By the Numbers
As of right now, my NaNo is the second longest single piece I’ve ever written. If I meet my goal of 75,000 words by Nov. 30, it will then be the longest piece I’ve ever written, surpassing the 73,900 words of the previous novel attempt (which I keep telling myself I’ll finish someday).
Writing something of this length has really taught me about narrative structure, which is what I wanted to write about today. I will call this a descriptive post, rather than prescriptive advice. This is how I’ve figured out structure, and this is the structure that works for the book I’m writing now. But it is not for every writer, and it is not for every book. I’m just kind of fascinated right now with how simple the formula turned out to be, and how well it is working for the structure of my NaNo.
For reference, my book is a non-magical fantasy (at least that’s what I would call it; I don’t know that it fits neatly into a genre [thank gods]) that is equal parts plot- and character-driven, and will run, in my approximation, about 75,000 words long. The final word count of the book has been something I’ve been trying to predict since I hit about 40,000 words. Will it be 75,000? Will it run toward 100,000? Because I’ve been extremely diligent (23 days going strong) in writing 2500 words per day, knowing the actual length my book will turn out is helping me to schedule a finish date, especially with the holidays coming up. I don’t want to be caught going on a five-day trip when I have just one or two chapters left to write. In trying to estimate word count, I actually started thinking really deeply about structure. Yeah, you’d think a decent writer would think about structure first, but when you’re doing NaNo, word count is king.
Beginning, Middle, and End
I think we’ve all heard that any narrative should have a beginning, middle, and end. I think even the oddest of narrative structures and those that may even seem formless can still be divided into a beginning, middle, and end. So when I started trying to estimate the final word count of my book, I took a look at how long my “beginning” was. At first, I thought it was about 40,000 words long. This really scared me. 1) I thought I was headed toward writing a 150,000-word whopper. 2) I know I don’t have enough story for 150,000 words. I have four main characters and one setting—no way! 3) Because I knew my book was not going to hit 150,000 words, that told me I had way too much beginning. That would either mean cutting a lot of stuff (stuff I really love, and stuff I’d like to think I put in there for a reason) and/or doing a lot of re-organizing and editing (maybe the stuff I love can go in the middle). But the bottom line was that I had a major structural flaw in my novel.
But then I look another look. How was I defining the “beginning”? When I came up with the 40k count, I was defining the end of the beginning/beginning of the middle by a certain event in my book that changed my protagonist’s perceptions about what was going on around her. But as I looked more closely, I realized that the middle of the book began a lot earlier. It was when my protagonist made a choice that sparked every subsequent action in the book. In Secernere, my protagonist, Aurora gets kicked out of the titular setting. And I mean violently kicked out. She’s knocked out, tied to a horse, ridden into the middle of the woods, and dropped off with a map, some food, and explicit instructions never to return to Secernere. For reasons I won’t disclose here, she makes the choice to return anyway. Sound like a stupid decision? It probably was, and it was also the decision that launches her into the middle of the book. This happens at about the 22,000-word mark—a much wieldier chunk.
Establishing what it was that caused the shift from the beginning to the middle is when I came up with my own definition of how to structure my novel based on the beginning, middle, end theory, which in turn allowed me to estimate my final length. This is what I came up with.
In the beginning you establish setting (time and place) and all your main characters (your protagonist, antagonist, and any characters who will assist them in major actions or decisions). You also establish a major conflict (notice I said “a” major, not “the” major conflict; this was the root of my earlier miscalculation). Then your protagonist must try to solve this major conflict by making a choice—but fail. If she succeeds, what is the impetus to keep reading? She must make a choice that exacerbates her major conflict into something much more substantial, and this will lead us into the middle of the story. Finally, you have an obligation to the reader to hang Chekov’s gun on the wall. If there is an object (or fact or setting) that is going to come into play during a climactic moment of the story, you have to introduce it now. You don’t have to be showy about it; in fact, the subtler you can be without cheating the reader, the bigger the payoff will be at the end.
To sum up using chess as a metaphor (which I happen to be doing quite substantially in my NaNo), the beginning is when both players have had a couple of turns. The pawns have moved into the field of play, and maybe a knight has come out. Things are just getting started. But you can’t move to the middle until somebody steps up and captures their opponent’s piece.
Note: I will not argue here that having your character make a choice is the only way to go. You can write a novel about a poor guy for whom everything just goes wrong, and it’s never his fault. But that will get really boring really quickly. When that character takes action on his own behalf, that’s when you’re really going to hook your reader. And I would argue you better hook your reader by the end of your beginning, or they’ll never bother reading the middle.
