To you, pounding your keyboards in the NaNoWriMo dash, congratulations on passing halfway! I’m with you in spirit if not in fingers!

On November 17, 2020, Bri wrote, I’ve been writing short stories and have started a new one. The thing is, I want to write a longer story, but no matter what I do to my previous stories, I can’t lengthen them. I really want to write a 81-120 paged book, but I can’t do that if I only can write stories that are 10-25 pages. I’m really frustrated with myself for not being able to change anything. Anyone know how to create a longer story/lengthen an old story?

Erica wrote back, Make more things happen. When you feel like you’re reaching a good ending point, stop and think. What can I do to make this get worse instead of better? For example, if your characters are trying to find their way out of a maze, let them escape, but stick a dragon in the forest outside that they will have to get past in order to get back to their families. It might feel a little jerky at first, like you’re just stringing along a bunch of different short stories, but that’s what editing is for.

I’m with Erica on making everything worse. If we think of our whole story as a maze, for example, our job is, by hook or by crook, by character, plot, or world, to keep our MC wandering and lost as long as possible.

Suppose we take the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin” as an example. In my Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, the story is three pages long, a miracle of compression.

We can start by interrogating our too-short story. Imagine it, squirming under a too-bright light in a windowless room.

The impoverished miller has an audience with the king, and all he has is a beautiful daughter. To impress the king, he tells him that his daughter can spin straw into gold.


These two start us thinking about the world the story is in: What’s the reason for the audience? Did the miller ask for it, or was he called to appear?

Now we begin to think about the characters of the miller and the king: What does the miller want from the audience? What does the king want? What causes the miller to make this wild claim about his daughter? Does he know something?

We can think about tentative answers to these questions and jot down some notes, maybe make a list or two. We probably don’t want to settle on anything yet.

But when we do settle, later on, our answers to these questions can fill a bunch of pages as we launch our story.

The daughter, when she appears before the king, is told she has the rest of the day and the whole night to spin a room full of straw into gold. If she fails, she’ll be executed.

Who is this king? What’s going through his mind when he sees her? Is he evil? Does he really plan to carry out his threat?

Does the daughter know going in that her father has made this crazy boast about her? How does she conduct herself in this, her own audience with the monarch? What does she think?

When the maiden is led into the room with the straw, she breaks down and cries because she doesn’t have the foggiest about how making gold from straw is accomplished.

If we want to stick with the original, we have to go with that. We can ask what’s happened in the past when she’s wept. Did crying get her what she wanted?

Or we can ask what the other possibilities are. Whatever we decide, we’re on the road to developing her character. From her thoughts and feelings we arrive at her actions—maybe just weeping.

And what about the setting? What’s the room like? Are guards stationed at the door? Rumpelstiltskin is about to arrive. How does he get in? And what about the straw? Is it clean? Or full of bugs and bits of—ugh!—cow pie? Might it have magical properties?

Rumpelstiltskin will spin the straw into gold in exchange for the daughter’s necklace. Whoa! She has a necklace? How impoverished is her father? Or is she independently wealthy? Just the necklace is worth a bunch of words.

Why does Rumpelstiltskin want a necklace if he can make gold out of straw? That’s just scratching the surface with him. Why does he come? He’s supposed to be the villain of the story, but he doesn’t act like a villain. There are myriad questions about him. If you feel like it, jot down ten more.

Rumpelstiltskin and the daughter are together for hours each time. Do they talk? What happens while they’re together? Does it really take him the whole night? Does she go to sleep?

Beyond the immediate problem of transmuting straw, what do these characters—the king, the miller’s daughter, Rumpelstiltskin, the miller—want? What’s in the way? What in their natures help or hinder them?

Who is telling the story?

Does our story have to end the way the fairy tale does? How else might it end up?

As we explore our ideas, our story fills out. Basically, we ask ourselves: What is unknown—about our characters, our plot twists, our world?

Having said all this, however, there are writers who excel at the short story, for whom the short story length is exactly right. Their stories appear in journals and magazines and zines. They put them together to make collections—which are as long as a novel.

Here are three prompts:

  • Write an entire story of twenty-five pages or more about what happens during the first night the miller’s daughter and Rumpelstiltskin are in the room with all the straw. Give it a beginning, middle, and end. Develop their characters and the world they live in. For extra credit, make the rest of the fairy tale unnecessary when you’re done.
  • Your MC is lost in a maze, and so is your villain, who is lost too. They aren’t together, but if they meet he’s armed and she isn’t. The other dangers are starvation, snakes, frigid nights, and anything else you like. What’s more, her baby brother will die if she doesn’t get out in, say, three days. Write the story or the novel, but make sure you write at least thirty pages.
  • Turn “Rumpelstiltskin” into four linking short stories from four different POVs: the miller, the king, the miller’s daughter, and Rumpelstiltskin.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. Fun! Rumpelstiltskin is pretty far down on my list of retellings to try, but I think I’m going to flip the “sides”: the father/daughter are evil, while Rumpel and the king are the good guys.

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Orson Scott Card wrote a really good article on writing long stories instead of short ones. The only place I’ve found a copy of that article is in an out of print book called “The Writer’s Handbook of Novel Writing” (although, after a quick internet search, it might be in this book which you can check out virtually:

    Some highlights: Orson Scott Card warned against just piling in more stuff, especially more plot. He said “Short stories are designed to deliver their impact in as few pages as possible. A tremendous amount is left out, and a good short story writer learns to include only the most essential information…but novels have more space, more time. When readers sit down with a book, they are committing several hours of their lives to reading it. They will stay with you for much more peripheral material; they expect, in return, that you will provide them with a fuller experience.” Sounds like what Gail was doing when she asked lots of questions about different aspects of the story instead of trying to push the story further.

    Orson Scott Card also warned against writing a whole bunch of short stories and sticking them together, because the seams will show. Instead, he talks about writing in scenes, short sections of continuing action..

    My suggestion is to use story structure to break up a long novel into manageable chunks, and make sure that it resonates when you hit each beat… but that’s my suggestion for just about everything 🙂

  2. I could use some advice. I wrote a story about what happened after the end of the fairy tale “The six Swans,” and was all ready to send it to a magazine, but it depends on knowing the original story, and it turns out that fewer people know it than I thought. How can I recap thee essential bits without bringing the (flash length) story to a halt?

  3. Gail Carson Levine says:

    Is it possible to do something like: After she’d restored her brothers from swan to human and explained herself off the sizzling stake… (16 words) and launch your story?

    Also, does the reader have to know what fairy tale you’re working from?

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