Friday, April 12, 2013

Technical Topics -- How Does Action Relate to Length?

Starting out with an honi soit qui mal y pense, we're talking about how plot action relates to the number of words we need to write it.

Down in the comment trail, someone asks:

. . .  how do you judge if your plot is long enough? if you've got enough scenes or enough things going on to make a full length novel? This is a problem for me because I end up never writing because I've fretted over the story to death, wondering over the length.

It's an interesting part of writing -- this relationship between what's going on in the book and how long the book is.  How many words will we use to convey our action?

Now, the short answer is; everybody has to find this out for themselves.

The Writer's Journey ... if the writer is a dog
What we do -- we write and write and write and build up a stack of stories.

This is the writer's 'prentice work.  This is the garage band years.  Among the very many things we're learning on this first leg of our writing journey is how many words it takes us to get a particular bit of plot action across.

We sit down and put words on the page and -- hey -- we find out that a fight with six bad guys in a back alley needs 2000 words.  A love scene, on the other hand, just keeps stretching out and stretching out till it logs in at 8000.   Walking across a street might be 30 words of action in one scene and the same 30-ish words plus 1000 words of introspection in another.

We learn the flavor and grit and idiosyncrasy of our own writing only when we have some writing to look at.

Some of those half million words, y'know
After the first half-million words
-- did I mention we serve a half-million-word apprenticeship? --
we get a practical sense of how much heft different sorts of scene are going to add to the manuscript.  We get a storyteller's 'feel' for how words run the pacing to build that narrative drive we want so much.

I guess maybe this wasn't the short answer after all.

Okay.  Short answer:
Everybody writes differently and you won't know how many words it takes you to write your action until you've done some writing.

Will you be one of those excellent writers who shoot through 60 plot points in 70,000 words and the reader does not feel rushed?  Or will you be one who tells essentially the same story in 120,000 words and not one of those words is trimable excess?

All that said -- and wasn't that a lot of 'all'? --  I am not going to condemn you to months and years of writing before you get an answer to your question.
No.  I am not going to do that.
Because I know that would discourage me and I see no reason why it wouldn't be daunting to even the brave soul I imagine you to be.
Sure to be interesting scenes in your story
Best answer to your question is to write maybe eight of nine scenes that occur in the story
-- scenes that you are particularly fond of and can picture very well --
and see how many words you use.

This will give you a ballpark estimate of your action-to-words ratio . . . remembering that your first ratio is not necessarily where you are going to end up after a year of hard work writing and thinking.

Two common problems writers may start out with are being prolix, (that is, being tediously lengthy, long-winded, verbose, flowery, writerly, indirect and generally slowing the pacing to a crawl,)  or, on the other hand,  telegraphing the story, (which is talking about the action and racing along, never adding the description and internals and suchlike that draw the reader in.)

The first sort of writer comes up with 257,000-word Historicals.  The second, with 45,000-word Contemporary Romances.  Both of these are ... problematic when it comes to selling them.

But, while the gift of storytelling is just that -- a gift -- and inborn, the craft of writing can be learned.  (Though 'prolix' may end up being fixed by your long-suffering editor who pulls out the blue pencil and just crosses out paragraph after paragraph of internal nattering.)
(Ask me how I know this.)

What's important here is that these technique problems and many others get fixed only after you lay down words to fix.  No draft material lined up in neat pixels on the screen = no way to learn how to lean down or buff up the prose.  No way to acquire the fine art of padding a too-short manuscript with an exciting subplot.  No set of deft editing scalpels with which to cut away the excess.  

Write because you delight in writing.  Let the story come as it will.  Trust that you will solve whatever technical problems beset you.

And if in the end you discover that your 'natural' writing length is epic fantasy or novella --

We live in exciting times.  There's a market for writing at about all lengths. 

stack of paper attrib elchupacabrito


  1. I tend to be a telegrapher.

    For me, I don't really think about it until after the first draft. I'm a pantster so I never really know how many scenes/chapters there will be, or even all the plot elements, before I start. That's where the revisions and editing come in. By then I see the overall arch and know where I need to cut and where I need to add to get my story to match the arch. This may not work for everyone and people who plot it out may get it much closer the first time.

