Being a Better Writer: Lengthening without Padding

Hello readers!

Normally at this point I’d express hope that you all had a good weekend, but given the events of the last few days, some of you most assuredly did not. Instead, I’ll express that I hope you had a safe weekend with all the civil unrest going on, and that you did at least glean a moment of joy from the success of the successful SpaceX launch this weekend. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend heading over to YouTube and checking it out, as it marks a new era of space travel.

If you’re not sure why I’d make such a grand statement, here’s the quick summary: A commercial company, SpaceX, successfully launched two astronauts to the International Space Station aboard their own capsule and their own rocket, with their own space suits. Oh, and once again, the rocket that launched them was an RLV, or Reusable Launch Vehicle, which means that rather than crashing into the Atlantic and being a sunk cost it instead landed atop a barge to be refueled and reused later.

We’ve had that latter one, or rather SpaceX has, for a while. But a manned capsule launch? That’s good news. Something to somewhat offset all the lousy news that swept over the weekend.

All right, let’s move on to today’s topic. Which is a reader request, as most of the topics on the current topic list are. So thank you to the reader that suggested this topic, and I hope my explanation aids you in working through this question! Because today’s topic is an interesting one: lengthening without padding.

Let me break that down a bit so we’re a bit clearer. The question that was asked by this reader was along these lines: How do I lengthen a story without padding it out? Or, in other words, how can you make a story longer without simply bogging it down? Which is a pretty good question, and one that a lot of young or new writers struggle with. So let’s dive in and talk writing!

First of all, let’s get the terms out of the way and talk about what “padding” is. In writing parlance, we’re not talking about cushioning like you’d find on your sofa. Instead, we’re talking about material that’s more like the packing foam in an oversized Amazon delivery.

Have you ever had one of those? You order something like a book or a phone charger from Amazon, and the next thing you know you’ve got a vastly oversized package on your doorstep. You open it up to find that a good portion of that package is just packing material, and very quickly conclude that the box is far in excess of what the contents required.

There’s a pretty simple explanation here most of the time. Most places use what boxes they have on hand to ship packages, and so rather than delay sending you whatever you’ve ordered, they simply slap your item in the closest box they have and then pad the remainder our with packing material. Packing material is cheap, and it’s more important that your item arrive as swiftly as possible.

“Padding” used in a writing context is similar. It’s “filler” used to fill out a story so that it fits a certain length. Say, for example, an author has a contract for a 120,000 word novel, but the finished draft is only 90,000 words, leaving them 30,000 words short. Well, if they choose to “pad” the story, they’ll just go through and add 30,000 extra words to draw it out.

In other words, their “item” (the words) doesn’t fit into an oversized “box” (the size their contract requested) so they insert this “packing material” to make it fit.

But there’s a problem with this analogy once we take it to its conclusion. See, with an Amazon package, the consumer will simply open the oversized box, remove their item, and discard the packing material.

You can’t do that with a book. Instead those extra words, all that packing material designed to expand the length of the title to fit a page length … it’s mixed in with the final product. A reader can’t get rid of it, as it’s part of the product. And suddenly all that packing material? It’s not something that’s easily disposed, but something that can get in the way of the actual final product.

Let me give you a very clear example of this principle in action by referring to film. A lot of low-budget films are famous for having shots that are put in the film just for the purposes of padding the film out so that it can actually be the proper length for what most people consider a movie. Take, for example, a holiday romance flick I mocked with my sister over Christmas. This film had a fixation with people parking and pulling away with their cars.

Think I’m kidding? Oh, I’m not. You know how in most films when someone dramatically says “Let’s go!” and the next scene is the characters arriving at the place they were leaving for? Not this film.

No, this film would actually show the characters walk out the door, and across the parking lot, to their car, which they would then get into, start, buckle up, and drive off. Sometimes with a three-point turn. And when they arrived? Oh yes, you’d better believe this film showed them parallel parking in the proper space.

Important dialogue? Nope. Often this was done with only the background score as accompaniment. I estimate that out of this film’s hour and a quarter or so runtime, at least ten to fifteen minutes of it was all these parking scenes.

But why were they in the film? And no, it wasn’t for sponsorship, not with some of the beaters they were driving. Because without those scenes, the film would have been under an hour easily. A short film rather than a feature film. So they just … padded it out with lots of parking shots.

Now, I don’t think I really need to explain why this is not great for your audience and shouldn’t be a feature of your writing. But I will point out that yes, this does happen in books. Like the example given above of a book length specified by contract, sometimes writers can be tempted to “pad out” a story to reach a set length.

