Helping Writers Become Authors

How to Calculate Your Book’s Length Before Writing

Story 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 Act (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%): 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.)

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?

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?

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

Easy. 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.


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.

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:

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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