What It Takes

What It Takes

The Math

By Shawn Coyne | Published: December 13, 2013

Here’s another chunk from The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know (thanks for the subtitle Seth!)

Creating a foolscap page for a complete work is all well and good, but then what?

How do you begin to actually map out the rest?

How long will it take you to write the first draft?

Is there a way to take the “beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff” concepts even further to break down the work into more “doable” parts?

This is where a little rudimentary math will help.

But before we dive into it, remember that you are not the problem.  The problem is the problem. And the problem we’re facing now is figuring out how to map out a course to get from idea to first draft. At the beginning of the long form Story process, the problems we face are innumerable.  To demystify exactly how a lump sum of words (a novel, a screenplay, a business plan, a play etc.) can be broken down into component parts is extraordinarily helpful. If we can cut our problems into bite size pieces that we can contend with one by one, one day, one session at a time, then we can beat Resistance into submission.

I know. You hate math.  That is why you became a writer/storyteller.  The idea of devoting hours, days, years or a lifetime in the pursuit of compelling algorithms is exactly the opposite of your sensibility. The way math was taught in my youth was abominable.  It was boring and unhelpful in real life and I have little doubt that the way it is being taught today is just as painful.

But, math is a Godsend.  And a very cursory look at the math of a novel is definitely worth the time.

Why?

Math helps you break problems into little bits.  It’s much easier to figure out where to cut a piece of lumber than it is framing a house.  Your mind can’t really wrap itself around framing a house.  But if you break the work down into its component parts, you’ll reach a very doable level of skill…a skill that is relatively easy to master.  Measuring the length of a board, marking where to cut it, and then taking a saw and ripping it at that mark is the primal skill for a carpenter.  If you can do that one skill well (and you can screw it up very easily too) you are well on your way to learning how to frame a house.

Same goes with writing a long form Story.

So let’s look a novel in mathematical terms.

Here are the facts.

The average length of a commercial novel today is between 80,000 and 100,000 words.  Are there exceptions?  Sure, but this ballpark range is where the novel has settled over the last twenty years or so.  It’s the length the average reader is expecting—not too much and not too little. So, it’s a safe assumption to make that if you want to begin a path that will satisfy a particular readership, your goal is to put together 80,000 to 100,000 words in a unique and compelling way.

Let’s break it down further using the Foolscap method.

To keep it simple, you’ll need a beginning, a middle, and an end to your story. No matter how many Acts you have (3 to 5 to 7), you need a beginning to your story, a middle section to your story and an ending to your story.  As an editor, I don’t worry so much about figuring out exactly how many ACTS are in a book.  For me, the Beginning, Middle and End are all that matter.  The beginning may comprise 2 Acts, the middle 3 Acts and the end 2 Acts, but I don’t really care.  Instead I concentrate on the five building materials for each of the three sections.  I think about the Inciting Incident scenes, Progressive Complications scenes, the Crisis scenes, the Climax scenes and the Resolution scenes for the beginning, middle and end of a book.

As you’ll recall, the key building block for a long form narrative is the Scene. Beats are the actor’s domain.  Scenes are the writer’s.

So the first breakdown of the 80,000 to 100,000 word book are the scenes necessary to create the five building materials for your beginning, middle and end of your Global Story. So at the very least there will be at least 15 scenes in your book:

  1. You’ll need a scene that is the inciting incident of the beginning of your story.
  2. You’ll need a scene that is the inciting incident of the middle of your story.
  3. You’ll need a scene that is the inciting incident of the end of your story.
  4. You’ll need a scene that progressively complicates the beginning of your story.
  5. You’ll need a scene that progressively complicates the middle of your story.
  6. You’ll need a scene that progressively complicates the end of your story.
  7. You’ll need a scene that creates a crisis question at the beginning of your story.
  8. You’ll need a scene that creates a crisis question in the middle of your story.
  9. You’ll need a scene that creates a crisis question at the end of your story.
  10. You’ll need a scene that climaxes the beginning of your story.
  11. You’ll need a scene that climaxes the middle of your story.
  12. You’ll need a scene that climaxes the end of your story.
  13. You’ll need a scene that resolves the beginning of your story.
  14. You’ll need a scene that resolves the middle of your story.
  15. You’ll need a scene that resolves the end of your story.

But how long should they be? How many words should each scene be? How many words should be in the beginning? How many words should be in the middle?  How many words should be in the end?

