another scene, combine two boring scenes into one more interesting scene, or just cut it altogether.
Or turn a boring scene into a thrilling scene. More on that later.
Finally, if all else fails, if you’ve scoured your book and don’t want to add or cut a thing, rename your Too Short novel a novella, or split your Too Long book into two books. Voila! Now it’s the perfect length!
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