The Math

So you have the top quarter of your Foolscap Global Story Grid filled in. How do you begin to actually map out the rest of your Story? How long will it take you to write the first draft? Is there a way to take the “beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff” concepts even further to break down the work into more “doable” parts?

This is where a little rudimentary math will help.

But before we dive into it, remember that you are not the problem.  The problem is the problem. And the problem we’re facing now is figuring out how to map out a course to get from idea to first draft or of how to evaluate the first draft we have in hand. At the beginning of the long form Story process, the problems we face are innumerable.  To demystify exactly how a lump sum of words can be broken down into component parts is extraordinarily helpful. If we can cut our problems into bite size pieces that we can contend with one by one, one day, one session at a time, then we can beat Resistance into submission and finish our first draft or edit our first draft.

I know. You hate math.  That is why you became a writer/storyteller.  But, math is a Godsend.  And a very cursory look at the math of a novel is definitely worth the time.


Math helps you break problems into little bits.  It’s much easier to figure out where to cut a piece of lumber than it is framing a house.  Your mind can’t really wrap itself around framing a house.  But if you break the work down into its component parts, you’ll reach a very doable level of skill…a skill that is relatively easy to master.  Measuring the length of a board, marking where to cut it, and then taking a saw and ripping it at that mark is the primal skill for a carpenter.  If you can do that one skill well (and you can screw it up very easily too) you are well on your way to learning how to frame a house.

Same goes with writing or editing a long form Story.

So let’s look a novel in mathematical terms.

Here are some facts.

The average length of a commercial novel today is between 80,000 and 100,000 words.  Are there exceptions?  Sure, but this ballpark range is where the novel has settled over the last twenty years or so.  It’s the length the average reader is expecting—not too much and not too little. So, it’s a safe assumption to make that if you want to begin a path that will satisfy a particular readership, your goal is to put together 80,000 to 100,000 words in a unique and compelling way.

Let’s break it down further using the Foolscap method.

To keep it simple, you’ll need a beginning, middle, and an end to your story. No matter how many Acts you have (3 to 5 to 7), you need a beginning to your story, a middle section to your story and an ending to your story.  As an editor, I don’t worry so much about figuring out exactly how many ACTS are in a book.  For me, the Beginning, Middle and End are all that matter.  The beginning may comprise 2 Acts, the middle 3 acts and the end 2 acts, but I don’t really care.  Instead I concentrate on the five building materials for each of the three sections.  I think about the Inciting Incident scenes, Progressive Complications scenes, the Crisis scenes, the Climax scenes and the Resolution scenes for the beginning, middle and end of a book. (Don’t worry; I’ll go over these crucial elements of story form in much greater detail in upcoming posts.)

The key building block for a long form narrative is the Scene. Beats are the actor’s domain.  Scenes are the writer’s. (I’ll review the building blocks of Story in future posts too.)

So the first breakdown of the 80,000 to 100,000 word book are the scenes necessary to create the five building materials for your beginning, middle and end of your Global Story. So there will be at least 15 scenes in your book:

  1. You’ll need a scene that is the inciting incident of the beginning of your story.
  2. You’ll need a scene that is the inciting incident of the middle of your story.
  3. You’ll need a scene that is the inciting incident of the end of your story.
  4. You’ll need a scene that progressively complicates the beginning of your story.
  5. You’ll need a scene that progressively complicates the middle of your story.
  6. You’ll need a scene that progressively complicates the end of your story.
  7. You’ll need a scene that creates a crisis question at the beginning of your story.
  8. You’ll need a scene that creates a crisis question in the middle of your story.
  9. You’ll need a scene that creates a crisis question at the end of your story.
  10. You’ll need a scene that climaxes the beginning of your story.
  11. You’ll need a scene that climaxes the middle of your story.
  12. You’ll need a scene that climaxes the end of your story.
  13. You’ll need a scene that resolves the beginning of your story.
  14. You’ll need a scene that resolves the middle of your story.
  15. You’ll need a scene that resolves the end of your story.

But how long should they be? How many words should each scene be? And then how many words should be in the beginning? How many words should be in the middle?  How many words should be in the end?

Here is a piece of information that professional writers spend 10,000 hours of their lives figuring out.  After thousands of years of storytelling, the beginning, the middle and the end for a long form Archplot or Miniplot story breaks down as follows:

The Beginning is about one quarter of the Story.

The Middle is about one half of the Story.

The End is the last quarter of the Story.

Are there stories that do not break down 25/50/25?  Absolutely.  But if you were to average every story ever told, 25/50/25 would be the result. I have a theory about why Stories break down like this. My next post will throw it out there. It’s all about CHANGE.