Here is a piece of information that professional writers spend 10,000 hours of their lives figuring out.  After thousands of years of storytelling, the beginning, the middle and the end for a long form Archplot or Miniplot story breaks down as follows:

The Beginning is about one quarter of the Story.

The Middle is about one half of the Story.

The End is the last quarter of the Story.

Are there stories that do not break down 25/50/25?  Absolutely.  But if you were to average every story ever told, 25/50/25 would be the result. I have a theory about why Stories break down like this.

As Stories are tales that inspire people to fundamentally change the way they view the world…let’s take another look at my variation of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Change Cycle to help explain why.  Remember that when life throws us out of kilter, it takes us a certain amount of time to even realize that we’re out of kilter.  There is an initial shock about an event in our life and then shortly thereafter, a denial that the event even occurred. We just pretend that everything is as it ever was until we’re forced to face facts.

I think these two stages, SHOCK and DENIAL, comprise THE BEGINNING HOOK of a Story.

The beginning ends when we can no longer deny the truth…which pushes us into the MIDDLE BUILD of our story and the middle of the change curve.

The middle forces us to react to the life event.

Once we can no longer bullshit ourselves about our circumstances, we get ANGRY. We blame others or the Gods for what has stricken us, lash out, usually making our circumstances even worse. After we burn off our anger, we begin to try and find the easiest way out of our situation.  We try and BARGAIN our way out of the problem.  We try and give the problem to someone else in exchange for something we do for them.  Or we decide that if we change our environment, we will be able to slough off the problem.  We move to another city.  We change jobs.  We find a new spouse.  We buy a better lifestyle. The bargaining proves fruitless, the monkey on our back gets even heavier.

When we discover that there is no easy solution to our predicament and all of our bargaining has left us broken and battered, we finally come to the understanding that there is no way we can turn back, our lives will never be the same. We bottom out in DEPRESSION.

This depression is dramatized in what screenwriters call the ALL IS LOST MOMENT scene. We despair. There is no way in Hell that we’re going to come out of this event anywhere near how we were before it happened.  It’s finally clear to us that our life will never be the same.

Once we can no longer live with our sad sack, life-is-no-fair selves, we take a deep breath and get to work.  We dig deep and confront our demon/s, stare down our problems and resolve to beat them into submission. We come to THE DELIBERATION stage.  This is the moment we weigh the pros and cons about what we can do to cope with the big change in our lives.

We finally see the crisis for what it really is, a single question that has no easy answer. Whatever we do will require loss.

We must choose the best bad choice or an irreconcilable good, knowing that we have to lose something in order to gain forward progress and reach a new level of stability. As Steve say, reach a higher level.

I think these four stages, ANGER, BARGAINING, DEPRESSION and DELIBERATION, thematically comprise the MIDDLE BUILD of a Story.

Now the beginning of the ENDING PAYOFF of a Story is how we choose to answer our crisis dilemma. CHOICE, the climactic moment when we actively do something that will finally metabolize the inciting incident event and change our lives forever.

Lastly, there is INTEGRATION, which I would call the very end of a Story. INTEGRATION dramatizes resolution.  We’ve found a new stability, one that is vastly different that where we began. We’ve got a whole new outlook on life and we’re not the same person we once were. At INTEGRATION, we have come full circle and have recovered from the SHOCK of a big inciting incident in our life.  No matter what, by the end of the story we will never go back to where or who we were before.

From Kubler Ross, this entire change process is 8 stages.

In terms of telling a story (a change process) the BEGINNING HOOK is two parts, the MIDDLE BUILD is four parts and the ENDING PAYOFF is two parts.

What do you know? In terms of percentage of the change cycle, 25% of the cycle comprises the beginning, 50% for the middle, and 25% for the end. So the 25/50/25 rule mirrors the process that psychologists have hypothesized is required for a global personal point of view change. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Kubler Ross’s theories can be helpful in other ways too.  Especially if you get stuck trying to understand how your protagonist will psychologically proceed through your story.  Here’s how the building materials of Story break down psychologically.

The Inciting Incident SHOCKS our protagonist…throws them off balance to the point of DENIAL…hooking the reader’s curiosity about how the denial will come back to haunt the protagonist.

This beginning to the story transitions into the progressive complications in the middle, when the protagonist can no longer deny his predicament.  He rages about his plight, bargains ineffectively to make it go away, realizes his life will never be the same and despairs during his ALL IS LOST MOMENT, until he regroups and deliberates about his crisis. He makes a choice, often called THE POINT OF NO RETURN, and the story moves toward the ending payoff when he makes an active CHOICE during the climax, which results in the INTEGRATION of a new point of view, the Story Resolution.

