How to Calculate Your Book's Length Before Writing

How to Calculate Your Book’s Length Before Writing

How to Calculate Your Book's Length Before WritingStory structure is all about timing. It’s about making sure your rhythm and pacing align for maximum impact, both in keeping readers glued to the page and in resonating emotionally.

The reason this timing works is that it is largely instinctive, for both writers and readers. When I first started learning about story structure, I pulled my two published novels off the shelf, flipped through their pages to the quarter, halfway, and three-quarters marks—where my First Plot Point, Midpoint, and Third Plot Point were supposed to show up—and lo and behold, they were there!

As a reader, whenever I find myself immersed in a story in which something just isn’t right—either it’s slow and boring, or feels rushed and unrealistic—almost inevitably, I discover the structural timing is also out of whack.

This is really great news for writers. It means we have a solid structural skeleton on which we can rely when building our stories. We don’t have to guess when it might be best for certain big scenes to take place. We know.

On the other hand, for all our awesome storyteller instincts, sometimes it’s still ridiculously hard to force unruly stories to line up with the proper timing. Recently, on Facebook, Abigail Welborn reiterated one of the most common structural questions I’m asked:

I’ve been studying story structure for about a year, and I’m working on the second outline for my current WIP. (By the way, SO much easier to outline first!) I came up with all the plot points first, but when I went to fill in what happened in between, I noticed a plot problem. Solving it caused the First Half of the Second Act to balloon until I didn’t get anywhere close to being at the Midpoint I was aiming for. I’d love to read a post on how you know how much in the outline translates into how many words, or what happens when you need to rejigger an outline, which ripples down the line and disrupts all your carefully plotted points.

Let’s take a look!

The Basics of Structural Timing

First off, let’s review what proper structural timing looks like. I have, of course, discussed story structure in detail elsewhere, including my book Structuring Your Novel. But here’s a crash course:

The First Act (1%-25%): presents the foundational period of setup for the story to follow.

The Hook (1%): offers the opening moment that grabs reader curiosity.

The Inciting Event (12%): officially kicks off the plot halfway through the First Act.

The Key Event (20%/25%): officially engages the protagonist in the events of the plot and occurs just prior to or coincides with the First Plot Point.

The First Plot Point (25%): marks the end of the First Act and the end of the story’s setup in the character’s “Normal World.”

The First Half of the Second Act (25%-50%): notes a period of reaction for the protagonist, in which he tries to cope with the events of the First Plot Point.

The First Pinch Point (37%): provides a reminder of the antagonistic force’s power and a setup for the Midpoint.

The Midpoint (50%): creates a moment of revelation for the protagonist as he comes into a clearer understanding of the true nature of the conflict.

The Second Half of the Second ActStructuring Your Novel Workbook (50%-75%): notes a period of action for the protagonist. Armed with his new understanding, found at the Midpoint, he can now take the action right to the antagonistic force.

The Second Pinch Point (62%): bookends the First Pinch Point as an emphasis or reminder of the antagonistic force and a set-up for the Third Plot Point.

The Third Plot Point (75%): creates a moment of seeming defeat for the protagonist.

The Third Act (75%-100%): finally resolves the conflict, one way or another.

The Climax (88%-98%)5 Secrets of Story Structure: starts halfway through the Third Act and is heralded by a final turning point that pits the protagonist against the antagonistic force in the final battle.

The Climactic Moment (98%): occurs at the end of the Climax and is the true ending of the story, the moment when the conflict is finally resolved.

The Resolution (98%-100%): ends the story with a final scene or two to tie up the loose ends.

(For myriad examples of how all these elements play out in popular books and movies, check out the Story Structure Database.)

Story Structure Database Screenshot

How Long Should Your Book Be?

So here you are, sitting in front of the first blank page of a brand-new story. Naturally, you want it to be perfectly structured from the get-go, if only to save yourself all that editing on the other side. But how are you supposed to take a blank canvas and just know where the first structural beat is supposed to take place?