So, if you are writing a 100,000-word novel, the beginning will generally be 25,000 words, the middle will generally be 50,000 words and the end will be the last 25,000 words.  We’ve already determined that we need at least 15 scenes in the book, 5 in the beginning, 5 in the middle, and 5 in the end.

What about the rest?

Nerds like me have noticed that typically, in contemporary commercial fiction, scenes run between 1000 and 5000 words. Remember that a scene creates a clear value change in the life of a character through conflict. When I break down The Story Grid Spreadsheet (the micro view of a Story) for The Silence of the Lambs, you’ll see where Thomas Harris fell on the scene word count spectrum. My personal recommendation is to take a page from the master and keep your scenes, like Harris’s, around 2000 words. I also recommend that you treat your scenes like chapters.  That is, each scene should be a chapter in your novel.


Two thousand word scene/chapters is potato chip length.

That is, if you are about to go to bed and your reading a terrific novel and the scenes/chapters come in around 2000 word bites, you’ll tell yourself that you’ll read just one more chapter.  But if the narrative is really moving after you finish one of these bites, you won’t be able to help yourself reading another. If the Story is extremely well told, you’ll just keep eating the potato chip scenes all through the night.

Whereas, if you cram five scenes into a chapter that ends up being forty pages, the bedside reader will have a much easier time of just setting the book down before beginning the long slog through seven five hundred words.

People like to stop reading when they’ve finished a chapter, not in the middle of a chapter. This is probably the last thing they’ll tell you at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but it’s a reality worth considering.

You can accomplish quite a bit in 2000 words and if you successfully leave out the stuff that the reader does not need explained to them, 2000 words can often be way too much.

Anyway, let’s assume that all of the scenes/chapters in our novel are 2000 words long.  So if we’re writing a 100,000-word novel, we’ll have about 50 scene/chapters in our novel. From our earlier beginning, middle and end discussion, we know that 15 of those 50 scenes are already spoken for.  So we’ll need to write 35 more.

I know.  You are an artist and this mathematical manipulation is probably rubbing you the wrong way.  I get it.  But remember, the math is just a way to break down an extremely intimidating task into doable units.

So we have 35 scenes left.  Let’s set aside 25% of these for the BEGINNING, 50% of them for THE MIDDLE and the other 25% for THE END.

So we’ll need 7-8 scenes in addition to our 5 obligatory scenes for our beginning (12-13 total).

We’ll have 20 additional scenes to play with in addition to our 5 obligatory scenes in the middle (25 total).

And we’ll have 7-8 scenes in addition to our 5 obligatory scenes for our end (12-13 total).

You can now see the entire form of your novel without having written a single word. You’ve got doable pieces of work that can be attacked one day, one session at a time.

But let me emphasize again that you may end up with 6 scenes for the beginning, 30 for the middle and 14 for the end or the other way around.  There is no “rule” about 12/25/13. We are merely trying to map out a course of work for us to bang out a first draft.  After we have a first draft, then we can go back and analyze exactly which scenes work and which scenes don’t work. But if we never write a first draft because we get stuck after writing three scenes, we’re never going to finish the novel. Better to have a map of the targets we need to hit in order to make it to the end.

Once we get to the end, then we can go back and fix our blunders.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

30 comments on “The Math

  1. Absolutely brilliant, Shawn, and answers dozens of questions all at once. Your posts are so very helpful (that’s a gross understatement but I can’t find the right word) that I now find myself getting up at 6 am to see if there might be one waiting for me. I’ve said this before but I need to say it again: thank you so very much for sharing everything you know so freely with us. Can’t wait for the book!

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    I’ll agree that math is a Godsend, but so are you Shawn – this post answers so many questions for me – thank you! You are practically giving this entire book away before it’s even published – you have some BIG time Karma coming your way. Happy New Year!

  3. When I talk to my coaching clients about mapping out their story, the universal response is the assumption that there are only 2 possibilities: an excruciatingly detailed 25,000-word outline which is essentially the book without adjectives and prepositions, or pants like the wind, winging it all the way.

    When I point out that they can use this math (which I learned from your post at Steve P’s site) or the 12 sentences I learned from Larry Brooks as a tool, a guide, a drafting sketch which they can then follow or ignore as their pants dictate, it’s like they’ve never before considered a middle ground between the two extremes.

    I’ve always loved math. I have 7 children who despise it. I’ve learned ways to make it palatable. You do it nicely here, Shawn: show how it’s useful and don’t muddy the waters.

  4. Michael Beverly says:

    Very helpful. I noticed Joel mentioned Larry Brooks, I just finished the story engineering book this morning, for the third time this year. Maybe I’m ready?

    The idea of breaking down a novel is super helpful and I’ve come to realize not doing this is why I’ve never finished anything. I’m committed to changing that.

