How To Flesh Out a Story Without Padding
by Marg McAlister
You've finally finished the first draft - celebration time!
Or is it?
When you read it through, you realise with a sinking feeling that it seems a bit... well, skimpy.
And maybe it's a tad short.
There's no getting around it. You have to concede that your story needs a bit more flesh on its
bones. But how can you make sure that you add substance, rather than just padding? How DO you flesh out a
Some Signs of Padding
If a story is padded, it is packed with inconsequential detail that makes the story longer, but
doesn't enhance it in any way. Here are some signs of padding:
- Dialogue that meanders and doesn't move the story forward.
- Too much description (flowery or technical).
- Too much interior monologue. (The viewpoint character ponders too much and for too
- Extra 'walk on' characters who just bloat the cast without adding value to the
- Grandstanding. (The author is obviously using the story as a soapbox to espouse a pet
cause or to express feelings about an issue.)
- Inconsequential 'problems' for the characters to solve. (The hurdles put in the
characters' way are perceived by the reader to be annoying side-tracks rather than genuine sources of
- Inefficient transitions. (The author takes unnecessary pages to move the
characters from one place or time to another.)
- A delayed ending / unnecessary explanations. (The story should have been over in
Chapter 29, but the author has added another five chapters to 'make it the right length'. Sometimes this is in
the form of tedious explanations about why characters did things and how they outsmarted people. This should
have been obvious from the action in the story.)
How to Flesh Out a Story
If the above list shows you signs of a story that's padded, rather than well-rounded, then what
can you do to fix it? What are some good ways of adding depth and texture?
First, you have to decide what your specific problem is. Some writers have problems with their
stories because they are 'bare bones' writers: they have difficulty adding emotional punch, exploring their
characters' thoughts, and bringing people and places to life with carefully chosen descriptive phrases. Their
stories are all action.
Other writers can handle all of these things, but always seem to end up with a story that's too
short. They know it needs expanding, but how? (Sometimes their story is novella length - say, 30,000 words. Too
long to be a short story; too short to be a novel.)
Let's look at each of these in turn.
1. If your story is too short...
(a) Add a new plot twist. (This brings with it more problems and a new level of complexity
to the main story).
(b) Add a new sub-plot. (This should be a secondary issue that CAN be removed from the
main story without affecting its flow or the outcome of the story. However, it must add depth to at least one of
your story people. It might explain a character flaw, or distract the main character from seeing something obvious,
or generally make his/her life more complicated in some way.)
(c) Add a new character (A SIGNIFICANT character, whose life is interwoven with the main
character's life - not just a caricature whose job is simply to take up a few more pages and add extra lines of
(c) Add a new dimension to your main character - a secret in his/her past; a secret hobby
or interest that for some reason needs to be hidden from others. This may or may not be related to a new plot twist
2. If your story is too bare-bones...
(a) Identify what you are NOT doing that you SHOULD be doing. Explore this by reading the
work of other authors. Identify writing that seems (to you) to work well, or to be something you'd aspire to. Then
write out several pages of the published book by hand, or type it into the computer. Get a 'feel' for the way
sentences flow and the way words are used. Then take an excerpt from your own work and try to replicate the
(b) Look at the way you describe people, events, and places. You're quite likely to find
that you are too economical with words, and that you haven't chosen words or phrases that evoke what you want.
Rather, you settle for something that easily comes to mind, then move on with the action of the story.
Take the colour RED.
What is the red of embarrassment?
What is the red of sunset?
What is the red of a fire?
What is the red of plush velvet curtains?
What is the red of a fine wine?
What is the red of blood?
What is the red of a stop sign?
Find pictures of all of these things, if you can (do a search via Google images). Now look at the
range of tones in 'red'. What are all these shades actually called? Can you think of a creative colour name that
will help readers to see exactly what you can see?
In my copy of 'Words That Sell', I can find these:
rose, burgundy, ruby, crimson, scarlet, vermilion, russet,
Then I typed 'Words to Describe Red' in to a search engine. On WikiAnswers.com I found
Scarlet, vermilion, crimson, ruby, cherry, cerise, cardinal,
carmine, wine, blood-red, coral, cochineal, rose; brick-red, maroon, reddish, rusty, cinnamon, damask, vermeil,
No doubt a thesaurus would turn up even more.
But... don't just think of colour names. When you look at a 'red' object, start using your other
What is the smell of red wine?
What is the sound of a fire (or fire engine?)
What is the texture of red velvet curtains?
What is the taste of blood?
Already, you can see how your bare-bones writing might start to develop depth and texture. (If
you do nothing else, start thinking in terms of the five senses. That alone will give your story more emotional
punch and help the reader to picture the scene.) Your special challenge is to use this sensory detail in a
well-turned phrase that will help the reader to experience your character's life. The trap you can fall into is to
write too much boring description.
Closely tied to using the five senses - for obvious reasons - is the task of getting viewpoint
right. A lot of writers produce bare-bones narrative because they can't get into the mind of the main character in
the scene. They 'tell' the reader everything, moving along at a rapid clip, instead of playing out the scene and
letting the reader become part of it.
In the end, being able to flesh out a story means that you need to develop more mastery of your
craft. It will involve either adding more pages (working on plot and characters) or adding more depth (working on
viewpoint and emotional punch). You should be constantly building your skills and adding to your writer's
Writers who work at their craft are the ones who ultimately succeed.
copyright Marg McAlister