Back to the math.

So, if you are writing a 100,000-word novel, the beginning will generally be 25,000 words, the middle will generally be 50,000 words and the end will be the last 25,000 words.  We’ve already determined that we need at least 15 scenes in the book, 5 in the beginning, 5 in the middle, and 5 in the end.

What about the rest?

Nerds like me have noticed that typically, in contemporary commercial fiction, scenes run between 1000 and 5000 words. Remember that a scene creates a clear value change in the life of a character through conflict. When I break down the Story Grid for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, you’ll see where Thomas Harris fell on the scene word count spectrum. My personal recommendation is to take a page from the master and keep your scenes, like Harris’s, around 2000 words. I also recommend that you treat your scenes like chapters.  That is, each scene should be a chapter in your novel.

Why?

Two thousand word scene/chapters is potato chip length.

That is, if you are about to go to bed and your reading a terrific novel and the scenes/chapters come in around 2000 word bites, you’ll tell yourself that you’ll read just one more chapter.  But if the narrative is really moving after you finish one of these bites, you won’t be able to help yourself reading another. If the Story is extremely well told, you’ll just keep eating the potato chip scenes through the night.

Whereas, if you cram five scenes into a chapter that ends up being forty pages, the bedside reader will have a much easier time of just setting the book down before beginning the long slog through seven five hundred words.

People like to stop reading when they’ve finished a chapter, not in the middle of a chapter. This is probably the last thing they’ll tell you at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but it’s a reality worth considering.

You can accomplish quite a bit in 2000 words and if you successfully leave out the stuff that the reader does not need explained to them, 2000 words can often be way too much.

Anyway, let’s assume that all of the scenes/chapters in our novel are 2000 words long.  So if we’re writing a 100,000-word novel, we’ll have about 50 scene/chapters in our novel. From our earlier beginning, middle and end discussion, we know that 15 of those 50 scenes are already spoken for.  So we’ll need to write 35 more.

I know.  You are an artist and this mathematical manipulation is probably rubbing you the wrong way.  I get it.  But remember, the math is just a way to break down an extremely intimidating task into doable units.

So we have 35 scenes left.  Let’s set aside 25% of these for the BEGINNING, 50% of them for THE MIDDLE and the other 25% for THE END.

So we’ll need 7-8 scenes in addition to our 5 obligatory scenes for our beginning (12-13 total).

We’ll have 20 additional scenes to play with in addition to our 5 obligatory scenes in the middle (25 total). And we’ll have 7-8 scenes in addition to our 5 obligatory scenes for our end (12-13 total).

Take a look at The Story Grid now based on this information.  You can now see the entire form of your novel without having written a single word. You’ve got doable pieces of work that can be attacked one day, one session at a time.

But let me emphasize again that you may end up with 6 scenes for the beginning, 30 for the middle and 14 for the end or the other way around.  There is no “rule” about 12/25/13. We are merely trying to map out a course of work for us to bang out a first draft.  After we have a first draft, then we can go back and analyze exactly which scenes work and which scenes don’t work.  During DECONSTRUCTION and EDITING.

But if we never write a first draft because we get stuck after writing three scenes, we’re never going to finish the novel. Better to have a map of the targets we need to hit in order to make it to the end.  Once we get there, then we can fix our blunders.

Posted in What It Takes

16 Responses to “The Math”

  1. December 13, 2013 at 2:08 am

    This is game-changing, Shawn. A couple years ago I created a spreadsheet that lets me plug in a final word count, say 80,000, and the sheet tells me where in the page/word count my major events should happen. The hook, the first plot point, pinch points, etc. This was a big help at the time, and your post takes it to another level.

    Your breakdown of scenes and link to the psychology of change is a revelation:

    So the 25/50/25 rule mirrors the process that psychologists have hypothesized is required for a global personal point of view change. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

    This post alone gives me a new map and compass. I can’t wait to see what the entire Story Grid book will do.

    • Mary
      December 13, 2013 at 3:37 am

      I completely agree with Jeremy – this is game-changing, and just what I’ve been looking for. The overall structure of my first draft needs (a lot) more work, but now I know what needs to be fixed. I’ve said it before, but I can’t wait to read the entire Story Grid. Thanks so much for sharing these chunks of it with us!

  2. December 13, 2013 at 6:14 am

    Great post Shawn! This is the very deep knowledge that is needed to, ‘Turn Pro’ (along with doing the work of course.)

