Hit Your Word Count, pt. 2: If You’re Falling Short

Adding words to your manuscript is the easy part. What’s not easy is bulking the material you already have in a meaningful way, without adding extra scenes. Yes, adding extra scenes will jump your word count, but it could also throw a kink in your timeline or draw out the narrative a bit too much (I speak from experience!). Before you resort to adding new material, build on what you already have.

Add Sensory DetailsSensory Details

Adding sensory details is one of my favorite exercises, because sensory details really make a scene spring to life. Writers focus so much on the visual, on painting a picture, that they forget that they should really be creating an experience, which includes all senses. Even if a writer includes sounds and sensations, they often neglect taste and smell.

(I’m recycling a great deal of this from an old post, in case it sounds familiar)

Let me SHOW you, rather than TELL you:

Karyn looks embarrassed as she opens the door to a filthy apartment.

What a shithole, Thatch thinks.

The author was kind enough to tell us that the apartment was filthy, but how? Are kids’ toys strewn about the place? Food containers? Are the walls decaying from a leaking pipe? Is it a health hazard, or just unpleasant to look at?

The character is crass enough to think shithole, but that tells us very little about who he is and how he feels about the resident of the apartment.

The general rule is three sensory details to one “tell” or thought. This not only shows how and why, but also to what intensity.

Somewhere down the hall, a woman was yelling. Karyn’s face fell into a tight-lipped expression of resignation as she stood before the door. She wiped her palm across her jeans before unlocking the dead bolt, then took the doorknob in one hand and threw her body against the door. She repeated the maneuver, and it shuddered open.

Thatch was assaulted by the stench of stale cigarettes, mold, and cat feces. Acid rose in his throat. He had trouble choking it back down.

“Nan, I’m home!” Karyn yelled over a TV blaring in a back room.

Thatch grabbed the doorknob to shut the door and wrinkled his nose. He wiped his hand on his coat, but still felt the grime sticking to his palm. The motion of the door strewed fluffs of animal fur across the floor.

“This… is where you live?” He bent his head back to peer at the ceiling. Black spores spotted the water-stained plaster, trailing its way down the corner.

“Mm-hmm.” She pursed her lips, her eyes on the floor. She closed them with a sigh as she caught sight of the partially-eaten corpse of a roach.

Thatch nodded. “You’re moving in with me,” he said. His tone didn’t allow any room for argument. The small smile that played across Karyn’s mouth told him she wasn’t about to protest.

I never state what the characters are thinking, but the reader can determine their feelings based on their responses. Thatch wrinkles his nose. He almost vomits. You can tell Karyn is embarrassed, even though she never says or thinks anything that would reflect that. Her facial expressions and short response reflect her emotions. You can also determine the relationship between them to some extent: It’s his first time at her apartment and he’s already demanding she move in with him.

In adding sensory details, I turned 17 words into 223.

Exercise: Add sensory details to this excerpt:

Shannon was exhausted when she arrived home after work.

“No rest for the wicked,” she said, sitting down in her home office.

Or use one of your own. Copy and paste your results into the comments below!


Characterization“Characterization” means any details you can add that tell the reader about a character: Their quirks, appearance, background. These can be laced into existing narrative without too much revising.

For example, after I finished the first couple of drafts of COLOSSUS, I combed through it to flesh each character out. This led to Rhodes tugging at the hair on the back of his head when he’s anxious, and Heather hissing through her teeth when annoyed. This also helped me plan quirks for future characters while in the drafting stage, such as Steyer from Two Guns twisting his wedding band when deep in thought, and Remington grinding his teeth.

Adding New Scenes

Adding new scenes to an already-completed manuscript is risky for three reasons:

  • it may make the narrative drag
  • there may be voice discrepancies
  • it may cause continuity issues

If you have declared your draft completed, although the word count falls short, adding a scene or so at any point may draw the narrative out a bit too much, making the reader feel as if they are muddling through. This is especially true, since these tacked-on scenes are rarely bolster the plot or race toward the climax as each scene should.

From the start of a draft to the finish, you are learning and developing as a writer. Therefore, your voice and technique may change drastically over the course of the narrative, and especially so after setting your draft aside for a while, then revising. If you go back to write extra scenes, the writing itself may sound dramatically different from the original scenes.

If you write an extra scene, especially if anything of significance happens, you will have to comb through the remaining manuscript to accommodate any changes that were made. For example, if someone breaks their nose in a new scene, allude to its appearance or soreness a couple of times later. If you reveal something about someone, you may want to include foreshadowing beforehand, as well as reference it after.

Keep in mind, all of these issues could be resolved by rewriting the book, which I am discovering is time-consuming, but also incredibly gratifying.


If you have any different tips or tricks, I would love to hear about them in the comments below, or @ me on Twitter!

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