Friday, February 18, 2022

Word Count Goals for the Three Acts of Your Novel, Memoir, or Nonfiction Book

I've come across many templates for structuring books. Structure has become one of my geek-out topics as a teacher, editor, and writer. I love knowing how close I am to a perfect structure for a work-in-progress, whatever "perfect" might mean, because then I know where I can bend or break the rules and still keep the reader involved.

You don't have to fear that your manuscript will become a cookie-cutter without spirit or uniqueness. Structure is only the underpinnings, not the flair and freshness each writer brings.

I've long used the storyboard for structure testing. Its beauty is in its flexibility--it uses both random and linear thinking as it builds. So if you suddenly want to bring in another idea, you can. You're not bound tight to a certain progression, as an outline requires.

Along with the storyboard, I like to divide my manuscript into three acts. Again, this isn't a rigid rule, but it helps me organize how much I've put in each act. Since the acts have their own purposes, it also tells me when I've lingered too long (or left too soon).

Act 1: It takes up about 25 percent of the manuscript, and on a storyboard, it runs from point 1 to point 2, the bottom of the first leg of the W. So for a manuscript that runs about 60,000 words, you're looking at 15,000 or so to finish Act 1.

The purpose of Act 1, told to me in a long-ago class, is to "get them up the tree." This comes from Vladimir Nabokov, who famously said: "The writer's job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them." So by the end of Act 1, you (in memoir) or your character (in fiction) should be well up that tree.

In nonfiction, the first act presents the need for your material--it establishes the dilemma that causes readers to seek out your book. This might include case studies, client stories, your own stories, anything that sets up the problem.

Act 2: It takes up about 50 percent of the total word count, which means Act 2 is the real meat of your book. Act 2 can also be a great place to stall out--so many books I read or have edited flatline in Act 2, bogged down in too much inaction, dialogue, backstory, history, etc. The storyboard's genius, again, is that Act 2 is represented by an upside-down V. It forces the writer to move to a second climax midbook and create new problems. Those rocks get bigger, in other words.

You're looking at about 30,000 words for Act 2, if your manuscript is around 60K. Do the math for other totals, of course.

Act 2 on the storyboard runs from point 2 to point 4. ideally, the problems increase. They may get solved and helpers may arrive at just the right moment, but new problems develop. Why? Well, simply because problems create plot and tension, and that keeps readers reading.

In nonfiction, Act 2 is traditionally where you deliver your technique, method, information, research--you present the reader with the steps to make changes.

Act 3: The final 25 percent of your book is taken up by Act 3. That's about 15,000 more words, using the 60K total. Nabokov doesn't tell us what to do with Act 3--his books, though, don't leave the character up the tree, beaten by rocks, every time. I think of Act 3's purpose as twofold: (1) to get the character down from the tree but (2) show the changes that have come from sitting up there.

Act 3 sometimes involves a final crisis near the end--this is very traditional for genre and commercial fiction.

A word of warning: Some writers take the geek approach too far, in my opinion, and don't allow their stories to flex as they grow. So what if your Act 1 is a bit longer than 25 percent word count or your Act 3 runs shorter? No worries. There are many exceptions to the rules in writing, because ours is a living language that changes constantly.

Best advice I can give, along with all these rules, is to read. A lot. Study books like yours. See if you can find the three acts in them, then see how the word count lies. You'll find it falls into some alignment with these rules but it may also break them. That's the beauty of this creative process.

No comments:

Post a Comment