A few weeks ago, I shared how numbers could improve your writing life. Today, I’m going to discuss how numerical data can improve your story. The suggestions I present here are in the context of novels, but you can apply these principles to other forms as well.
As with the previous article, I don’t want to scare away any writers who fear the very mention of numbers. I promise there are no complex equations or proofs here – just practical ways you can use numerical data to help you revise your novel.
1. Pace Yourself
Pacing is all about rhythm, and rhythm is very mathematical, so it should not be surprising that numerical data can identify pacing issues. For starters, determine your word count for each of your chapters. Are they within a close range of each other or do they wildly fluctuate throughout the book? You might have a good reason for a lot of variation in your chapter lengths, but make sure this variation is serving a purpose.
Note where your novel’s critical scenes occur as a percentage of the entire manuscript. Does your inciting incident happen at the 30% mark? Your opening is too long. You can also look at the length of each critical scene. Maybe your climax is occurring at an appropriate point, but you fly through it in two pages.
Consider your genre and age category when evaluating your pacing. For instance, middle grade and YA novels typically start and end quickly, with early inciting incidents and late climaxes, so your pacing will feel off if you have a long introduction or resolution. If you’re writing romance, you have a problem if you haven’t introduced the love interest in the first 50% of the book. In a murder mystery novel, readers expect to encounter the crime early, not 25% of the way into the book.
Numerical data can help you identify potential trouble spots, but it should not be prescriptive. If your figures slightly differ from the recommended standards for your market, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a problem. If you can justify the choices you’ve made and your beta readers don’t notice a problem with your pacing, then you’re probably fine.
2. Break It Down
Once you have a solid draft, figure out the composition breakdown of your manuscript. With a set of highlighters (use a different color for each category), identify dialogue, world building and description, action, character interiority, and backstory. Approximate the percentage of your total word count that you have written in each of these categories. (The computer can give you more precise information. Highlight in different colors on your screen and calculate your percentages easily. The printed version, however, may have an advantage in making a visual impact, and approximations will work for this, so pick your preference.)
Is one category dominating your story? If so, can you justify this? There may be an excellent reason your novel is 80% dialogue, so long as it is an intentional one.
Conversely, is one category lacking? Adding passages to enhance that category may give your novel more balance.
3. Remember the “Comp” in Comp Titles
“Comp” is short for comparison. A comp title is a book like yours, often sharing genre, market, and style. Comp titles demonstrate your novel has an audience.
Choose a comp title you admire. Break down its composition, as described above. If you’re daunted by tackling a full novel, then try a few choice chapters, including the opening and closing chapters, the inciting incident, and the climax. Determine the percentages spent on dialogue, setting and description, action, character interiority, and backstory.
Then take a literal approach to the word “comparison” by comparing your novel’s composition to that of your comp title. They probably won’t be exactly the same, but you should pay attention to big discrepancies. This is how you learn from published authors.
4. Keep Your Cast in Line
In your completed manuscript, figure out how much real estate you’ve given to each of your characters. One of your side characters might appear more often than they should. Or, maybe you thought you were writing a dual POV story, but when you look at the word count devoted to each character, one of your leads is dominating.
You can also note character presence at the scene level, particularly in crucial scenes. Is one of your dual POV characters missing during a crucial scene? Justify that decision. Is a side character dominating your climax? That’s a big no-no.
As we write our first draft, it’s not uncommon for our characters to develop a mind of their own and lead us down story paths we weren’t anticipating. You may find you have a different story than what you had originally intended to write. Sometimes it’s better. Sometimes it’s not. Looking at character prominence can help you determine whose story you are actually telling.
5. Meet Reader Expectations
When you are ready to query and sell your novel, numbers matter.
Start with word count. Does your word count fit the conventions for your genre and age category? Do not expect an agent to request a full manuscript if your query states your contemporary middle grade novel is 80,000 words. And word count isn’t just a concern for those seeking a traditional book deal. If you choose to self-publish your novel, readers still expect the length of your novel to be like others in its genre. You will confuse them with a 200,000-word mystery novel, and confusion is never good.
Next, consider readability. What’s the reading grade level for your novel, and does it align with your market age category? You may have a problem if your YA fantasy measures at a fourth-grade reading level, unless there is an intentional reason for simpler language.
Finally, make sure your style choices are reflecting your market. Check your sentence length and variety. A reader does not expect to find long, lyrical sentences in a tightly-paced thriller novel. Use sentence length and variety to your advantage to create your desired mood, and make sure this is what you have promised the reader.
Don’t Rely on Numbers to Tell Your Story
Numerical data can be a tremendous asset during revision, but you don’t want to let the data completely control your story. Rather, think of the data as checkpoint measurements. Sometimes a number may highlight an aspect of your work that you need to fix, but sometimes your work is better when it deviates from the standard convention. Writing is a craft, not an algorithm.
If you decide to use any of these strategies while revising your novel, I would love to hear about your experience!
Sara Gentry is a writer and Author Accelerator certified book coach with a Ph.D. in applied and interdisciplinary mathematics. She uses her problem-solving skills to help writers find the solutions they need to write books they love. Connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, and her website.