There are two ways to do this, both of which we’ll talk about further in the sections below:

1. You can wing it.

Just start writing and trust your instincts. You’ll probably make mistakes, but you’ll also probably do better than you might think (remember those two novels I structured before I even knew what structure was?).

2. You can calculate your book’s length.

Timing in a novel is based on word count. If you know how long the book is, you can divide it into eighths to find the perfect timing for all your major turning points.

So how long should your book be? There are a few factors to consider:

1. What’s your genre?

Genre is a major player in any equation calculating your book’s length. This is particularly true if you’re hoping to be published traditionally, since an over-long manuscript will risk an insta-no from agents and editors. But it’s also true of independent authors. There are sound marketing reasons for why genre word counts are enforced.

In her article “Word count by genre: How long should my book really be?,” editor Kit Carstairs notes:

A manuscript over 40,000 words is considered to be a novel. However, very few novels these days are as short as that. Generally a 50,000-word novel would be the minimum word count. Most novels are between 60,000 and 100,000 words. A single novel can be longer, but once the length is above 110,000 words publishers may look at cutting it back, unless it is a particular kind of book—books over the 110K word count are usually considered “epics.”

You can find suggested lengths for specific genres in her article.

2. How long do you want the book to be?

Although genre expectations are a good place to start deducing your story’s optimal word count, you don’t have to adhere perfectly to these suggestions. A story’s gotta be what a story’s gotta be.

Consider the type of story you’re wanting to tell, as well as the time investment you’re willing to put in. Both will influence the size of your desired finished product.

3. Are you an underwriter or an overwriter?

Finally, consider your own work habits. Do you consistently struggle with turning out manuscripts that are shorter than what you were hoping? Or (like me) do you churn out big fat monsters that are twice as long as anybody else’s finished drafts?

Dreamlander NIEA Finalist

Knowing your own proclivities will help you adjust accordingly in the prep stage. Knowing my tendency to explode my projected word counts, I estimate conservatively. For example, I don’t want my portal fantasy sequel work-in-progress Dreambreaker to outstrip Dreamlander‘s 180k—so I’ve aimed for 120k to give myself plenty of wiggle room.

How to Calculate Plot-Point Timing in the Outline

Once you know how long you want your book to be, figuring out the timing of the plot points is easy. Divide your estimated word count by eight to discover how long each structural segment should be.

Let’s just make this easy and say you’re writing an 80k-word story. That means each section of your story should be approximately 10k words:

1. Hook–Inciting Event: 0–10,000 words

2. Inciting Event–First Plot Point: 10,001–20,000 words

3. First Plot Point–First Pinch Point: 20,001–30,000 words

4. First Pinch Point–Midpoint: 30,001–40,000 words

5. Midpoint–Second Pinch Point: 40,001–50,000 words

6. Second Pinch Point–Third Plot Point: 50,001–60,000 words

7. Third Plot Point–Climax: 60,001–70,000 words

8. Climax–Resolution: 70,001–80,000 words

But . . . you’re an outliner. You’re trying to outline your structure, which means you have no idea of the actual word count. What to do?

Outlining Your Novel Workbook Computer Program Story Structure Skeleton

You can use the Outlining Your Novel Workbook software to help you start your scene list by building your story structure skeleton.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook software logo 228 250Easy. You don’t outline your structural timing according to word count; you outline it according to scene count, using these three steps:

Step 1: Estimate Scene Length

First thing to do is estimate the average length of a scene. For convenience’s sake, I usually treat each scene in the outline as a chapter (although, remember, chapter divisions are arbitrary; structural scene divisions are not). If you’ve written previous books, take a look at a handful of scenes and figure out the average length. For example, 3,500 words is pretty average for me, so I assume most of my scenes in any new story will continue the trend.

Step 2: Divide Scene Word Count Into Total Word Count

Once you know how many words each of your scenes is likely to be, you can then divide that into your projected word count to figure out approximately how many scenes need to be in your story. If you’re writing that 80k-word novel and you’re shooting for 2k-word scenes, you know you’ll end up with around 40 scenes.

