Thursday, May 14, 2015

Making Words Count: Don't Be Boring!

by Toni Leland

A few years ago, I had a great Skype session with my then-13-year-old granddaughter, who is an avid reader and was a great help to me with a YA book I was trying to write.

Anyway, she asked what the next few scenes would be and I mentioned that my main character would be taking a trip to another state. She nodded, then leaned forward so I could see her expression on the Skype screen.

"Well, okay, but leave out the boring stuff."

This caught me off guard. What would a young teen find boring about a trip? So I asked her, and she didn't hesitate at all.

"You know, sitting in the plane, taking off, all that stuff. If you use the plane trip, make it exciting. Like, if the plane crashes and she's the only survivor!"

Okay, I can see that this child will not be fooled by filler. And if she isn't, then neither will the thousands of other young readers we hope to woo with our tales.

So, back to boring. In the early stages of my fiction-writing career, I attended a workshop given by a successful writer in which she outlined the parts of a novel and their importance. She focused on the "sagging middle" because that's where many authors have problems. She talked about breaking up the story into mostly equal word counts to achieve the final goal, and how to dole out the story points through the whole thing.

Could I keep my mouth shut? Nope. During the Q&A session, I mentioned that my story was finished, but I only had 65,000 words and the required count was 85,000. How could I fix it? Without missing a beat, she said, "Come up with more story." It was the right answer, but what she didn't include was HOW to do that. I had to learn that on my own.

A story arc has three "acts" made up of scenes. Each scene should tell the reader something new and move the story forward smoothly. A story outline can give the author a map to follow and, like a road trip, should include some scenery and attractions along the way. Building the story world is one way to expand word count, but add too much and you'll have readers skipping through the narrative. Extensive character description can also expand word count, but most readers prefer to visualize a character themselves rather than read about all the physical details. Hair and eye color, body structure, any quirks – those are good, but the rest is filler. Dialogue is one of the best writing techniques for carrying a story, but make every word golden. Lots of dialogue is good and provides plenty of white space on the page that gives one the feeling of reading quickly. But dialogue that tracks every reply and grunt and "Hi" and "Yeah" and "Fine, how are you?" is boring! We write stories not about real life as it boringly is, but real life as it is interesting. Conflict is the foundation of every story, so use it to the fullest. Make your characters work for their goals and desires; give them obstacles.

Know ahead of time what your genre expects for word count and include it in your initial story plan. I found a great explanation of word counts; it made life much easier for me. To figure out how to achieve your desired word count, look at each scene or plot point and ask yourself, "What else can happen to make this more interesting?" This is how you "come up with more story."

Now, about that plane crash...


  1. Some great advice, Toni - thanks! It's always interesting when we received unexpected feedback; I love the learning journey it can take us on.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Christine. Writing is an ever-changing and challenging occupation, and help from any quarter is always appreciated. :)