If a finished draft is too long, or too short, the first step is to create a fresh outline, from scratch. This ensures the outline is accurate, and helps you to review the story as a whole. Ideally you should create multiple outlines at different scales. First, describe each scene in 1-5 sentences. Then, if the story is a novel, describe each chapter in 1-2 sentences. Last, identify the 2-5 key moments in the story.
1. A child realizes they are different; with strange abilities or attributes. They want to understand who they are and where they come from.
2. The child encounters someone else like them. The stranger offers them a few vague answers.
3. The child confronts their parents and learns about their origins.
4. The child chooses to go on a journey to find answers, and perhaps others like themselves.
5. The child finds answers and discovers a community of others like themselves.
Revising to Reduce
Start with the most basic outline, the 2-5 key moments. Which represents the biggest change in the character’s life? In the example above that would be #4, when the character chooses to leave their home and family, and embark on a journey.
Next, look for places where something can be cut or combined. In the above example, #2 & #3 could be combined. Remove the stranger, and instead have the parents exclusively provide answers, or remove both 2 & 3, and jump straight from the discovery that “I’m different” to the search for answers.
Revising to Increase
When increasing the length of a story, there are two options; complicate an existing plot, or add an additional subplot.
Complicating an existing plot is all about adding obstacles. What if the protagonist has no idea where to go? That requires research. What if friends or family don’t want the protagonist to leave? Now the child has to sneak away without being discovered. What if there’s a storm, and the roads are blocked? Instead of a clear path, the child is forced to travel through dense woods, or over a mountain. Just keep asking “what could go wrong”.
Subplots stem from the status quo. Characters have a life before the story, a status quo, and this conflict is disrupting the status quo. In the example, the child might have chores, homework, plans with friends, as well as vague dreams for the future. This “journey” would disrupt all of that. Depending on the character, the child might resist or welcome the change. Friends and mentors might unintentionally interfere, help, or come along.
Consider Fellowship of the Ring. At first Frodo’s goal is to get to Rivendell. The story could have ended there, but once he arrives Frodo learns that Rivendell was only one step towards a much larger goal.
Another example is Ender’s Game. It began as a 15,000 word novelette, but was later revised to be a 100,000 word novel. The original short story is the equivalent of chapters 10-14 of the book, with a simplified main plot, and no serious rivals among the students at the school.
Labeling Your Story