Friday, May 21

Break it Down: Making Word Counts Work for You

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

I like to use the word count feature in my writing program (Scrivener these days) to help me pace my chapters while I write. It varies from chapter to chapter of course, but I know there's certain basic structure to my first drafts, and keeping track of where I am in my word count for that chapter guides me in how it should play out.

When I begin a new chapter, I check my word count feature (or set it if the software allows that). I know generally how many words per scene I typically need to work out a plot event. I have a common word-count curve that often goes 500-1500-500 as I start, build, and end a chapter.

Back when I used Word, this was my process: I marked the chapter header with my word count goal. I used the document map feature, so I had a list right there with every chapter header. On the chapter I was working on, it had a number in front of it: 54.7 SIXTEEN. That told me when I got to 54,700 words, I'd have roughly 2500 words for that chapter (which was my target). As I started that chapter, I'd glance down to see what word count I was currently at. In this example, it would be 52,200.

Let's say my previous chapter ended the scene. So the new chapter will be starting from scratch with a new goal for my protagonist. As I mentioned, my scene intros tend to run around 500 words. By then, my protagonist has been handed a problem, reacted to it, and made a decision about what needs to be done next that propels the scene forward. In this example, that gets me through my intro around 52,700 words. At the end of the chapter, there's usually a big "eek!" moment, and that typically needs 500 words to lead up to. So I have 1500 words in which to connect those moments.

So how does this work?

If I get to the decision point and find out I've only written 145 words, I know I've probably skimped on description or internalization or I'm not increasing the conflict or tension as much as I need to. I'll add something, a problem, a fear, some foreshadowing, it varies wildly depending on the scene and what's needed at that point of the book. If I'm close (or over) that 500 word mark, then I continue as planned.

I keep writing until I get close to that 2000 word mark, which indicates that if I have a big "eek!" moment planned, I need to start getting there. Or I need to start wrapping up that chapter however I plan to end it. So whatever steps I need to take I start taking, so I can end on that moment right around the 2500 word mark. If I'm nowhere near the ending of that scene, that either means this is a very long scene (which it might be) or I'm wandering and losing focus, possibly unsure where I'm going.

Now, I know some of you (especially the pantsers) are probably thinking "Egads, how could she write like that? It's so rigid!" but it's really not. If a chapter doesn't fit this target word count I don't force it to fit. If a chapter starts out with those 145 words and they do exactly what they need to do, I don't worry about adding more. But it's enough of a structure that I can judge my pacing by how far into the chapter I am.

For example If I'm halfway through, and I've written something that can turn into a problem if a character does X instead of Y, I might check to see where in my chapter I am. If it's early on, and that problem might be fun to explore a bit, I let the problem happen. If I'm close to the end of the chapter, I reevaluate that potential problem. Not every problem I come up with is going to serve the story. Just because I can make it harder, doesn't mean I should. Especially if it's going to hijack my protagonist from the core conflict at the wrong moment. If I'm excited about the idea I of course run with it, even if breaks all my guideline "rules." This is a technique to help me, not stymie my creativity, so I don't let it.

A lot of it is gut instinct, and sometimes I follow the wrong plot path. But I write organically within an outline structure, so it works for me to know "I have 1000 words to do stuff in this scene before I get to this plot moment." What "stuff" that turns out to be often depends on what pops out of my head onto the page.

If a scene spans chapters, then naturally this breakdown goes right out the window, but I've found there's still a plot wave of intro--building--problem that happens in every chapter. I still keep track, because I've also found that scenes that run too short tend to feel rushed, and those that run too long drag. I know if I've written 1200 words and I haven't added a new problem, revealed something new, or done something that moves the story in some way, chances are this is a scene that'll bore the snot out of my beta readers. I'll need to trim, or add more conflict or tension.

This is not a technique that will work for everyone, and if you do decide to try it, use whatever word counts work for your writing style. If you write longer, your breakdowns will differ.

It's also an interesting technique to use to analyze your scenes and chapters and see if you're building tension or just wandering. If you look at a set of chapters and realize every time that "eek!" moment happens in the last 100 words and comes out of the blue, and nothing much happens before that, it might indicate you need to ramp up the tension or pacing some. Or vary where those moments happen so it's not so static or predictable.

Maybe it's the artist in me, but I've found I have the most freedom when I give myself a little structure to work in. It's like a safety net to catch me, so I never have to worry about going too far.