By now, all your main characters are in play and they are beginning to engage each other in conflict. To continue the chess metaphor, most of your big pieces—knights, bishops, the queen probably—are out in space, being aggressive or taking cover from aggression. Things are happening.
You also have to introduce all your secondary characters by the middle. I would define a secondary characters as anyone who speaks more than two lines of dialogue or has any observable effect on the situation of any of the main characters. (If you have a lot of tertiary characters speaking more than two lines of dialogue, consider whether they can be combined into a representative secondary character, or if their dialogue can be paraphrased; it can be a waste of narrative space to make things or people draw attention to themselves when they are not necessarily important to the story). Bringing a secondary character into the end section without introducing him here is unfair to your reader. The mailman might not be a secondary character if he’s just delivering mail, but if your mailman is going to get bitten by your protagonist’s dog and cause the dog to be put down in the end section, we better see that mailman now, even if he’s just delivering mail. (I would recommend introducing your secondary characters in the beginning, if possible, but not if it means awkwardly stuffing them into a crowded room.)
The middle is also where you will clearly establish the major conflict. In my novel, “a” major conflict for Aurora in the beginning section is that she has ended up far away from home in an enemy country, with no easy way to get home. Yeah, that sucks. But “the” major conflict is established when she returns to Secernere and discovers that a man living there wants to kill her. Now she can’t go home, and she has to hide from a man who wants to kill her. That really sucks. Every choice she makes is going to stem from that conflict—trying to get home without being killed.
But not only should you establish the major conflict here, you should also complicate it at least one time, preferably more. Each decision the character makes should further complicate the conflict. If they ease the conflict, you lose tension and you lose the attention span of your reader. But I think it is fair, also, to have circumstance play into your conflict during the middle. In Secernere, Aurora meets a little girl whose life has also been threatened by the villain. So now, not only does Aurora have to get home without being killed, she feels the moral obligation to help this little girl not get killed, too. Do you think that little girl is going to become a liability at some point? In the words of Sarah Palin, you betcha.
The end begins when things really can’t get any worse. You’ve complicated your conflict as much as you can without losing your readers’ suspension of disbelief—she’s backed into a corner with a sword pointed at her face. This is where you have your climactic scene, which is the culmination of all conflict exploding because the tension was just too much. If you’re writing the type of book that has explosions, this is probably where large things will blow up. In Secernere, my four main characters have thus far been playing a game of cat-and-mouse, and no more of two of them have ever been in the room together at the same time. In the climax, I put all four of them in a room together, and it is very crowded and very tense. If you hung Chekov’s gun, this is where it will be fired.
But the end is also where the smoke clears and your wounded hero limps off into the sunset—the dénouement. We might get a few lines of epilogue, or whole chapters of it, but things should be tied up in a way that pays service to the amount of emotional investment your readers have invested in your characters. “They lived happily ever after” doesn’t cut it.
I would also hazard here that the “perfect” ending is the one that no one saw coming but that could not happen any other way. If you’ve set up your characters and their respective guns (which could be anything from a physical trait like hemophilia to a psychological trait like hubris to an actual gun) fairly and accurately, they will propel themselves toward an inevitable end that will be both exhilarating and immensely satisfying to your reader. There are other ways to handle your endings, the only real “rule” is to be fair.
To Sum Up
Beginning: Setting, all main characters, all guns, and one major conflict. Protagonist makes a choice that gets her into a jam.
Middle: All secondary characters, the major conflict, and at least one complication to that conflict.
End: All complications have occurred; things can’t get any worse. All guns are fired. Everything is tied up (neatly or not is your call).
As far as lengths, I think the formula that will work for me is a beginning that is half as long as the middle, and an end that is half as long as the beginning, i.e., a ratio of 2:4:1.
Using this formula, my book will be about 77,000 words, and I will start writing the beginning of the end at about 66,000. I am at 57,500 words currently, and 66,000 feels exactly right to hit my climax. My chapters have been running about 2,500 to 3,000 words, and I have outlined about 2–3 chapters left to finish establishing my middle. That leaves me 11,000 words for the climactic scene (which probably shouldn’t last more than a two chapters—one to set it up and end on a cliffhanger, and a second to resolve it), and two more chapters for the denouement.
Planning a structure may not work for everyone—especially during the free-reign, first-draft stages of NaNoWriMo. But for me, who’s working on a pseudo-second draft of this particular novel, it’s been a complete epiphany. If an outline is the equivalent of a map to completing a novel, then a planned structure with approximate word counts is the equivalent of Google driving directions where it tells you how long it will take you to get there. When the end is in sight, getting there goes by so much quicker and feels so much easier. (And if I stick to my 2500 words a day, I know my novel should be complete on December 1st, and that is a really cool feeling to have.)