  2. You are so very right, Jo.

    My historical suspense clocked in at 220K. Cough. That's a heck of a lot of too many words, even with editing! I managed to trim to approx 210K before sending to some fabulous beta readers to help me see the forest for the trees. Then, I spent a while thinking/wallowing and decided I should just file the MS away under "practise" and forget about it.

    But I've changed my mind.

    I have to try everything I can to trim this beast down ... even if the book does eventually become a doorstop, I need to go through this process or I'll never learn how to cut a behemoth down to size (and thus, hopefully, learn to avoid writing one in the first place!) So with my beta readers' feedback to spur me on, I'm firing the chainsaw up once more, ready for some serious pruning ...

    One thing I have come to know with the certainty of death and taxes: I'm one who should never, ever, try to pants their way through a book.

    1. Hi Rachel --

      If you are going for print publication with a New York publisher, 210,000 words is probably overlength for a first timer. Sounds like you will have to do some serious chopping.

      Usual advice applies . . .
      Can you cut this in half and make two stories? Can you eliminate a subplot? Can you pull out a character? Can you eliminate more, more, more backstory?

      Can you eliminate some of the suspense/mystery plot wordage by handing clues over on a silver platter? (He doesn't go to Bath to investigate for 20,000 words. He hires a detective who comes back and reports. JAK uses exactly this device to compress action in 'Wait Until Midnight'.)

      In any case, this sounds like it's getting close to the query stage. Congratulations.

  3. Hi S.P. --

    I have this theory about pantsers. (I have theories about a lotta things.)

    I think pantsers do a lot of subconscious work. I think they 'see' the shape of the story in the back of their mind, floating in that inchoate soup that is the creative process. They don't know what's coming next ... no. But when they get to the fingerpost that says 'next' it's pointing in the right direction.

    The pieces fit together, the overall length works, because that subconscious is stirring the soup.

  4. Can you be both? I start telegraphing, try to pad it out and wind up prolix. then I have to cut out the excess. ; )

    1. It's like this dance pattern. Two steps forward. One back. Step left ...

      A lot of folks telegraph the scene first and then go back and add layers. (That's how we say 'pad it out' in writerspeak. We say 'I'm adding layers', or 'I'm enriching it.')

  5. All excellent advice, Jo. Thank you!
    I've just spent this weekend using my very rough outline to get that "big picture" view I need of my book's structure, and I reckon I've spotted big chunks that can either go or be significantly slashed. And I've pulled two minor characters off stage. Plus it still needs a darn good line-edit, as well ... so I'm quietly hopeful I can get it down to a more saleable length ... fingers and toes crossed. :-)

    1. I have no doubt whatsoever that you will wrestle this giant alligator to the ground, from whence it will emerge a svelte and lively snapper, ready to submit.

  6. Talking about how long something should be always reminds me of my mother trying to figure out the recipe for my grandmother's yeast cake.
    Mother: But how much flour do you add?
    Grandmother: Enough. (With a look that suggested my mother wa asking a ridiculous question)

  7. That didn't sound right. Apologies.
    I didn't mean it's a ridiculous topic to discuss. It's important. The problem is that it's much easier to see when someone has too much or too little than it is to say how much there should be in the first place. It's even harder when you are the author.

    1. You have put your finger on it. It's impossible to rattle off a solution and say, "Hey -- do this and the problem is solved."

      The problem is solvable with patience, practice and a hands-on approach... which sounds exactly like what your Grandmother said.

  8. Thank you so very much Jo! I shall definitely take your advice to heart :)
    Thanks again.

  9. It's an exciting time in publishing. Fewer guidelines, Fewer rules.

    It means we really have to work hard to get it right.