Have you ever used word counts to help pace? Does this technique appeal to you or sound dreadful (grin)?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. This is interesting, and kind of the same thing I'm doing now with this draft of my novel, except my word count goal is 4,000. Sometimes I go over the word count and sometimes I'm just a little under it, but I think that's fine since it'd be weird for all the chapters in a book to be the same amount of words. And I have to agree with you on the most freedom being available when you have a little structure. Doing it this way, I get a chance to see my story from a different perspective and it's really helped.

    Great post.

  2. This is very interesting and unconsciously, I think I work along the same lines. I set word count goals for each scene (depending on importance) and try to stick within those guidelines. Since I've planned everything out beforehand, it seems to work. I like the idea of watching where the eek moments fall. That's great advice.

  3. By contrast, I get this gut feeling when the chapter is supposed to be ending... but for my current novel it just happens to be right around 4000 words. At that point I get to decide whether it's worth breaking or continuing. So I think our minds are often aware of word count on a certain level even if we don't think it through as consciously as you do.

  4. Speaking as a dedicated pantser, I make heavy use of word count to make sure my structure is staying tight. Like Jaydee, I watch at the scene level, trying to keep every scene right around 800 words.

    I've noticed you can affect pacing a lot by playing with wordcounts. If I drop a series of scenes down to 5-600 words, the book feels faster, breathless. At 1000-1200 words, it becomes more thoughtful. Just like the balance of action/dialog/description, the actual number of words between breaks influences the reader.

  5. Cool! How long a chapter should be is something I've wondered. I tend to write until I feel that section is done, some are long and some are short.

    I really like the way that you have it semi-formulated with room for flexiblity.

  6. I use pages instead of word counts, but it's really the same thing!

  7. With my several WiPs, I've noticed that different works have different chapter lengths--but that chapter lengths tend to remain roughly equivalent within a work.

    I don't consciously seek a word count in a chapter unless I've already noticed a pattern, though I'm not averse to having chapters mean something specific and therefore require approximate word counts if I can ever actually write a story that would fit it.

    With my WiP undergoing revisions, I originally had chapter lengths bouncing from about 500 to 2000 words but most were around 1000. I decided to sit down and try to make them more consistent. When I took a closer look, I realized I was sometimes using a chapter break where the situation actually required a scene break, and my scenes...

    Well, I'm still working on that. But I was surprised by how much sitting down and evaluating the chapter lengths helped me work more action and development in.

  8. I use an Excel spreadsheet to track my word count each day. And yes, I agree that looking at a scene you think is done and finding it's too short, either by word count or page count, often means you've skimped somewhere along the way.

    I usually ask myself, "How can I get more tension into this scene?"

  9. It's funny reading your posts Janice because you work so completely differently from me - so it's nice to see a different perspective.

    Like Juliette, my chapters tend to tell me when they're ready to be finished. I usually start knowing what the event at the end of the chapter needs to be and just work towards that. Typically my word count for a chapter is somewhere between 3500-4000 words but I've found in my latest WIP the word count has been all over the place, with some chapters being very short and some being somewhat longer than usual, which I guess answers the age-old question "How long should a chapter be?" - As long as it needs to be.

  10. Very interesting. Thanks for posting it.

  11. Most welcome. My way is certainly not the only way, but I know it helped me to hear how others did things and why when I was starting out. I could try different things and figure out what worked best for me.

  12. Ok so it required to have. Say 4000 words per chapter, consistently throughout the novel, or is it ok to have say 2000-4000 per chapter? I realize it broad, but sometimes the chapter doesn't need more than 1700 words, but some chapters have a lot more going on and are at 4000 words...I think I'm confused

    1. Nothing is required. You can vary the size per chapter, or even have a chapter with one word or sentence if it worked for the story. Chapters tend to be roughly the same size, but no rule says it has to be that way, and it can vary without any trouble. A general range is pretty typical of the average novel.

      Chapters are just another tool you have to pace and structure your novel. They help you break it so it flows the way you want a reader to read it. Endings pack a lot of dramatic punch, and sometimes you need to end on that beat to get the emotional impact you want.

      A range is fine if that works for you. So is writing in scenes and deciding after the first draft is done where to break it into chapters. However you want to structure your novel is your call.

  13. Just making sure I get an email alert😉