How to lengthen your novel using J.K. Rowling’s outline method

Last week, I kicked off our two-part series on word count and manuscript length by walking through three steps to shorten your novel. 

But now it’s time for this week’s question: What if your novel is too short?

To an agent or publisher, this typically signals underdeveloped plot and characters which can be equally as devastating.

Currently, I am in the position of needing to add close to twenty thousand words to my work-in-progress, 700 Main.

Yes, you read that correctly. TWENTY-THOUSAND WORDS.

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It’s a little overwhelming, but having a plan in place always make me feel better.

That being said, let’s talk next steps…


PROBLEM: A low word count can indicate:

  • Weak or jumpy plot
  • Underdeveloped characters
  • Not enough context.

SOLUTION?

Step 1: Balance your plot lines.

I’ve talked about this a little in the past, and my favorite tool to use is a method from my favorite author: J.K. Rowling.

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Rowling’s outline of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

As you can see – sort of – the outline is made up of ten columns. The first four serve as logistical details: chapter number, timeline, chapter name and a brief plot synopsis. But the other six columns chronicle the story’s various plot lines and characters.

You can do this for your book as well, and since J.K. Rowling basically has the Midas Touch when it comes to writing bestsellers, it’s worth a try.

First things first, list out the goals of your main characters. Each of those constitutes a plot line, and you should list them as Rowling did in their own columns.

Now as you read back through your first draft, note each time one pops up. When you are done, go back through your spreadsheet and analyze for the following red flags:

  • Your main plot should show up in every single chapter’s cell, and the subplots should appear at regular intervals.
  • Your main character’s journey – or internal growth – is ALWAYS a main plot and should also appear in every chapter. You can read more about that journey here.
  • Your secondary characters are going to have their own subplots, but weave them in and make them relevant to all. That interaction raises the stakes.
  • Note the different emotions in each cell. If in your romance subplot, you have five straight chapters of “we’re so happy” – you have a problem.
  • If a chapter doesn’t contribute to any subplots or advance the main plot, it is not helping your story.

By identifying these story holes, you can go back and add chapters/scenes to fill in the blanks and bring them back to your reader’s attention

Step 2: Dig deeper with your characters.

While I am definitely a planner when it comes to plot, sometimes it takes a rough draft for me to really get to know my characters. Therefore, they can seem flat or underdeveloped at first.

So once that first draft is knocked out, it’s important to spend some time digging a little deeper. What does that mean? Well, start by identifying each of the following for your main characters:

  • A Physical Description
  • A Background
  • A Flaw
  • A Desire
  • A Contradiction
  • A Roadblock (or several)

Then weave them into your story, and BAM – extra words!

To read more on each of these aspects, check out my prior post on making the most out of your characters. 

Step 3: Read your novel like a reader, not a writer.

So this is similar to step three of last week’s blog – going through with a fine-toothed comb – but with a new goal in mind, it can be just as effective in adding words.

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Why yes, Pooh, we can!

Print out your manuscript and grab a highlighter. Anytime you find yourself wanting more context (more emotion, more reaction, more internal, whatever!), note those places to go back to later. So far – and I am only halfway through – I’ve added about 4,000 words this way.

So as you can see – using a few tricks of the trade – you should be able to easily identify potential for lengthening your novel into something an agent will desperately request, speed-read and sign!

What other tips do you have for increasing your word count? Share in the comments below!

7 thoughts on “How to lengthen your novel using J.K. Rowling’s outline method

  1. Kate Rauner says:

    Thanks for offering real suggestions that would not turn to fluff. I try to set my first draft aside for at least a week, and when I re-read a scene, I sometimes can’t tell what I meant or where my character is! Clearly – a few more words are called for.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. diandralinnemann says:

    Seems underwhelming maybe, but in many cases I have to add additional descriptions – of places, for example – during rewriting stages. In my mind everything is clear and visible and with the first draft I speed through the story, and later I have to step back, find out what a “normal” reader would see, and add all the details they need to make the story come alive. This alone usually adds about ten percent word count. (Maybe that’s a problem just I have. Other writers I know are so in love with their flowery decription they could write you to sleep.)

    Like

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