You know, like almost every high school student ever in the history of the world. Sands, I wouldn’t be surprised if some ancient Greek or Roman tablet somewhere had a complaint from a teacher that the essay they’d been handed was clearly just repeating itself to reach the proper length.

So then, how can we lengthen a story without simply padding it? What if a young writer wants to create lengthier works, or expand what they’ve already written?

Well, there’s a word in that last sentence that can give them a position to start with: Expand. Build outward from what’s already there.

On a small scale, this can be fairly simple. Just add to what’s already in the story. For example, one could look at descriptions. Could a few extra words describing an important room help bring it further to life? Does adding an explanation of color bring life to what the reader will experience? It may not sound like much, but even doing something as simple as giving our story richer descriptions when they occur can add a bit of length to something.

Length, I will note, that does not pad things out. Or if it does, you’ve done something wrong. Padding doesn’t add anything worthwhile, like the parking scenes in that awful film I mentioned above. But if you’re expanding upon a scene that already existed only to make it even clearer to the reader, to make the action more vivid, the characters more real, etc … Well, that’s the kind of expansion that readers can enjoy and get something from.

You can expand in other areas as well, such as characters. You can gain a lot out of diving into a character’s motivation, past, or emotions, expanding on what’s given to introduce new angles and depths to a personality. Even dipping into smaller doses of character or expanding on one aspect can add quite a bit to a story … and not just in word count!

Of course, this isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. This can still be done improperly. Everything that’s “expanded” does need to fit in with what you’ve already done. If you’re writing a story that’s an action-adventure, for example, and you suddenly explore a characters interest in old architecture … you need to find a way to tie that into the story itself, even if it’s just in the fashion of someone else lampshading how random it feels by comparison to the rest of the plot.

In other words, make sure that whatever you expand and expound on is still relevant to your story, theme, characters, etc. Don’t just expand random elements simply because you can.

Now, what if you’ve expanded a little, but you want more? Or rather, what if you started to expand one angle of the story, and it began to grow into something new and wild inside the story?

That’s fine! Well, with a little management. What’s happened is that whatever’s been expanded has grown past merely being a few extra lines here and there.

In other words, another way to lengthen a work is to add a subplot.

Now, we’ve spoken before of subplots on Being a Better Writer, but here we’re going to again. And we will again soon, though from another angle. For now, we’re simply going to concern ourselves with using subplots to lengthen out a story without padding it.

Simply put, a subplot is kind of perfect for adding to a story’s length without padding it out. Well, a good subplot anyway. But this is one of the reasons subplots like the “Convenient Romantic Subplot” continue to be a staple of all genres.

Now, I want to specify that a subplot isn’t only to lengthen something out. They’re often there to break up what can be the ‘monotony’ of following only a single plot and allow our reader some breathing room. But in that process they also let us tackle “substories” to a main story, which means … yes, a whole lot more writing. And length added to the overall story.

But it’s length that adds to the work. It can give secondary characters a chance to shine, or allow the audience to see a new side of characters that the main plot wouldn’t give them. It can cast a light on background parts of the world, or … well, anything! Again, I’ve spoken of subplots here before, so we don’t need too much detail as those posts can be consulted, but most books and stories have subplots in part for this reason.

Expansion past a subplot? Well, that’s either a rewrite or a sequel. We won’t go into that today. Instead what we’ve covered should be more than enough for those who’ve been asking themselves how to tackle this. So let’s recap, and then there’s one final piece of advice to give on this topic.

Recap: Padding is when you lengthen a story with material that doesn’t serve the story in order to achieve some goal of word or page count. A story can, however, be expanded without padding it simply by expounding and expanding on material already in place, or even by adding something more substantial, such as a subplot. Of course, all such additions must be kept in line with the story and not jar things out of place.

Now, that last bit of advice: This is easier said than done. Properly expanding, or even knowing what to expand? It’s hard. You need to know your audience, and you need to know what matters and what doesn’t.

How does one figure that out? Experience. Practice. Trial and error. Sometimes it’ll work, and you’ll log it away, other times it won’t, and you’ll discard it.

But the only way to know is to get practicing.

So good luck. Now get writing!


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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Lengthening without Padding

  1. Writing experts like to say we should just get the words out without too much analysis. Just write, they say. When you return to your work, some of those words might seem like padding, or like they don’t fit. Or, they may spark a direction that enriches your story. Time is a critical ingredient. Time away from your work. Time staring at the words. Often, the wrong words can lead to a better way to tell the story. Like lovers finding their match, writers know when they find the right words.

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