Making your novel longer: How to flesh out a short manuscript

If you’re the type of writer who writes bare-bones first drafts like me, you’ll need to look at making your novel longer during revisions. But how can you flesh out a short manuscript without forcing things in? How do you add elements that feel natural to the story and complement what you already have, rather than muddling it? It can be easy to sit down and throw things in for the sake of it, just to make up the word count – but that can lead to a loss of direction and a very messy book!

Here’s my advice on making your novel longer in a way that feels natural to your story.

I’ll also include plenty of questions you can ask yourself, to get you thinking about what you need to flesh out.

Making your novel longer – areas to look at

Point of view

Are you in your protagonist’s head enough? A common problem in sparse manuscripts is that the author has forgotten to dig deep and really immerse themselves in the character’s mind.

Your story might be in Matt’s point of view, for example, but if we don’t have enough insight into what Matt thinks or feels, he’ll feel empty, like a walking cardboard cutout. Readers will have a hard time connecting with him, too.

Make sure you’re getting into the head of your main character! This doesn’t mean we need to hear their every thought. It just means we need to be deeply rooted in their perspective – to see the world through their eyes.

A great resource on point of view is Chapter 3 of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Character development

Your main characters should have a clearly defined story arc that ties into the plot. Each will have their own backgrounds, and the past will influence how they behave in the present.

The caveat here is that you want to avoid dumping too much information in about your characters. Give us what’s necessary for the story, and to allow us to connect with them, but don’t go so far that you end up with lots of exposition and info-dumping. We don’t need to know their entire life story just so that you can go about making your novel longer.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about character development.


  • Is there a main problem this character is facing? Have you made sure it’s bleeding over into their life as much as possible?
  • Do they have a clear goal that’s linked to the main story? In other words, something they want badly? Have you done enough to develop that?
  • Have you placed enough relevant obstacles in their way to stop them from getting what they want?
  • Is there something they desperately need, which may be different to what they want?
  • What are the action steps your character will take in order to try and get what they want? Have you made it as difficult as possible for them to accomplish that? Have you made things too easy or convenient for them?
  • What is their motivation? Have you fleshed out what drives them toward their goal?
  • Do they have a distinctive, defined personality?
  • Do they behave appropriately in situations based on their personality? Have you included enough personal growth and change for this character? How will they change over the course of the book? What will be different about them in the end?

Side characters

  • Do they have distinct, defined personalities and interests? Make sure they don’t all read as the same person!
  • Are they all needed? Paradoxically, if you include too many side characters, that can contribute to a lower-than-usual word count, because you’re spreading your focus thin across lots of different characters, rather than developing a few really well. Keep your side characters to a minimum and work on making them well-developed.
  • Character arcs. Does each of your side characters have a personal character arc that ties into the main plot? If you’re writing a fantasy quest, there could still be a side arc involving that character’s family dynamic, or a romantic interest. The key is to keep this relevant and tied in to the story as much as possible so it doesn’t feel like you’re packing in a lot of “filler”.
  • Speech. Have you made sure all your characters don’t sound the same? This doesn’t have to mean writing out accents, it can also mean words they like to use, topics they talk about, formal/informal speech and so on.

Build underdeveloped relationships

The relationships between your characters is also important. People remember relationships when they’re developed well. Frodo and Sam. Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Frankenstein and his monster. Mr Darcy and Elizabeth. Sometimes during drafting, it’s easy to let this type of development slide.

Look at how you develop the following:

  • Love interests. Is your love story fully fleshed out? If it’s too rushed, readers may complain of “insta-love”, so if you have a short word count, you could look at drawing out your love story and developing it more slowly.
  • Friendships and family relationships. Make sure your characters are acting in a way that feels authentic with one another. Have you shown the reader why these people are important to one another? How will conflict show up? How is that conflict linked to the main plot? How will the relationship change?
  • Protagonist/antagonist. How is your antagonist opposed to your protagonist? What kind of relationship do they have, and have you done enough to convey why they’re opposed? Have you given the reader enough to grasp why the antagonist does what he/she does?

Exposition and summary

One part of making a short novel longer is identifying areas of exposition and summary. I have a whole blog post on that if you aren’t sure what it means.

Essentially, if you’re summarising everything, rather than letting events unfold organically on the page, you end up with lots of short explanatory passages that could have been developed into a full-blown scene or chapter.

If your characters are robbing a bank, and you summarise, we might get sentences like: “The plan went off without a hitch. Someone got shot, but they’d expected that. Matt grabbed the cash and they made a run for it. The police chased them but they got away.”