Step 3: Divide Scene Count by Eight

Remember, there are eight major structural beats. To discover where those beats should ideally end up within your outline, divide your number of scenes by eight. For that 40-scene novel you’re writing, you’ll discover you’ll get five scenes per structural section.

Once you know that, you can start outlining accordingly, arranging your story’s events to fill out each section’s five scenes to maximum effect.

The great bonus here is that this approach will also help you identify what role each scene needs to play in your overall story.

The first five scenes? Setup, baby.

The five scenes between the First Plot Point and the First Pinch Point? Reaction and determined pursuit of the Thing the Character Wants.

Etc.

How to Calculate Plot-Point Timing in the First Draft

But what if you’re not an outliner? What if you’re trying to time your plot points while writing the first draft?

That, admittedly, is a little trickier, but can still be done.

Again, all you have to do is estimate your total word count, then divide it by that magic structural number—eight. If you’re also writing an 80k-novel, then you know you have 10,000 words per structural section. Keep an eye on the ol’ word count as you’re writing along. Once you’re cruising toward the 10k mark, you know you’ve got to get your Inciting Event ready to go.

And so it goes on down the line.

>>Check out this great Story Structure Timing Calculator from Nadine Avola!

How to Correct Faulty Timing After the Fact

Now, what about “rejiggering” your timeline, as Ashley calls it at the beginning of the post, when something goes wrong with your initial estimate?

Gotta tell you: that’s no fun. This is why it’s so valuable to figure out both your timing and your structure before you start writing.

Still, it’s almost inevitable that vagaries will occur, even in the cleanest outline:

  • Some structural sections may turn out much longer/shorter than you anticipated.
  • The causal effects that seemed sound in the outline may prove entirely infeasible in the first draft, prompting new plot events.
  • You might just get carried away by awesome new ideas during the first draft.

Whatever the cause, you might discover one of your structural sections is either emaciated or obese. In these instances, the only option is returning to the drawing board. Reconfigure your math to set goals for the problem section—and then start brainstorming ways to tighten or fatten up your word count.

How Perfect Does Structural Timing Have to Be Anyway?

About now, you might be wondering just how perfect your structural timing has to be. If you’re off by 1% of your word count, are you in trouble?

It’s important to remember structural timing is a guideline. It shows us the ideal and gives us a rule of thumb against which to check our progress. But it’s not an absolute judgement of your novel’s success or failure.

What’s most important is that all the structural elements are present. Timing exists to make certain each of those elements is then given the proper amount of space to develop realistically.

But you do have leeway. I aim to hit my structural timing to within 5%, but depending on the story, sometimes even a margin of 10% may be acceptable. In general, the shorter your story, the more precise you must be. And vice versa, the longer your novel, the less likely readers are going to start fidgeting if you don’t absolutely nail the timing of your story’s exciting turning points.

As with everything in writing: techniques such as structural timing are your servants, not your masters. Use them to make things easier on yourself, not harder. Used wisely in the prepatory stage, proper timing can help you create a solid first draft that negates the need for massive rejiggering on the back end.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How long do you hope your work-in-progress will be? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Ruben Ramos says:

    My Sci-Fi novel is sitting at 91K at the moment. However, I am definitely an overwriter with the dialogue. One scene in particular involves a friend of the protagonist telling him about his violent past during the war, but as he’s doing it, he’s showing him drawings of whatever he’s talking about. It goes on for at least 3K words, so I may have to cut the scene down to add more action to it. Even though it does give insight on some of the reasons for the war.

