Friday, October 9, 2015

Extending the Conflict

(Or “When you Need more Words”)

How long is your novel?

Or perhaps I should ask this: are your novels “long enough”? Does the length of your story fit what a publisher of your genre is looking for?

Let’s be honest: the length in words of a story doesn’t matter that much. What does matter is whether or not the story works at its current length. However, publishers do care about the length of your manuscript.
I’ve found that the average publisher prefers to receive a manuscript between 50,000-120,000 words. They might take something larger than that from an author they’ve already published (as in the case of authors such as Brandon Sanderson and J.K. Rowling).

Is your manuscript less than 50,000 words? It’s not a bad thing if it is. Just means you’ve got a novella on your hands. Some publishers like them, some don’t.

Is your manuscript longer than 120,000 words? Well, then you’re like me. I’m working on an Epic Fantasy that I’ve estimated will end with ~245,000 words. That’s what makes it an Epic Fantasy; the length. Sadly, there’s little chance of this being my first published novel. Quite simply, publishers don’t like to risk publishing large novels unless they’re sure the audience will receive it with joy.
In cases like Brandon Sanderson (who has published 400,000+ word novels), the publishers know his audience likes his books. And in the case of J.K. Rowling (whose last three books were more than 200,000 words long), they knew she had a captive audience.

Today, I’d like to talk about how to lengthen your novel. Most people tend to struggle with too few words, rather than too many. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a fact of life.

The easiest way to make a story last longer is to simply add conflict. In addition, this is the easiest technique by which you avoid making the novel seem too wordy, too drawn out.

Adding conflict can seem like a lot of work, and it is. But let me give you an easy example:
Last November, I wrote a novel with NaNoWriMo. It ended with ~52,000 words. Which is a fairly decent number of words. However, it didn’t feel complete. My resolution came rushed, and there were too many loose ends (which is a classic problem when writing during NaNo).
Easiest solution?
Well, write another 35,000 words, I guess.
This novel (Asher’s Song) now sits at a very respectable 87,183 words.
How on this green earth did I add 35,000 words? It’s rather simple, really. I took the resolution and made it… not. Instead of winning when they did, the two main characters make the biggest mistake I could possibly have them make. What they thought would fix all their problems actually made them worse. Much, much worse.

From there, it was simply a matter of making my lazy brain solve this massive conundrum. Turns out, it worked. All the loose ends tied up nicely and the end felt much more impactful.
(Not to mention it made the semi-easy story goal a lot harder to attain.)

Here’s my point: at what part in your novel does the hero seem to win? It doesn’t have to be the final showdown between hero and villain. It can be the part of the show where the Ally finds a map to the villain’s hideout.
That’s a win, isn’t it? A small victory for the good guys.
Now take that victory away. Let them celebrate, but in their celebration they lose. Be it that they lose the map (fires are excellent allies to the writer, are they not?) or be it that the map takes them to the wrong place or be it that the villain wanted the hero to find them map. Whatever fits in your story, make the celebration turn to loss.

But don’t just stop there.
Make the loss create other losses, other setbacks, and other puzzles. If they don’t lose the map, perhaps it’s in a language they can’t read, or maybe there are false trails everywhere.
Maybe possession of this map allows evil creatures to track them, hamper them, etc.

Whatever happens, it must make it harder for the Hero to achieve his goal. Almost impossibly so.

Now this is a lot of work for you. After you finished your rather brilliant outline, you thought you had it all figure out. Until your novel ended at 13,000 words (I’m not judging novelettes, this is just an example). Whoops.
Take a conflict. Extend it.
Take a victory. Twist it into defeat.
Lengthen the road.
Add trees to the FoTAT.
Make it so, so hard on you and your hero we almost forget that the hero is supposed to win. Because how can they? The odds are stacked against them, against us. We’re going to lose to the villain and there’s no way to win.

Except somehow, we do.

And let me tell you, we’ll rejoice all the more for it.

Remember, it’s not about the words. Sure, publishers like novels with that perfect length. But that’s not the point. The point is to write a story worth reading; sometimes it needs more conflict to make it worthwhile.

Now it’s your turn. What sorts of ways have YOU extended conflict before? Leave a comment and share!


  1. Great post!
    My current novel, "Wanderlust", is a fairy story that I've absolutely fallen in love with. And even though the draft is recently finished, I'm not sure that I like it as much as I should. I've been thinking about ways to extend the middle with internal conflicts and whatnot, but now I'm thinking I should slap 10,000 words on the end... make things /interesting/. Thanks for getting my ball rolling!

    1. Haha, my pleasure.
      Interesting is good. *nodnod* When in doubt, do interesting.