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)?
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