Word counts, themes and plot details

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Now that you've got your story idea broken down into a handful of loosely defined arcs you should have a pretty decent idea of what your story is about, if you didn't already. I'm not talking about plot details here but the themes of the project.

These themes can be as small or as grandiose as you want but identifying them up front will be a massive aid to your writing once you get started. Characters are critical to your readers empathising with your story; plot is vital to form a compelling narrative and effective pacing; but it's the themes of the book which will attract people in the first place and give it weight and purpose and resonance. From the writing perspective, defining your themes will simultaneously help you stay on track and give you the confidence to occasionally go off on a tangent, knowing that it's serving the core themes of the story.

Themes don't necessarily need to be complex, or high-falutin'. A Day of Faces had a bunch of defined themes right from the start, each of which emerged from the one-liner description: identity, responsibility, prejudice. As the story developed I added some extra themes: authoritarianism, multiculturalism and equality. Knowing that the story was about these themes gave me a lot of freedom: the characters could spin off in unexpected directions and the plot could get as twisted as it wanted, and as long as I kept the themes at the centre of everything I could trust that the story would stay on course.

This is also the point of accepting that your story won't be for everyone. I'll get to dealing with feedback and handling negative criticism in a later chapter, but the moment you identify and embrace the themes of your book you'll be automatically excluding great swathes of people. Simply by mentioning the word 'multiculturalism' just now I'll have ensured that a fair number of people reading this guide won't go anywhere near A Day of Faces - but that's fine. Having the themes clear in your head means you're being honest with both yourself and with your potential audience. It also means that the people who do find your book will really love it.

So now you've got your broad arc plots and you understand your story's themes. Let's dig deeper. It's time to talk about plot specifics and what happens chapter-by-chapter.

Before we do that, though, we need to factor in word counts. In a non-serialised book your chapters can be as long or as short as you want them to be but that doesn't really carry over into serialised fiction. While there's no technical limitation to chapter word count, the practical reality is that your readers will be expecting a certain regularity to the experience, just as tuning in to your favourite TV show depends on each episode being roughly the same duration. Even Netflix shows, where they are free from the scheduling and advertising shackles of traditional TV, still maintain half-hour or hourly formats.

Serialised prose fiction is the same: your readers want to know when they sit down with a new chapter that it's going to be comparable in size to previous instalments. A drastically shorter chapter will be disappointing and an unexpectedly long chapter could feel onerous.

There's always exceptions, of course, and you could play with chapter length for deliberate dramatic purposes. That's fine. But don't do it without purpose, as it'll result in an unpredictable and unsatisfying reader experience.

Consensus on Wattpad seems to aim for between 1000 and 3000 words per chapter. This hits a sweet spot, whereby there's enough substantial content to engage the reader while being short enough to be consumable in a single sitting; whether that be on the train to work, at the breakfast table, in the lunch break or before switching the light off at night. Conveniently, this is also a chapter length that it is entirely possible to write in just one or two sessions, depending on your typing speed and creative flow.

I always set myself a word count goal at the start of writing a chapter. I played around with a few numbers but eventually settled on 1200 words, which is low enough to be nice and friendly and welcoming to my inner muse while still producing a decent-sized chapter for readers. In practice, I almost always go over that, usually without even realising - by the time I get to about 700 words I'm in the zone and don't snap out of it until I get to the end, usually settling around 1500 words, or 2000 if it's a big, exciting story point.

Chapter word count can absolutely be flexible, so don't feel trapped by it. If the story demands a chapter be a little longer or a little shorter, that's fine. As long as you average out around your target it's all good.

So, quick checklist: You've got your story idea. You've broken it down into very broad, top-level arcs. You've identified the themes you want to thread through the entire story. You've also figured out a typical word count to hit which works for both you as a writer and your readers.

Armed with all the above, you should now be in a pretty decent position to start plotting out more specific plot details, chapter-by-chapter.

Rather than plotting out the entire story, through every single arc, I preferred to focus on one arc at a time. This meant that at the start of any given arc, I'd have plotted out at least ten chapters ahead, giving me a nice buffer. The benefit of this is that it makes it possible to build in foreshadowing of later events and to seed your themes throughout the chapter flow.

Each chapter I'd give a single paragraph description, keeping it deliberately brief. Here's the description for chapter 3 of A Day of Faces:

3 Prey: Cops raid the club, looking for somebody in particular. Kay evacs out through the fire escape, running into the guy Marv again. Cops stop them and some others, but while questioning them on the street there's a fight on the roof, shots fired, with two cops pushed off and then a winged man flying off.

It's brief, low on detail and doesn't bother getting into dialogue, character or specifics. It simply gives me the major plot beats of this chapter. I can still experiment and play around with what happens, as long as these essential plot points are hit.

Sometimes I even wrote a note about the specific style of the chapter. One of the arc 4 chapters has a note about it being "kind of a horror chapter", which sets it apart tonally from the book's usual approach. I increasingly found that little style notes would help me immediately capture the intent of the chapter once I got to writing it: the combination of the plot outline and a style suggestion made it easier to get into the zone.

I deliberately avoided plotting out chapters from future arcs, because I wanted to leave room for adaptive storytelling. Plotting too far ahead tends to be restrictive and make you worry about staying on target. It's important to retain a flexibility in the future curve of your story. More on that next time.

Do you prefer to plan every tiny detail, or make it up as you go?

Next up: Embracing chaos

If this guide helps your writing, you can buy me a coffee here: http://ko-fi.com/simonkjones  

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