Do you write stories by the seat of your pants?
If you’re a “pantser”—FYI: I’ve never really liked that term; it drums up images of wedgies and Ed Grimley style trousers pulled up to the waistline in my head—how’s your pace?
If you’re thinking, “My pace is fine, Jennifer. I’ve never been accused of walking too fast or too far,” good for you (insert knee slap and guffaw here)! But I’m talking about your writing.
When you sit down to write, along with a concept of what message/theme you wish to convey, do you have a word count in mind? It’s incredibly helpful and something you have to do when writing for a market (short stories, novels, articles, etc.). I’ve learned—over time because I’m stubborn that way—that having a feel for my word count helps set the pace of my stories up front; it’s a way to ensure things aren’t moving too slowly or too fast.
There are plenty of formulas you can use, but one of the most basic is the three-act concept. Here’s an example of what one looks like; take the number of words you want—2,500, 10,000, 50,000, etc. and do the math for your framework:
Act 1: The Beginning (Protagonist mostly thinks they’re fine) – 25%
- Introduction: Introduce your characters—w/emphasis on the main one, your protagonist—and establish the everyday world in which they live.
- The Stakes/The Goal/The Grand Desire: Clearly establish whatever is at stake for your protagonist—something has to be at stake. Pretty please with sugar on top, don’t write a story where absolutely nothing ever changes and no one grows, learns, or accomplishes anything. That concept is sometimes called life and, trust me, the people living it are reading to escape it.
- The Problem & Reaction: Give your protagonist a problem that threatens his or her goal; something that he or she MUST react to by the end of Act One. A person/people or an event can cause it; either way, there’s your antagonist coming out in nefarious, party-pooping glory to keep the protagonist from a grand desire/ ultimate goal.
- The “Oh, Shit!” Moment: Raise the stakes by having the protagonist’s decision/reaction screw things up worse whether he or she realizes it or not. *Note: The act of raising the stakes is your first major turning point in the story. Lots of pressure, right? Not really; relax and think of it as a pin on a map, indicating the first highway interchange on an amazing road trip. You already know your final destination; you’re just taking some twists and turns to make it more exciting getting there.
Act 2A: (Middle part A: Protagonist realizes they’re screwed; Antagonist is spiffy) – 25%
- The Consequences Of The “Oh, Shit!” Moment: There are consequences for what happened at the crossroad/interchange at the end of Act One. Usually, they are pretty shitty consequences—one step forward, two steps back, that kind of thing.
- The Reaction To The Fallout From The Consequences Of The “Oh, Shit!” Moment: It’s time for you to reveal how the shitty consequences have changed things—circumstances, emotions, attitudes of the protagonist and others in the story. Remember: Everything should happen for a reason in a story, nothing should be an unimportant detail unless you’re using it to be deliberately misleading (like a false clue in a mystery).
- Reality Hits/ The Protagonist Sucks: In the process of attempting to face the consequences, the protagonist realizes they suck. They don’t yet have the skills/ intestinal fortitude/ emotional maturity/ whatever to face it. You know what that means, right? There’s a change coming —aka Character Development.
Act 2B: (Middle part B: Screwed protagonist trains/learns/grows; things look just ducky for the antagonist) – 25%
- The Change: This is your training montage, your emotional pow-wow, your spiritual attunement or atonement, your “whatever the hell growth means based on the context of your story.” Your protagonist acknowledges the same old stuff isn’t going to cut it, and they start growing, changing, learning—usually with help from others.
- The Antagonist Has Fun Being An Asshole: While the protagonist is having their training montage, etc., the antagonist gets to excel at really being an asshole. Give in to it and let that person/entity be a nasty, gloating, evil, sabotaging asshole. Unleash your inner villain and have a blast. It’s okay to make your protagonist suffer—as a matter of fact, they need to. It makes their final victory that much sweeter.
- The Dark Day—And You Thought the “Oh, Shit!” Moment Was Bad: This is something even worse than the first shitty thing—and it looks truly bleak for your protagonist. And your antagonist is popping bottles of champagne and having bards or Beyonce prepare songs in premature celebration of their shoe-in victory over that stupid, silly protagonist.
Act 3: (End: Protagonist summons the courage to overcome all the obstacles; the Antagonist is foiled in the final showdown) – 25%
- Fear And Self-Doubt: Just when the protagonist thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. This really sucks a big one. How can they possibly overcome this? Oh dear God in Heaven, etc.
- The Loin Girding: The protagonists attagirl/attaboy, rah-rah, pep talk, here’s a reminder of all the things he or she is fighting for and how far they’ve come etc. moment. And, of course, they are preparing as best they can for that final showdown where they face the antagonist once and for all.
- The Final Showdown: This is your big bang, your climax; whether it’s emotional, spiritual, physical or a combination of all of the above, you’ve been building up to this showdown since paragraph one. Make it big; make it satisfying; make sure it’s worth the set-up and all the protagonist’s suffering and hard work.
- The Resolution & Lesson Learned: Win, lose, or draw, how did your protagonist learn and grow from all of this? How have they, their world, and the people around them changed? Did love conquer all? Did the racist have a change of heart? Did classical music unite the old fart down the hall with his loud, rowdy college student neighbors? Something changed, and you’re showing what and how, and confirming the overall message: why your story was important in the first place—important to the protagonist and the reader, not just to you.
So, in summary, using the basic three-act formula, I know what I need to convey in each part, and roughly how many words I have to do it to keep the same pace throughout.
50, 000 words divided by 4 (25%) =12,500 words
Act 1: 12,500
Act 2A: 12,500
Act 2B: 12,500
Act 3: 12,500
2500 words divided by 4 (25%) =
Act 1: 625
Act 2A: 625
Act 2B: 625
Act 3: 625
This certainly isn’t the only formula or set of variables (Introduction, Reaction, “Oh, Shit” Moment, Etc.) you can use, but it’s a good start if you’re not certain where to even begin or feel/ have received feedback that your stories seem to drag on in parts or end too quickly.