Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

On Outlining (3 of 4)

Pacing and Chapters

Part 1

Part 2

Time for more math. Or, as our British friends insist, “maths.”

My goal for A Box of Ink is 85,000 words. YA fantasy can get away with this; it falls within the realm of normal. Chapter count is critical only insofar as how I’m telling the story, which is true for my acts as well. My four act endings highlight the following plot points:

  • One Jill’s friends, Kevin, can do magic
  • Jill has concrete allies against her unnamed enemies
  • Jill is kidnapped (isolated from allies and friends)
  • Jill overcomes immediate danger

If I wanted to have different points (or more of them), I’d re-structure the acts (3, 5, 7, etc.). The act count is arbitrary, but it’s also only a starting point. The trick is to remind myself that I can change it if it’s not working for me.

Just like my arbitrary act count, I give myself an arbitrary 40 chapters with which to work (compare these numbers to Kiersten White’s Paranormalcy – they’re pretty close). All things being equal, this gives me a rough word count of 2,150 words per chapter.

That’s not a lot of words. That’s not a lot of action.

What I realized while I was writing about structure two months ago is that I can use chapter length and action to affect the pacing of my storytelling. You want your pace to accelerate overall? Go from longer to shorter. I don’t mean that you should double your chapter lengths (my shortest are about 1900 words and my longest are 2500), but your act lengths. In my (estimated) 40 chapter book, act I gets 12 chapters, acts II-III each get 10, and act IV a mere 8. That’s not a lot of acceleration, but it’s a good series of guideposts for me as I’m moving forward.

In other words, my arbitrary decision of 40 chapters overall led to a consequential decision of 12 chapters in act I.

And speaking of act I…

Knowing that I only get about 2000 words, plus or minus, really puts these plot points into perspective, because now I have to decide if these plot points are scene-worthy or if they just get a mention. Do I have one long scene at 2000 words for chapter 1, two medium at 1000 each, three at 700, or four at 500?

The length of these scenes is another way you can vary your pacing (and, via pacing, your dramatic tension). And I have all of my plot points laid out in front me, the information I have to convey within my storytelling.

Which brings me back to the sandwich method. When people talk about that dynamic opening sentence? Now I have my outline reminding me to craft that sentence for every single chapter, and I know that every chapter needs to end just like my book, with something big, something curious, something that makes you want to turn the page.

I’m not writing an 85,000 word book any more. I’m writing a 2000 word chapter that needs a tight opening sentence. I know what has to come up in the middle. I know that – especially at the beginning of the story when I don’t have your trust yet – I probably can’t get away with long scenes. I think in terms of 3-4 scenes per chapter of 500-700 words each.

Realistically speaking, those scenes don’t have a lot of room to maneuver with all of those things going on. I’ve got world-building, introductions to secondary characters, introducing my main character, lacing in the mystery (or the conflict or the prophecy or whatever).

700 words? That’s practically flash fiction. I can churn that out in no time. Two more of those scenes, there’s chapter one and all of a sudden I’m 2000 words into your count.

As it happens, my first act ended with 11 chapters (which became clear as I was writing chapter 9) and about 25,000 words. My chapters are running a little long, then, and my structure is contracting.

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