Calculating Story Lengths
When you draft a novel, you just write, right? Sure, but at some point, you’ll need to adjust for overall and chapter length. A writer asks, “How long should my novel be and how do I write it to match a word count?”
Writing Tip for Today: Many different methods exist, but I’ll focus today on what I do for fiction and nonfiction book-length projects which are on deadline.
Divide and Conquer
Before I sold a novel, I still gave myself deadlines. Now, the publisher sets the date to turn in an acceptable manuscript. Whether you’re still chasing a book deal or you’ve sold a whole series, during the drafting phase you can do some simple arithmetic to ensure you can make a deadline.
Divide your target word count by the number of days, weeks or months before the deadline. The answer gives you a guideline for how many words you need to produce every week or month.
For instance, a mainstream novel should run somewhere around
80-90k words. If I want to finish in six months (a common deadline delivery
date), I’d divide 85,000 by 24 weeks. My weekly goal would be around 3500 words—although
I’d try for more to allow room to revise. But at least I’d have a finished
draft at the six-month mark.
Play around with the number—I often shorten the deadline so
I’ll have some time at the end for rewriting. Stay on track as much as possible—you
never know when illness or other concerns will interfere. The more you have
written before some interruption hits, the better off you’ll be in reaching
Three Scene Structure
I’m also often asked how long chapters should be and if they
all need to be the same length. In my writing style, my chapters often wind up
having three scenes. This helps me move the story faster than if I wrote one
long scene, where I’d be tempted to wander or march in place with the story. My
three scene chapters tend to run about 3000 words, or about 10-12 double-spaced
Chapter length does vary according to genre. For shorter
novels such as category romance, overall word count is about 50-60k, so each
chapter will likely need to be shorter too. And genres such as murder mysteries
tend toward shorter chapters.
Also, chapter length is a concern for writers. I’d say it’s
fine to include a brief high-tension chapter here and there, especially to
heighten tension. But readers like patterns, and that’s why most published
novel chapters are roughly the same length.
Percentages by the Book
Writers must also divide their story in terms of structure and story pace. An excellent approach to this idea is The Plot Skeleton by Angie Hunt. In it, Hunt shows you how to know if your story is unfolding at the optimum rate to keep readers engaged.
The first 20% of a story should be getting to know the protagonist and making us care. Then, the Inciting Incident sets the character on the story’s trajectory. We spend the next 60% on the ups and downs, the complications and rewards—with each scene rising action and tension. The next 10% deals with the ALL IS LOST (or so the protagonist fears) scene(s) and the climax scene. The last 10% is the story’s resolution.
If the story spends too much time setting up, readers will
flag. If the climax doesn’t appear when readers expect it (i.e. if it comes too
soon or too late), they’ll be disappointed. Although some writers balk at
writing stories by these percentages, the numbers correspond to the pace readers
Of course, all these numbers are only tools to help you make
word count progress, understand structure and write a story that readers can
most appreciate. Some writers hate working with any structure, and that’s OK
too. Find the method that works for you and keep writing!