  2. Ah, if only I had possessed this knowledge before I started developing and writing my epic futuristic family saga seven years ago! I wouldn’t have written myself into a corner due to not even knowing what my genre was, let alone story structure, demographic, or–the bane of my existence–word count. My manuscript is on hold more or less, while I master the particulars, and little by little apply what I’ve learned to my WIP. By the way, most of what I’ve learned, I’ve picked up from the Writer’s Digest books and from you. 🙂

    Could you answer a few questions for me please?
    1) Do you happen to know the word count range for an epic family saga? I have scoured the Internet searching for the answer and found nothing.
    2) My manuscript has 32 chapters, and the 1st and 3rd acts clock in at precisely 6 chapters each, making them 1/8th of the story, not 1/4. Is that a problem? (The 2nd act has 20 chapters, with a big reveal at the halfway mark, keeping the middle anything but flabby.)
    3) My story features three siblings, two of whom have POVs (the protagonist and her older brother), with their respective story/character arcs peaking at different spots. How do I juggle two POVs in regards to plotting out structural timing percentages and word count? My head is about to explode…

    Thanks in advance for your help.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In answer:

      1. I’m really not sure about word count for epic family sagas. But I’d say longer than shorter probably.

      2. Are you sure the turning points currently at your eighth and seventh-eighths marks aren’t actually your Inciting Event and Climax, respectively? If so, they’re perfectly placed. If not, the problem with changing the timing of the First Plot Point and Third Plot Point that significantly is that you’ll also have to mess with the timing of your Inciting Event and Climax–that’s where it gets sticky.

      3. I touch on the issues of plot points in multiple POV in this post on dual timelines. But the short answer is that you can handle this in two ways: either use the same plot point to drive the plot in both POVs – or time it so each POV gets its own structure-advancing plot point at the proper time. In the vast majority of cases, the first is preferable, since it will contribute to a much tighter story.

      • Katie, thanks so much for your reply. Sorry to take so long to respond, but after careful consideration, I have come to the following conclusions:

        1. My finished first draft will be a monster large enough to conquer small cities, but with sickle in hand, I trust I’ll be able to slice and dice it down to an acceptable size. (You may hear the growling all the way from your house.)

        2. Oddly enough, my first and third plot points (at the 1/8th mark) do not in any way affect the placement of the inciting event and climax. In fact, I was pleased to discover that all of the above-listed structural elements were present, including “softer” 1st and 3rd plot points at the recommended 1/4 marks. The only thing out of proportion is the hefty middle. I can live with that due to this being a futuristic family saga (e.g. two POVs, multiple antagonists, lots of characters, interweaving plots, world building, etc.–think Harry Potter or Downton Abbey). My main goal now is to correct structural elements, insert missing threads and foreshadowing, rework my 1st chapter (for the umpteenth time), finish problem chapters, and trim down that chubby middle portion.

        3. Because the female lead and her brother have mutual and non-mutual antagonists, some of their main plot points do not fall at the same spots, necessitating an individual structure. However, the sister and brother are best buds in the story, so what one sibling does strongly affects the other.

        Ultimately, I have done everything I can to fix my manuscript, and I believe I am much better positioned now to finish it than I was before I started studying story structure. I love this story and its characters, and I have faith that readers will too. However, not all tales fit seamlessly into a formula. In the end, as much as I appreciate all the structure I’ve learned and the experts who provided it, I have to quote Writer’s Digest author Steven James here and say “Story Trumps Structure.”

        Thanks again. I truly value your expertise! 🙂

      • Will this work on a short story? I want to write an 8000 word story.

  3. Thank you so much for this! I’ve been reading your writing craft books and am in the middle of restructuring and rewriting my first novel thanks to your OYN workbook.

    I’m trying to estimate this novel’s wordcount, but when I first wrote it, I had no idea about Scene structure. I just learned about it when I read Structuring Your Novel and 5 Secrets of Story Structure these past couple of weeks. I don’t believe I have a lot of writers’ intuition, as my “scenes” didn’t have much in the way of goal, conflict, disaster, reaction, dilemma, or decision sequence. How would I average my previous “scenes”‘ word count so I can estimate my book’s word count? I have yet to write a proper Scene–should I practice writing proper Scenes first with all their scene and sequel elements, then average those? Or is there a way I can decipher what “scenes” I had written previously before knowledge of scene structure and average those to estimate this novel’s word count length?

    Thank you so much for everything you do! I’m so blessed to have found Helping Writers Become Authors and all your writing craft books–totally changed my life!

    Madi

  4. Thank you so much for this post! I’m aiming for 80k-90k, but I’m an underwriter. This helps me get a good sense of where to aim with my scenes.

