Word Count and Your Story – Guidelines

by | April 7, 2017 |

Note: This blog on word count is a follow-up to Size Matters and How Big Is Your Canvas? where I discuss in general terms imagining one’s story in terms of a painting.

I can tell a novelist is new to the craft 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 (again: 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.

1. 25,000 – 40,000 Word Count

There are:

i. only two main characters;

ii. one or two points of view (POV);

iii. one straightforward conflict, ultimately easily resolvable.

A Most Curious Courtship

A Most Curious Courtship historical romance by Julie Tetel Andresen

A Regency romance – 28,311 words.

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.

2. 40,000 – 50,000 Word Count

There are:

i. two main characters;

ii. one or two POVs and likely two or more secondary characters;

iii. one conflict, still straightforward, but now requiring both characters to change in some way.

Love After All 

word count Love After All

A contemporary romance – 49,007 words.

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, above, you need only one plot line and a limited number of POVs. For the two longer lengths, below, you have to more richly imagine the characters as actors in their world, going about their business.

Two important points for the longer lengths, especially pertaining to the romance:

1) The main characters have to be doing something more than falling in love. They have to be: gunning for that promotion; solving a mystery; finding some lost object; saving the family farm/business; racing against the clock (for whatever reason); or doing anything else you can think of.

2) Secondary characters round out the relationships the main characters have with each other and their world. These characters will also likely get their own POV.

3. 50,000 – 80,000 Word Count

There are:

i. multiple characters;

ii. multiple points of view;

ii. two strong story lines.

Buy Me Love 

word count Buy Me Love

A contemporary police procedural/werewolf story – 75,999 words.

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.

4. 80,000 – 120,000+ Word Count

An entire captivating world comes to life. Think Game of Thrones or Harry Potter.

I created a Time Slip Series – The Blue Hour, The Crimson Hour, The Emerald Hour – that involves reincarnation where karma is at work in the sense that what went wrong in the past is still affecting the present.

In each of the books there are:

i. three global locations

ii. two time periods, roughly 100 years part

iii. a double romance, one doomed (past) and one with a second chance (present)

iv. a pod of 6 – 10 characters who are in on the action in both time periods

v. a plot revolving around a science mystery that began in the past and is pressing on the present.

So, yes, there’s a lot going on. Each story is well over 100,000 words.

My comments on word count 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.

See also: All My Writing Tips Blogs

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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