An extreme and hackneyed example but you see what I mean. The bank robbery has been reduced to a paragraph, when it could have been several chapters allowing the reader to see this unfold, including building tension, conflict, plot, and character.

I’m not saying you should never tell – there’s a place for both showing and telling! But if you have too much summary, you can look at fleshing some areas out into scenes.

Identify plot holes and vagueness

Vagueness is one of the main causes of a short word count. Often we writers are aware of things in our own heads, but forget to elaborate on the page. This vagueness can apply not only to plot but things like world-building and magic rules too.

Some writers are “pantsers” and write without an outline. Or they plan and change direction. These things can both lead to a confused/muddled plot.

One way to identify plot holes and vagueness in your own writing is to step back. Take a break and come back to the manuscript with fresh eyes.

Another method is to have some beta readers give you feedback, or to get a critique. Once you know which areas need work, it’s much easier to come up with a plan to tackle it.

Fixing vagueness and plot holes will really depend on your story, but it’s a case of making sure you “connect the dots”, leave no holes, and make sure everything is clearly conveyed to your reader.

Work on world-building and scene-setting

A sparse world equals a low word count! You might be someone who gets all the important stuff down first, and forgets to set the scene or build your world. Even in contemporary settings, we need some visual cues so it doesn’t feel like characters are walking around in a void.

  • Contemporary settings. Have you given us enough descriptions? Are they authentic to the place? How does your character feel about their environment, e.g. their home or their office, and how do they interact with it? Is each location distinctive? If you haven’t visited a place (such as a different city), have you researched that place to get a feel for it and to build it realistically?
  • Historical settings. One of the main problems I see in historical fiction is the author failing to strongly convey a sense of the time period via setting. Remember, setting doesn’t just include environment and architecture. You can also look at things like clothing, hair and make-up, tools/technology, politics, culture and society. Make sure you’ve researched your time period well, and that you infuse each scene with elements of that time.
  • Fantasy and sci-fi settings. I love this list of world-building questions for fantasy/sci-fi. It’s really all you need to get thinking about what you may have forgotten to develop, whether that’s your world’s setting/visuals, technology, or monsters. You don’t have to use all of them, but it can give you an idea of what’s important for your story, and where to focus your attention.

As with all things, remember: balance. You don’t want to go overboard and give us too much description. But if you’re someone who forgets to paint your visuals when drafting, the above might help.

Rules and logic – does it all make sense?

This applies to contemporary stories just as much as it does to fantasy. If you’re writing contemporary and tackling a subject you don’t know about (such as the healthcare system, or detective work), you can look at making sure it’s all realistic and properly fleshed out. Talk to people who know about the topic. Do your research. Get beta readers who are familiar with it – they’ll be able to point out holes or anything that needs more work.

For fantasy, pick apart your magic systems, monster/magical creature rules, laws, etc. Ask yourself endless questions – it’s a great way of finding holes and filling out logic. You could also look at writing craft books specific to fantasy for ideas on how to build rules: try Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer or The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester. There’s a free lecture on building magic systems from Brandon Sanderson on YouTube (I highly recommend checking out his other lectures too!).

Resolve all story threads

You probably have multiple threads to your story, from the main plot to character arcs and subplots. Make sure all of these threads are resolved neatly at the end. Ask yourself if you’ve left anything hanging. Have you left any lingering questions unanswered? Of course, it’s fine to leave some questions unanswered if you plan on writing a sequel, but you want as many things wrapped up as possible.

If your novel is too short, odds are, you haven’t developed certain areas enough – and that might include how you’ve concluded events and plot points, too.

What not to do when making your novel longer

Most things I’ve talked about here require a fine balance. Too much of anything isn’t good: developing subplots you haven’t paid much attention to can help, but you also don’t want too many subplots that overwhelm your book and detract from the story.

With that in mind, here are some pointers on what to avoid doing too much of when making your novel longer. Your mileage may vary!

  • Adding too many new characters that don’t bring anything to the story.
  • Going overboard with subplots/plot threads, so that events feel like “filler”.
  • Adding too much dialogue and discussion. Be careful of drawing out conversations unnecessarily. Think about whether dialogue is needed and what it contributes.
  • Excessive description. If you write sparsely, fleshing out descriptions can be very helpful! But watch out for veering into purple prose and going overboard!
  • New perspectives. You might be tempted to add even more perspectives, or chapters from a different character’s point of view. But it’s important to think about whether this really contributes to the story you’re telling.
  • Exploring too many new themes. Books can lose focus if you’re hopping around to different themes and topics all the time. Remember why you’re telling this story and what you truly want to explore.

And that’s all my advice on making a novel longer! If you’d like a rough guideline on how long your manuscript should be, check out my post on word count.

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