    FYI, when you measure a 2×4 and cut it to length, that is simply “cutting” or perhaps you can use the word “chop” (a miter saw is often referred to as a “chop” saw).

    “Ripping” is when you cut a board lengthwise, something you might use a table saw for, or if you are a pro, you can use a worm drive saw as well it’s just a bit more dangerous.

  5. Michael Beverly says:

    Btw, I review a lot of stuff, as an example:

    So if you’re looking for a few early reviews from fans, I’ll be happy to read an arc and get a review up on publication day.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Great, thanks Michael! I promise that all and subscribers will get a leg up on the book before we go wide. And feel free to take me out at the knees if you don’t go for it. This is my life’s work and it’s not for everyone. I’m okay with that.

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        Hey Shawn,

        Based upon the blog, I can assure you that my review will be glowing and 5 stars, it’s been very helpful.

        As I mentioned before, I love lists. I just reviewed a book called Million Dollar Outlines, by writer/teacher David Farland:

        And one of my favorite and helpful things was his list and commentary on the 50 biggest grossing movies of all time.

        So, that said, a few things I’d love to see:

        A list of required scenes and conventions for each genre. Get ridiculous here, this stuff sells books and gets the word count up.

        I am working on an erotica-political-woman in jeopardy thriller, I need to know what this sub-sub-sub genre requires in terms of conventions and scenes.

        I just read Marathon Man yesterday because it was on your list for the sub genre political thriller, I am planning on getting to Sleeping with the Enemy next, but you didn’t have any examples of erotica…

        So, yes, a list of books that are good examples and a list of required scenes/conventions/etc.

        What I liked about Farland’s list was how he went through and found commonality between all these great stories that became all time favorite movies.

        It would be awesome to have a good list of best selling, popular books, listed in genre; this is something in a previous post you said you were working on, so I guess my encouragement and request as a reader is to expand this idea.

        A list of “must read” writing books would be good, you’ve mentioned Zuckerman’s book, oh and the book by Lukeman you couldn’t recall the name of: First Five Pages. A complete list would be great, or even a “Top Ten” or “Top Twenty”, it’s hard to decide how many to read….War of Art, On Writing, Bird by Bird, Elements of Style, Writing Well, Sol Stein?

        Ugggg…when to stop reading and do more writing..?

        Thanks again for all this work, it’s truly a gift.

        1. Tina Goodman says:

          If you want to know what the reader expects from erotica political thriller woman-in jeopardy novels, I suggest you use the story grid to map out novels that are in this sub sub genre that “work” successfully. Use these examples to write your own novel that works.

  6. Doug Hibbard says:

    One by one, all my excuses about not understanding how to do this are falling apart.

    It’s down to me: get it done. This makes sense, and the math shows both the challenge and the possibility. Appreciate the work!

    1. Doug Walsh says:

      I’m later to the party, but I couldn’t agree more. One by one, the hurdles are being removed from the track. It won’t be long before I have a clean lane to sprint down.

  7. Shawn says:

    I am a tactile creator who has to have a visual – whether it’s the story I’m working on or the meal I’m cooking. From A-Z the wealth of information I’ve gotten out of your posts has helped me eliminate months of frustration trying to do ‘after the fact’ what you’ve mapped out ahead of time, in a way connects the dots. Now all I have to do is color in the picture.

    Funny, but I had already used the 1-5 (15 scenes) to create an outline of how I plan to write the novel I’m currently working (on based upon your infograph and storygrid sheet) before reading this post. What a godsend to be able to look over at the work flow sheet and know where I’m at, and where I need to go next. Especially helpful if your working with multiple plots and characters.

    Looking forward to the next post, and sharing those you’ve already written with writer pals.

  8. So much less scary in these bite-sized pieces! The potato chip analogy is priceless.

  9. Love this, Shawn! Breaking down a novel into bite-size, doable pieces, with an intention for each scene, gives me the map I need to complete this novel-writing journey.

  10. Jule Kucera says:

    This math doesn’t frighten me. It makes me feel brave.

  11. I love you. That’s about it.

  12. Kristin says:

    Hooray! I’ve been trying to figure out how many words per scene and chapter for weeks. I’m thrilled to have a target to work with. Thank you.

  13. I first read about “The Math” when you posted about it on Steven’s blog – and it was the post that made me think, “Who is this guy and how do I learn what HE knows?” I was in the early stages of my first novel and The Math was tremendously helpful in making the endeavor seem doable. I am now about 10,000 words away from completing my first draft of that first novel…and I know this because of The Math. I am excited for your book to come out and to continue learning from you as I launch into novel number two. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insights with us.

