March 19, 2010 / 3 Comments

Oh, The Humanity!

Historical reference, just to be different. Although awful things with zeppelins isn’t the greatest parallel for what I wanted to talk about. Plus I understand that airship pilots (of which there are ten in the whole world) get really testy if you bring up the Hindenberg…

Anyway, what I’d like to prattle on about this week is balloons. Y’know… those things that get bigger and bigger and finally explode.

It’s not uncommon for a writer to want to take an idea a little further. To turn that short story into a novella, that novella into a full-fledged book, or those two or three clever scenes into a feature-length screenplay. We’re all creative people. It’s what we do.

Plus, let’s be honest. Sometimes it just needs to be longer. We need another 5,000 words to hit a publisher’s minimum or maybe ten more pages to get this producer interested.

Now, the way most people try to expand their stories is by adding words. Sounds kind of obvious, I know, but there’s a catch. These folks mistake adding words for adding substance. Often, the words being added bulk up the manuscript but don’t actually add anything to it. They’re just putting back in all that stuff that was already edited out for being unnecessary.

It’s easy to explain this with a visual aid. Ready?

Picture a large balloon. A good-sized one. Pretend I wrote a short story on this balloon. Got that? Now it’s easy to make the story bigger, yes? Just inflate the balloon until it’s twice as big. We’ve all done something like this at some point, so it’s still easy to picture, yes?

Have I actually made the story bigger, though? It’s just the same ink forming the same story, now spread thin. In fact, since I filled it with… well, hot air, the story’s gotten a bit insubstantial for its size. It’s tough to read because it covers so much space and we can actually see through it at points.

If you’ve got a solid, edited story, you’ve already let all that hot air out. The story on the balloon is compact and dark, if you get my meaning.

Here’s a few quick, easy ways to spot a balloon…

Giving more description is a typical way of ballooning a manuscript. You throw in a few more adjectives or adverbs or a few more clever metaphors about how Phoebe looks like Angelina Jolie’s hot little blonde sister or something. What’s going on here, though, is all those cuts the writer made during editing are being reversed, just like I mentioned above. The unnecessary stuff is getting added back in and… well, that just doesn’t make sense.

Close to this is when the story’s revisiting the same idea again and again. Let’s have another example in the story of how clueless Yakko can be. Or perhaps yet another scene of slackjawed, stammering men which shows us how stunning Dot is. Maybe one more sequence where Wakko demonstrates how awesomely powerful and badass he is. Besides being a variation of the description problem above, belaboring a point like this gets dull fast. Anyone who wants a dull story, raise your hand now.

Then please leave.

Extending action sequences is another way writers sometimes balloon a story. I mentioned a while back that action (in my opinion) shouldn’t take much longer to read than it would take to do or watch. But an easy way to fill space is to decribe the history behind that perfect jodan zuki the ninja throws which connects with Yakko’s jaw. Then I can describe the excruciating pain as one of Yakko’s molars (which he got two fillings in as a boy and almost had pulled but his father insisted he had to keep his teeth as long as possible) gets smashed loose and the coppery taste of blood fills his mouth even as the impact of the strike twists his head around and… well, you get the idea. Does it really take that long to hit someone in the face? Can you imagine if every punch, strike, kick, or gunshot took that long? Dear God, the elevator scene in The Matrix would be longer than Atlas Shrugged.

So, that’s a few easy ways not to expand your story. But how should you?

Well, like so many things in this field, that’s a bit harder to say. A key thing to remember is expanding something often involves changing it. If your 7,500 word story is structured a certain way, the structure will probably have to alter when the story becomes 10,000 words. If it becomes 35,000 words it’ll have to change a lot. If you’re determined to keep the structure exactly the same, you’re probably going to have a lot of trouble making your manuscript bigger.

Another easy rule of thumb– you shouldn’t be adding things that don’t need to be there. So if you want to add a quirky conversation about “the first time,” angel hair pasta, or who got beat up more as a kid, there needs to be a reason for this conversation to take place.

Just to be clear, “boosting the word count” is not a viable reason.

Y’see, Timmy, if you want to expand a story you can’t add hot air–you need to add actual material. You want a bigger balloon, not the same balloon puffed up to look bigger.

Some quick examples…

–Throw an additional character into the mix. It could change relationships, action, pacing, all sorts of stuff. And add to all of these as well.

–Change someone’s motivation. Not everyone walks to the grocery store for the same reason after all. Yeah, maybe Wakko is helping out because he’s a decent guy, but maybe he’s doing it to try to make up for something he did years ago. This could change how he reacts to things, his exact actions, and maybe what’s a desirable ending for him.

–Make a new goal. A short story is generally A to B, maybe even C. So stop trying to cram in A 1/2 or B 3/4. Have your story go on to D, E, and maybe all the way to X.

And then, when you’ve made this change (or these changes), go over your new, larger story and polish it again.

There’s a chance I might miss next week as I rush to meet a bunch of deadlines for Creative Screenwriting. But please check in and perhaps we’ll talk for a spell, as they used to say.

Until then, go write.

0 replies on “Oh, The Humanity!”

Just like putting too much air in a balloon! Love it. 😀

i'm liking the idea of changing the motivations of characters, that hadn't occurred to me. I believe i may try that. *makes notes* 😀

I was talking with Eric Heisserer, the writer fo the new Nightmare on Elm Street movie a while back, and he said it was really amazing how many things opened up when you just introduced the idea of "What if Freddy wasn't a child molestor, the parents just thought he was and acted accordingly?" Changed things for the whole cast of characters, including Freddy.

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