(Beth Turnage Blog) I’ve written several posts on Quora on writing and thought I’d curate some here. You can call it laziness, but really it’s a lack of time since ghostwriting is keeping me very busy. Really. 😉
How do word count limitations affect what you can fit into a story?
This is an excellent question, and I thank you for asking it. Now you will get a lesson ripped from the pages of “Beth’s Book on Writing Fiction.” Okay, there is no such book, but you know what I mean. After six years of writing professionally as a ghostwriter and having to render stories according to a client’s word counts, themes, and tropes, I may have an answer for you.
I studied the reviews of the titles for different stories that I wrote for clients and listened to their complaints. And I dug into story structure and pacing to render stories that people find satisfying. I’ve written almost every genre, except horror and a few sub-genres of romance.
Just about every writer will hate me for what you are about to read, because the unwritten rule is, “there are no rules.”
Yeah, right. Do you know who knows the rules? Best-selling authors. Either intuitively or through trial and error they figured out the most engaging way to render a story. I pried apart some of their secrets in my personal study of writing. If you are interested you can find those posts here under the heading “Lexical Density,” or “The Writer’s Craft.”
Word Counts and Story Structure
There is a reason why publishers look for certain word counts. They have found through experience that certain word counts fit a genre more comfortably and profitably than others.
“One-third of the novels that come into the agency get rejected because they’re too long or short,” Perkins says. “The cost greatly increases on books larger than 100,000 words, so agents and publishers are less likely to gamble on a manuscript the size of a dictionary.” Novel and Short Story Word Counts | Writer’s Digest
But then the same article writer said in the very next paragraph, “don’t worry about word counts. Let the story flow.”
Yeah. Um. Not so much.
Two things go into my thinking.
One, I am a structure gal. I don’t feel constrained by having the six walls of the story surround me. It frees me to work creatively within it. I’m not flailing around looking for the story. I’ve already outlined the story in great detail. That’s why my Upwork profile reviews mention this more than once.
Two, as a ghostwriter I don’t have time to reinvent the wheel. I’m writing at least one book a month (sometimes two.) I work in nearly every genre. So I have to hit the marks running and produce a marketable book the first time. I do not have time to rewrite it two and three times. Not that I’m not open to suggestions from my clients. Sometimes they even have good ones. 😉 But I do ask my clients to tell me specifically what they are looking for. There will be no substantial rewrites. Once I’ve finished the last chapter, I’m onto the next book. So this is what I learned.
All Stories Have the Same Structure
I’m talking about the beginning, middle, and end. When you are writing fiction under 10K words, that’s the structure you’ll use. From babble to the long short story at each third of the word count, you must turn the story. The longer the piece of fiction, the more complexity you can add.
When you get to novelettes to novels, you organize the story into chapters. I’ve seen longer novellas chopped into sections, not chapters, and it’s messy. You want the reader to follow along with you, and that means making the story as easy to follow as possible. Even shorter works of 10K may benefit from slicing it into chapters.
But when you get to work past 10K, then the Five-Part Story Structure takes over.
“When the German playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag analyzed Greek and Shakespearean dramas, he discovered this five-part structure in action. He called the five parts exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement/resolution/revelation/catastrophe.” (bethturnage.com)
This is more important than you know. Chopping your story into five separate bits keeps your pacing on track.
Let’s Talk About Word Counts Per Genre
Chuck Sambuchino writing for Writer’s Digest gives a very good accounting of different word counts per genre. Here is the condensed version:
80,000 to 89,999 is totally fine for any genre and most adult books. You won’t scare off agents or publishers.
100K to 115K for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Beth’s notes: Why? World Building. Since you are taking the reader into a different world, like a tour guide you must explain it to them. You can write shorter in this genre, but that’s probably because you have five or more books lined up for your series. If not, go long.
20,000 – 55,000 Middle Grade
55,000 – 79,999 YA (Young adult) fiction.
50K to 80K with 65,000 as a middle ground for Westerns.
Oops. He forgot Romance. (rolls eyes. It’s only the biggest selling genre in publishing.) 50K to 60K, though I’m warning you, clients and publishers are looking for longer word counts in this genre, and 70K to 80K is not outrageous. It’s up to you to decide how much story to tell.
With your word count in hand, you can now start structuring your story.
Let’s Talk Chapter Numbers & Chapter Length
Some writers “let the story flow” and come up with an amazing number of chapters in their books, like 40, 45, and upwards. This is where you get in trouble with pacing. Now if you are a genius writer, go ahead. Don’t let me stop you. I’m not a genius. I follow the five-part story structure and slice the story into five parts, and within those parts are my chapters.
I also know through bitter experience that 2K is the minimum for the length for any chapter. Readers dislike shorter chapters because they love to get immersed in the story and shorter chapters render the chapter too fast and choppy for the reader to enjoy.
So, we are up against some math here. If you have five parts and a 2 K minimum what’s a good number of chapters?