  3. December 13, 2013 at 6:31 am

    Any way I can reserve an advance copy of The Story Grid? (You are going to publish it, right?)

    So many forms and formulas coalesce. This expands Aristotle, reflects Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, recalls other plotting schema – and reminds me of Mozart and Beethoven…oh, and Shakespeare and Keats (sonnets).

    Working over-against (lit-crit term) the rules is what makes it art. No tennis without the net.

    The beauty of (the) math is that it allows a writer (artist) to rely on convention (formula) without being cliched (formulaic). What makes music musical – and it’s all math – is the variation within the structure. Same with a sonnet. Same with a novel – even though earlier critics thought a novel was amorphous. But it’s not. It’s a prose drama. That’s why some stories translate well to the screen.

    The structure you’re talking about is the skeleton. Without a skeleton, it’s just jellyfish blob – if it’s lucky. The skeleton is the basic framework. And we can differentiate a person from any other vertebrate just by the skeleton – indeed, only by the skeleton. But, ah! all the differentiation that occurs when we add in flesh and blood and organs and muscle and skin (which is, technically, an organ) and appearance and brains and personality, etc.

    Thanks, Shawn.

    • Shawn Coyne
      December 13, 2013 at 7:36 am

      David,
      Exactly!
      All the best,
      Shawn

  4. Ronald Sieber
    December 13, 2013 at 6:45 am

    Although I welcome the logical breakdown regarding story content requirements and see the structure that this piece provides the left side of my brain, I also dread that it will give some the ability to pump out more formulaic schlock in a scientifically efficient manner.

    Kind of like Taylorism gone wild in the writing world. And our world is flooded with, well…

    Still, structure like this is instructive and helpful. Thank you for writing it!

    • December 13, 2013 at 9:24 am

      People will do that anyway. It’s the very basis of television fiction. Shawn’s not creating something here, he’s revealing it, and the real value is that those of us who get it will do more work, better work, because of it.

  5. December 13, 2013 at 6:45 am

    This is incredibly helpful and makes a lot of sense. Thank you.

  6. December 13, 2013 at 8:50 am

    Shawn, if you’re trying to get me hooked on The Story Grid so that I become a pusher when it’s published, count me in. This post is masterful in its clarity and substance and so helpful for me. I’m printing it out and spending time with it over the weekend in breaking down my novel.

    Everything that’s been offered on this website is worthy of a college course, and we’re getting it all for free. THANK YOU!

  7. December 13, 2013 at 9:25 am

    I’m going to multiply this by Larry Brooks’ 9 sentence story structure from Story Engineering and have my mysteries all chunked down to potato-chip size.

    Because one of my biggest takeaways here is that potato chips for readers are potato chips for writers.

  8. December 13, 2013 at 9:53 am

    A post NaNo discussion with friends had me speculating how I was going to go about breaking down my story for revision. You wrote the perfect article for me, how very thoughtful of you.

    David’s comments are right on. I think your approach gives one a malleable structure without constriction.

  9. December 13, 2013 at 10:03 am

    POTATO CHIP LENGTH. I always feel like 2k words isn’t enough, that the chapter should be longer, well, just BECAUSE.

    I also like the formula because I have a habit of trying to fit a 20 lb box into a 5 lb bag and this gives me a metric to help determine a reasonable pace.

    Thank you.

  10. Sonja
    December 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    Omg! This is just what I needed this morning. I’ve been beating my head against the wall, trying to wrangle the mess I call my First Draft, post-Nanowrimo.

    Thank you, thank you, Shawn.

    I’ve read my share of writing books, but I’ve never seen it broken down like this. I will buy this the instant it’s ready! : )

  11. December 14, 2013 at 8:08 am

    At first I said, Math in writing, no way. But I continued to read, continued to wrap my very early morning brain around the concepts presented and came up with writing gold. Dividing up the book makes the process so much easier, like one little bit at a time. I loved the bit about “potato chip length.” Just finished a book like that which kept me reading long into the early morning. Now I know his secret. Thanks.

  12. Emily
    December 18, 2013 at 1:44 am

    Loved this post. Feel like I’m studying with the masters at a high level. So many thanks for sharing your knowledge so generously.

  13. Sarah Baker
    December 19, 2013 at 9:20 am

    Haha! 12/25/13. Merry Christmas!

    Merriment aside, this is one of the BEST articles I’ve ever read. This is exactly where I’m faltering on a project and needed a little help. Thanks!!!