How to Write to a Word Count

by Marg McAlister

 

You've finished your story, and you're pretty happy with it. The plot is gripping, the characters are lively, and the pace zooms along. Great! You've done it!

Then... you count words.

It can't be! How can your short story be so far over the word count? The guidelines say '900 words' - and your story is (eeek!) about 1460.

1460! That's more than half as much again. There's no way you can cut your story by a third, you decide gloomily. It will be ruined!

But... will it?

I've written many short stories and articles over the years. At first, it was torture to cut them to the right size. I always, always wrote many more words than asked for. If I wanted to sell, I had no choice - I had to cut.

And guess what? When I look back at those stories (yeah, yeah, with the benefit of hindsight - it's a wonderful thing) I can now see that in almost every case, they benefited from the surgery. Those that didn't really should have been books - the plot was just too 'big' for a short story.

Some Tips On Cutting

If your story is not too far out of the word count, you can probably cut it down by pruning a few words here and a sentence there. That's easy. Anyone can do that. But if you're 50% or more over the count, then it's time for more radical measures.

1. Cut paragraphs.

Look for whole paragraphs that can be either eliminated altogether or be swapped for one vivid sentence. Do you need all that description? Can you use one or two powerful words that will conjure up the same impression?

2. Shorten transitions.

Rather than taking three sentences to explain how your character moved through time or space, use phrases like 'The next day...' or 'An hour later...' or 'On the other side of town...'. Zip through several days or weeks by tightening up the time frame: "By Wednesday Jane was sure something was going on. On Thursday she decided to take action. Friday saw her boarding the train for Sydney."

3. Cut characters.

Do you need every character in your story? Can you tell it using three characters instead of four, or two characters instead of three? See if you can give some of the lines to someone else to speak, or cut some of the action along with one of the characters.

4. Simplify the plot.

Short-short stories (say up to 1200 words) are akin to writing a joke. There's a brief introduction that sets the scene, a steady build-up, and then the punch line (or a quick wrap-up). Don't try to explain too much about what happened before the story opened, or waste words on the setting. Go for emotion rather than description.

5. Redress the balance.

In a vast number of the short stories I see, too much time is spent on the introduction. You may be 'writing yourself into the story' - that is, explaining the action to yourself as well as the reader. Ask yourself: "what is this story about? When does the main action happen? Am I giving it the space it needs?" Time after time, I've seen a whole page (250 words) of a 900-word short story allocated to setting the scene. By the time the writer gets to the action, the word count is already half used up.

Read through that first page. Can you ditch most of it? Often it's possible to give any necessary background via dialogue when the action starts. You might be surprised to find out how much you can leave out. (This was one of my major failings when I started writing short stories - I took too long to get to the point!)

Some Tips on Adding Words

The main thing to avoid when you have to increase your word count is 'padding'. Readers always know when a story has been padded - the action goes nowhere. Scenes of unnecessary dialogue clutter up the story; boring description adds pages, and characters spend far too much time musing over things. Dull, dull, dull.

Make sure that everything you add to your story builds the tension, adds new plot wrinkles, or fleshes out your characters. Everything must move your story forward. If it doesn't - toss it out!

To add length (and depth) to your story without padding:

1. Add a new sub-plot.

This is one of the easiest ways to increase the length of a story. Quite often, you'll find that the seeds of a new subplot are already there, ready to sprout. For example: suppose you have one of your characters tracking down a suspect. In the original story, your character located this person fairly easily - and was able to eliminate him/her. This is where you can add a twist: make that suspect harder to find. Give the suspect a story of their own - one that complicates the main plot. This is just one example. Have a brainstorming session and work out a good sub-plot.

2. Add a new character.

Make sure this character is not just window-dressing. Give them a background; make them relevant to the main plot. Have a bit of fun with this. Can you create someone really outrageous who will add life and humour to your story? Or a really dastardly villain?

3. Add one or two complications to an existing plot or sub-plot.

Give the main character a few extra hurdles before he/she reaches the prize; make one of the original characters more uncooperative; give the main character a secret somewhere in his/her past.

You can, of course, mix up or add all of the above. One may be enough for a few thousand words, but if you need more, then all three could combine!

It's a challenge to write to a word count, whether you're required to add words or cut them. Use these few simple tips and you'll find the task a lot easier.

© Marg McAlister

 

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