  14. Ulla Lauridsen says:

    This is really helpful. Now I know my short chapters are okay. A question, if you have time: I have three protagonists, and there’s a chapter with A, then a chapter following B and then a chapter with C and rinse and repeat. Does that change the math? Does the book have to be longer? Or do I just have the three of them share til assignments between them?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Ulla,
      Sounds like you’re writing classic multi-protagonist miniplot. So the thing is that you need to look at your three characters as aspects of a greater whole. That is, each one of them is one part of a larger “being.” Each has his/her own particular characteristics that when added up create a larger whole. Kind of like the seven samaurai…each has his own specialty and together they are a complex organism. So in terms of the math, the Story does not have to be longer. Rather you need to make choices about when and where to feature each of your three protagonists to the best effect. So if the value at stake for you scene is “courage” then you’ll want to use the character who is least courageous in that scene to create a compelling dynamic. The key again is to think of the three characters as part of a whole. Like Checkov’s THREE SISTERS or Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters. And then your alternating chapters won’t feel forced, rather they’ll feel organic.
      Hope this helps.

      1. Ulla Lauridsen says:

        Yes, absolutely, thank you. That was more or less what I was doing. The theme is something along the lines of ‘dealing with the fact that you can’t make anything undone’ – One character is a lowly policeofficer who does a bad thing, one of the others the prime minister, who tries to deal with the fallout on the societal level, while the officer deals with the fallout on a personal level.

  15. Julie says:

    This is has been so helpful, considering what stumped me was not having general structure for my story. Thank you!

  16. Elanor says:

    This post is awesome!

    I’m working on co-authoring a fantasy book with my sister, and we’ve been having trouble figuring out chapter lengths and how to space out the action. We have a general idea of how the story flows, but we weren’t sure where to put what. Now, I can just go get 50 index cards and start plotting out chapters!

    Thank you!

    1. Elanor says:

      I was reading over this post (for the millionth time because I love it so much) when I wondered… in the book (which I am eagerly anticipating) will there be any discussion of how to approach shorter forms like novellas and short stories? I assume most of the information carries over (external & internal genres, conflict, change, desires…), but it occurs to me that the pacing is really different because there isn’t as much time to build up to things.

      Thank you again for sharing so much with us. I’m reading all the posts over and over and absorbing something new each time!

  17. Matt Leatherwood says:

    I got wind of you through an interview you did with Joanna Penn. I’m playing catch-up by reading through all your older posts. Thank you for organizing them. This post on Math blew me away. I’m in the planning stages of a novel, so it was right on time. I’m thinking 80,000 words in length. Forty 2,000 word scenes/chapters.

    Taking into account the 15 obligatory scenes (beginning, middle, end) that leaves 25 scenes to disperse among the three parts.

    I’m thinking 11 scene/chapters for the beginning, 18 for the middle, and another 11 for the end.

    I plan on writing from the third person universal POV alternating back and forth between two main characters. My question is: Do I double the 15 obligatory scenes because I’m alternating back and forth between two people or does the original 15 set scenes remain in place regardless?

    The more I thought about this the more confused I became. Thank you for your help.

    1. I’m not Shawn, though I intend to play him in the movie.

      One of your characters is the main character. One is a sidekick. But that wasn’t your question: the OS&Cs relate to the story and not a character. So, you’re telling one story, even if you have two main characters (I’m still not going there.)

      Make sense?

      1. Matt Leatherwood says:

        Thanks Joel, that clarifies things. Look forward to seeing you on the big screen…lol

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Matt,
      My advice would be to think of your two main characters as elements of a single person (a grand protagonist). Sort of like Seven Samaurai, only with two people. Your key scenes can be divided equally between the two or you could shade a little more to one side or the other. My other advice is to do the opposite of what the audience would expect. So if you’re featuring a couple of cops…have the sensitive one be the one who ends up being sadistic and the scary tough one end up in a scene where he does something empathetic.
      To be straightforward. NO you do not double the key 15 scenes, doing one for each. But I will say that if this is not an epic novel (and it doesn’t sound like it is) then you’d be best served using a single central protagonist who arcs. Doing two will be too much for the reader. Too confusing.
      Hope that helps.

      1. Matt Leatherwood says:

        Thanks, Shawn that helps. You brought up some things for me to think about that I hadn’t considered.

  18. Larry says:

    Great post, Shawn. Love the math, but I think the overall length is genre-specific. Fantasy novels seem to be way longer. Robert Jordan’s _The Eye Of the World_ is over 260,00 words, while Terry Goodkind’s _Wizard’s First Rule_ ran over 300,00, and Tad Williams’ _The Dragonbone Chair_ was over 315,00 (all rough estimates). Each was the first book in a series, with later ones running longer. On the other hand, a classic whodunit might be only 70,000 words, since the reader has to remember the whole thing when she gets to the big reveal at the end. Any thoughts on where other genres lie on the spectrum?

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