Twenty-Five. That’s my go-to number for most books over 50K. Twenty-five chapters force you to focus on the essential parts of the story. If you want to be wild and crazy go for thirty, but I won’t be responsible for the results.
Here is a list based on “Beth Math” of story chapters.
10K–5 chapters of 2K
20K–10 chapters of 2K
30K– 15 chapters of 2K
40K– 20 chapters of 2K
50K– 25 chapters of 2 K
60K– 25 chapters of 2,400 words
70K– 25 chapters of 2,800 words
80K– 25 chapters of 3,200 words
90K– 25 chapters of 3,600 words
100K–25 chapters of 4,000 words
So you’ve picked your word count based on your genre and sliced that word count by 25 chapters, so what now?
You assign the purpose for each one of your chapters to advance the story forward. No matter what POV is telling that chapter, you must get the story to the next point. And you must do the work of that chapter.
C. S. Lakin talks about 10 key scenes in your novels. I go one further and say they are 10 key chapters. Below is C. S. Lakin’s chart, though I edited it a bit.
#1 – Setup. Introduce the protagonist in her world. Establish her core need. Set the stage, begin building the world, bring key characters on stage.
#2 – Turning Point #1 (10%): inciting incident.
#3 – Pinch Point #1 (33% roughly): Give a glimpse of the opposition’s power, need, and goal as well as the stakes.
#4 – Twist #1: Something new happens: a new ally, a friend becomes a foe. New info reveals a serious complication to reaching the goal. The protagonist must adjust to change with this setback.
#5 – The midpoint (50%): No turning back. An important event that propels the story forward and solidifies the protagonist’s determination to reach her goal. “I’ll never go hungry again!”
#6 – Pinch Point #2 (62% roughly): The opposition comes full force. Time to buckle down and fight through it.
#7 – Twist 2: An unexpected surprise giving (false?) hope. The goal now looks within reach. A mentor gives encouragement, a secret weapon, an important clue.
#8 – Turning Point #4 (75%): The Black Moment. The Major setback. All is lost and hopeless. Time for the final push.
#9 – Turning Point #5 (76-99%): The climax in which the goal is reached or not.
#10 – The aftermath (90-99%): The wrap-up at the end. Denouement, resolution, with most plot points tied together, and hanging plot points explained.
You space these evenly through your chapters.
I find it helpful to place twists a turning point at or just after each fifth chapter. The rest of the chapters I label “complications,” because each chapter needs to up the stakes for your characters.
One caveat. In Romance fiction, you need to plot and space your romance scenes evenly throughout the book. This can be two or more scenes, but you must place them logically in the story’s context, or the prose will appear jerky. For instance, you can’t have the heroine say in one chapter how terrible it would be to hook-up with the hero, and then in the next chapter show up at his door looking for nooky. I’ve seen this happen, and I groan each time.
Structuring a Chapter
You know your word count. You’ve structured your story. How do you structure a chapter?
Randy Ingermanson in his Snowflake method talks about Scenes and Sequels. I’ve simplified that concept, and use different terms.
For each third of the story, turn the action and ratchet the stakes. Assign an escalating emotion for the character to feel during each third of the chapter. So for a 2K chapter, you have 667 words to describe the chapter set up in which to set up the stakes for the character. This can be the reflection from the action of the previous chapter, or a memory, or sometimes a dream that hooks into the theme of the story.
The next section, introduce a new element. The character learns new information that changes her perspective, or a new character walks into the scene. In between the action, you write the character’s emotions about what is happening.
In the last third, you write the results of what just happened and write the characters’ escalated or de-escalated emotions. In the last paragraph, you set the hook for the next chapter.
Within each third, your action goes like this; 1.) your character observes something. 2.) your character has thoughts and emotions about the observation. 3.) the character reacts either with action or a conclusion about the action the character observed.
It goes like this (only with more detail) Jim sits in the bar at the golf club thinking about the golf game he played (in the previous chapter.) At the beginning of the chapter, you add detail about the setting and the physical reaction of the character, so the reader gets grounded in the action. Then the story segues into the meat of the dilemma.
For instance: Jim’s angry that one player, Bob, cheated. Jim concludes that weasel Bob did this to get in better with the boss. This observation does nothing to mollify Jim, because he wants to get in better with the boss, too, and he hates that Bob cheated to do it. (1/3 turn)—Bob walks into the bar, and Jim gets worked up seeing him. Bob might even speak to him, bragging about the game, and the conversation gets tense. Jim’s anger now ratchets into a rage and he wants nothing better to do than smash the cheater’s face in with his fist, but he holds back. Bob says one last thing to tick Jim off and (Last 1/3 turn) Jim does smash Bob into the face with his fist. What happens then is all reaction, but eventually, some authority rushes in, and Jim gets arrested. Now he’s ashamed of himself. “How can I be so stupid?”
Your chapter length determines the level of complexity and detail of the exposition you add.
Do this for twenty-five chapters and you’ll have a nicely plotted and paced novel.
Making the words sparkle? That’s for another post.
I hope that answers your question.