Monday, December 24, 2012


This post originally ran on 18 March, 2009.


 Yesterday, Heidi posted about sagging middles in your stories, and how to prop them up. That started me thinking about the various techniques writers employ to plump up their plots.

One way to flesh out your story is through the use of sub-plots running along-side of your main story. In a mystery novel, these secondary plots are useful fixtures on which to hang a red herring, thus diverting the reader's attention and building tension before the resolution of the mystery. In any genre, the sub-plots lead the reader over and under the main story, keeping the action from becoming flat-out boring.

Authors also plump up their stories by adding tangential information, not necessarily to move the story forward, but in a way that is somehow related. For example, the main character in a book owns a garden shop and has a special interest in flower development. Readers could also be interested in such information, or so the writer presumes, and using a deft hand, will add numerous paragraphs about cultivating the perfect red, white, and blue rose. If that information adds definition to the character (perhaps we'll speculate the person is very patriotic), and is interesting, concise, and engaging, it's a good use of extra words.

However, be cautious about making your middle too fat with extraneous information. I just finished reading a novel in which one character develops Alzheimer's Disease, and the author clearly took a didactic approach around this theme. There isn't anything wrong with that, but make certain the information doesn't read like a promotional brochure stuck between pieces of the plot. That kind of enhancement just pulls the reader out of the story. Make sure the information is seamlessly woven into the fabric of the book.

When using these sorts of techniques, a little goes a long way when it comes to plumping up your manuscript. Always be sure the additions support the story and enhance the characters in some way. Like plumped up lips on a movie star, too much of a good thing can just be, well... too much. Dare I say weird? What do you think? Have you read a novel lately that had a bit too much filler?
Dani Greer is a founding member of The Blood Red Pencil and teaches authors how to create their own blog book tours. When she's not editing cozy mysteries, she works on her own writing and illustration, and runs a liturgical arts business with her husband.
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  1. Fantastic advice Dani. Very scary picture.

  2. Love the photo, Dani! Anyone you know? Thanks for the tips on plumping out the middle.

  3. Since I write lean, I do have trouble plumping up my manuscripts. One reason I can't get my word count up is I have trouble adding description. I'm working on getting better at it.

    Morgan Mandel

  4. Can't remember the book (because I didn't finish reading it) but the detailed descriptions of the clothing each character wore caused me to forget what the scene was about!

    Jane Kennedy Sutton

  5. Great advice, Dani. But I've got to say the fat lips are a real turn off. My hubby kids me that I have become a fanatic about the actresses who are all plumping their lips. Most of them end up looking disfigured, as will a scene that is plumped too much. :-)

  6. Thank heavens those lips are just computer manipulation! I think we've all seen the ugly side of this trend. The photo was just too good to pass up as a visual for some of the plot plumping I've lately read. It's not really a new thing. Dare I mention Jean Auel's novels without offending everyone? Hubby and I used to laugh over how many pages of plugged anthropology.

    On the other hand, I'd rather get that kind of info, than endless violence or gratuitous sex that clearly serves only to boost word count. What is that a sign of, do you think? I'd like to think higher intelligence but maybe age is closer to the truth. ;)


  7. Eloquently said, Dani. I have a writers group and sometimes we actually disagree about the use of subplots and minor filler to flesh out novel length stories. It could be that in some cases it was a little too plump, and completely drew away from the plot, or even that some of those authors were more prone to short stories and getting to the action and ending quickly. I know that I personally love a good subplot!

    I'd love to see a post on how to trim it down if you have a piece that's borderline novella but and editor would like you to trim it down to short story length? How do you cut out 2000 words?

    Jenny Bean

  8. Very interesting subject this. Wish I could get an expert to read my story and tell me if I'm on the right track. I've introduced my characters and shown the reader how each one has a potential reason for murdering a certain someone. I've also introduced stories within stories amongst the characters to make them more interesting. Now I need to start tying up the ends and it's hard to do. I need another murder to happen, but I'm not sure which character to bump off. I could do with a few hints please.
    Blessings, Star

  9. Well said, Dani! It's a tough line to toe over how much is too much "plumping" in fiction. And the bit about the Alzheimer's tangent is right on.

    If your novel has a "message," never say what it is. Fiction shouldn't sound like we're trying to sell something. Steer the characters, setting, and situation properly and people will figure out the point you're trying to make, without a lot of rote dissertation about The Evils Of. Thanks for posting!


  10. Star, you might try a mindmap of your plot so far. Get everything and the interaction on one page, and see where you can make some more connections. It's probably right there in front of you and you're not seeing it! Google "mindmap" or check for a Wikipedia article about the technique. It's a great way for authors to track their plots for holes and dangles.


  11. It is not just new writers that plump plots, although plumping as such, may be not be what is intended.
    There are a few well known authors that do their research well but ruin the story by including far too much of the detail garnered. It is as if they cannot bear all their effort to go to waste. So we get brief history lessons, unimportant detail, or guided tours that are not entirely part of the plot. My hubby reads books to me because my eyes are not what they used to be. I drop to sleep if there are unnecessary side-tracks slowing down the pace.

  12. Great write-up, Dani. It's funny, but after going through an MFA in creative writing (fic), my writing has gotten really lean...sometimes TOO lean (for pubbers) because they want 80k plus.

  13. Very interesting that this comes up at holiday time ... I plan on plumping up my middle over the next few days!

  14. My favorite example of too much plump is Gone With the Wind. The real problem, however, was that I saw the movie first. All those details in the book then became way too much, and I never could get through it.

    By the way . . . nice lips . . . uh . . . nice, plump lips.


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