I can tell a writer is new to novel writing when I encounter a mismatch between the size of the story (the word count) and the story arc filing it.
If there’s not enough story arc, repetitions crop up, the pace slows, and the relationships among the characters blur instead of deepen. If there’s too much story arc, everything feels rushed.
What do I mean by story arc? It’s what happens when the desires of the main characters meet events and set the action in motion. The story arc and the main character arcs intersect at all times, such that as the novel progresses the characters are seen to change and grow in response to events they themselves have shaped.
The size of the story (word count) has to be appropriate to the size of the story arc. For a romance the story arc involves whatever it takes for the love relationship to come to resolution. It’s a word length/complexity ratio.
Stories tend to come in roughly four sizes. The examples are from my work.
25,000 Word Stories
There are only two main characters, one or two points of view and one straightforward conflict, ultimately easily resolvable.
A Tale of Town and Country – A semi-erotic Regency
Jonathan meets Beatrice. Beatrice seduces Jonathan. Beatrice wishes to continue the sexual relationship. Jonathan demands she marry him. Beatrice has to overcome her basic prejudice against marriage. This is not a story line that can be spun out for any great length.
50,000 Word Stories
There are two main characters, one or two POVs and likely two or more secondary characters. The conflict is still straightforward, but it requires both characters to change.
Love After All – A contemporary set in New York City
Gino and Laurel are in their mid-50s. They both have good careers and grown children. Gino is a widower. Laurel is divorced. Neither is sure they want a relationship with the other. This is a basic “getting to know you” story, which takes some time because the main characters already have strong life history trajectories. Friends, business partners and family members figure in to help the reluctant potential lovers’ relationship along.
For these two shorter word lengths, you need only one plot line and a limited number of POVs.
For the longer lengths, you have to more richly imagine the characters as actors in their world, going about their business. The main characters have to be doing something more than falling in love. Secondary characters round out the relationships the main characters have with each other and their world.
80,000 Word Stories
There are multiple characters and multiple points of view as well as two strong story lines.
Buy Me Love – Contemporary police procedural/werewolf story set in London
Moses is a Detective Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard. Zelda is a Guardian in her werewolf pack. They have jobs to do and are shown doing them. A first plot line causes them to meet in one way, and then a second plot line comes in to cause them to work together more closely. While these two plots are working themselves out, Moses and Zelda negotiate their love relationship, which includes the trick of getting a hardheaded police detective to believe in the existence of werewolves.
This story has scenes from the POVs of six different characters.
120,000 Word Stories
An entire captivating world comes to life. Think Game of Thrones or Harry Potter.
The Blue Hour – A time-slip romance
Val and Alexandra meet through work in North Carolina. The moment they do, strange things start happening. Little by little, they discover that the conflicts in their present-day lives are the karmic effects of what went wrong in their past lives.
The story is thus a double romance set in present-day Raleigh-Durham, Chicago, and Paris with half the narrative unfolding in Paris of the 1880s. A karmic pod of about ten characters are in on the action, and the whole revolves around a science mystery – so, a lot going on.
These are guidelines only. We can all think of stories we’ve loved that don’t conform to what I’ve set out here. Still, I hope these guidelines are helpful.