  5. Hi Katie, fantastic post as usual, thank you. I’ve bought all your writing books and have read and re read them, and now after lots of circling like a restless dog, I’m finally getting good, regular work done on my WIP. The principles of structuring and outlining seem, like all good information, to make more and more sense to me the more actual physical actual WRITING I do. Because, I suppose, the proof really is in the pudding. It’s all theory until you write and write each day, then when you apply what you have learned in a truly practical way, it all makes wonderful sense.

    You are so right in saying that we can all intuitively tell when the major structural points are not hit at the right time, whether it be in book or film. The story either feels like it’s dragging or rushed. What I wanted to ask is this: Stories are such variable lengths. Written ones can be 5fifty thousand or hundreds of thousands of words. Films can be twice as long as each other. The reader or viewer doesn’t always necessarily know this beforehand, especially with ebooks. So… if we don’t know how long the story is going to be, how do we know that it’s dragging at 35% if the FPP hasn’t reared it’s head, when the 25% mark could be at 20,000 words or at 50, 000 words..? There MUST be important clues before the FPP that we are unconsciously looking for, and noting, seeing as that point might be miles ahead depending on the length of the story. Does this mean that we pick up clues for story length from pacing, does it mean that the Inciting Incident is more important than we give it credit for (as a marker of story length), and that it really doesn’t work that well when it shares a credit with the FPP…?

    Just some musings… Would love to know what you think!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good question. If a story is its *proper* length (i.e., not overlong), this is because it takes exactly the time/pages it needs to tell its story. This means something appropriate and interesting is happening at each juncture in the story, and each segment, as it unfolds, is properly balanced with all the others. The pacing feels strong and steady, and every scene is advancing the story in an integral way.

      We’ve all read books or watched movies that were obviously too long and could have used some editing–and yet we’ve also read and watched things of exactly the same length that felt surprisingly short because they were so well paced and structured.

  6. Hannah Killian says:

    What’s the average scene length in an action/suspense novel that has a little romance thrown in?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t know off the top of my head. I’d guess around 1,500-2,500 words. Fast-paced stories get shorter scenes. I’d recommend looking at some of your favorites and counting up the words to get a rough estimate.

  7. Hi KM. This is a question a year on from when you post was first made, apologies, but I just heard it on the podcast. Can I ask if you are refering to Scenes made up of scenes and sequels, for instance, when you mention five scenes per beat can we interpret that as scene, sequel, scene, sequel, scene, beat, or five lots of scene and sequel, being a total of ten elements? This is probably too vague a question, but I would be interested in your reply. Best wishes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I generally group scene and sequel together when outlining and calculating book length. But it doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re consistent throughout the book.

  8. Thanks for the great post Kate. Regarding what you say about estimating scene length, I have a couple of questions:

    1. For Step 1 when you estimate your scene length (eg. 3500 words, 2000 words, etc), is this the length of the Scene (i.e. scene + sequel), or just one of the two halves (scene OR sequel)?

    2. You mentioned you generally write 3500 words per scene. Would you consider that on the longer side?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Generally, that’s scene/sequel together. Occasionally, one or the other is long enough that I’ll give them each their own chapters.

      And, yes, that’s on the longer side for scenes/chapters.

  9. Judy Peterman Blackburn says:

    This has been one of the most helpful posts. I’ve been confused with all this percentage and such, but you have cleared it up. I’ve written about a 50k novel, but am re-writing it and going for 60k or so. I will be referring back to this post as well as studying your structure books which I already have as I go through a new course I signed up for. Thank you so much. 🙂

  10. Great post – I find the more I outline the more I enjoy writing, but I’ve had to rejigger too. Something I’ve found in a number of successful novels I’ve read recently (scifi and fantasy): I find the 3rd act is too long. Battles seem extended for no good reason, story threads wander in when I’m no longer interested in them. Has anyone else noticed this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A poor understanding of our how character arcs work in the Third Act often causes authors to put all the emphasis in this section on a huge finale–without setting up the proper resonance for the conclusion.

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