Move Your Story Along By the Numbers
By The Numbers
Scientists claim Math is the universal language. Physicists use math to explain the mysteries of the universe. Chemists distill medications based on measurements. Manufacturers and retailers use math to figure proportions, amounts to order, and prices to charge.
Math makes the world go around – figuratively if not literally, thanks to some formula.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Math can help when it comes to plotting a story.
If you took several fictional tales and deconstructed them with math in mind, chances are the results would show that there are percentage guideposts along the way.
Rather than force you to sort out what they are, I did the work for you.
Well, for myself first, but I’m glad to pass it along.
In the first chapter the main character or characters should make their appearance. The problem they will be dealing with should be presented, or their expertise shown. (If not with a book you’ve read, think of a movie you’ve seen. For instance, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is introduced to us just as he reaches the cave entrance where he will demonstrate not only his knowledge of artifacts but of how to avoid or survive the various traps set by the ancients to protect an artifact. It isn’t until the next story sequence plays out that the Ark of the Covenant is introduced)
Don’t load your reader down with a large cast of characters immediately. While all main players should have stepped onto your stage by the 25% mark in the story, bring them on board one at a time – or close to it – to allow the reader to see them as separate people or beings and remember them rather than confuse them with another character. It’s also handy to give them names that don’t have similar spellings or even start with the same first letter. Avoid surnames that have similar endings
If this is a standalone story or the first in a trilogy or series, try to keep backstory out of sight for up to 40 pages. This is what literary agent Donald Maass suggests for the modern audience. I think this can be converted to a math percentage because not all books are the same length. If a story runs 80,000 words long and a page of full text is approximately 290 words (this is what mine tend to average) then the manuscript is around 280 pages long. 40 pages lands the story at the 14% to 15% mark. Using that as a guideline, a manuscript of 60,000 words would have the first 31 or 32 pages free of backstory. The larger a word count is, the further along in the manuscript backstory can be held back. Despite Mr. Maass’s suggestion and the math percentages worked out here, I’ll admit it is difficult to keep backstory from appearing – mostly because it helps explain something about the main character or characters. If you can’t keep backstory out of the first 40 pages or 15% of your manuscript, at least keep what mentions are made to a minimum
Something major must happen before the middle point in the book and even more major events or information should follow after the 50% mark, each topping the one before. Obviously, the longer the manuscript in word count, the number of events needed grows. The deal closing, decision making, survival contest should fall between the 3/4ths point in the story and the 7/8ths mark. Wrap up for things follows that and might be pages long to only half a page prior to the finish. Depends on the type story
All elements that might leave a reader wondering must be tied up by the end of the book. In a longer tale, that could mean you are at the 95% finished point before doing the majority of this. In a shorter book, it could fall at the 85% point (because there are fewer pages with reduced word count, though the same number of pages to clarify things might be needed before the final page). Minor things to draw to a close can be taken care of either earlier than this or in the final pages. Either will work. But the major ones should only be resolved as close to the end of the word count as possible to keep the reader on the edge of their seat and madly flicking pages to find out what happens. Actually, if you break a story into 25 chapters, saving the pinnacle of the story to occur half way through the final chapter (at the 24.5/25ths point) would work very well
Three (3) is a magic number. If something is done or mentioned or experienced once, it’s an opportunity to repeat it two more times. This should only be used for one occurrence though. Using it more than this in a single story diminishes the impact
Remember that scenes can also be broken into three parts – the lead in, the major part (which will be the longest part), and the conclusion (in which a hint or question of what happens next can be worked in to draw the reader into the next scene)
Within a chapter (of over 12-pages in length or more) three points of view (POV) can be given, even if it is all in the same scene. The trick here is to not head hop (move from one character’s POV to another for a line or two then hop to another character’s POV) but by giving one character the 1st POV section (say 4 to 5 pages) then looking at the scene from another character’s POV for a fairly equal number of pages before moving back to the first character’s POV or to a third character’s POV to finish off the chapter, though the 3rd POV can be shorter in length than the other two. It’s also possible to start with a shorter one or have it fall between the two longer POVs. Some authors prefer to make each POV a separate chapter though the same set up can be used here, too
Geometry is another element in the Math department and we can use it to juxtaposition things or to keep the story on a rising gradient. For juxtaposition think of opposites – light and dark, good and evil, love and hate, or even the length of sections, the number of POVs with specific characters. Those with the starring roles need to have more POVs than secondary characters, but at the same time if there is more than one “star”, then perhaps the percentage of their section should be equal to that of the other “star”. I’ve used different colored markers to highlight the various POVs to make sure the hero or heroine hasn’t grabbed a larger share of “face time” than their partner has. The gradient is ensuring that the tension, the suspense, in the story keeps rising in an upward slope (maybe one of 45 degrees?) to the pinnacle when the main character or characters have achieved the goal (that 95% mark perhaps?) before things slide down a very short, steep ramp as afterward elements are cleared up as the story heads to the final line on the last page
Yes, this may seem vague but if you look at the set up in all the books you’ve read, at heart these things will show up. To give the percentages once more and recap a bit:
Within first 25% of the manuscript, introduction of all major characters and presentation of the goal to be reached by the story’s conclusion
By 50% mark, depending on the length of the story, an event that changes what has been happening – could be physical (explosion, death), verbal (an argument or an overheard remark), or something else (getting fired, for instance). There could be more than one event for a longer storyline
After the half way mark the pace should pick up so that there are far more events taking place. Math-wise, it’s possible to say two to three times as many between the 50% and 85% mark as there were in the 0% to 50% section
Between the 85% mark and the 95% point, the pace is even faster, as more events arise as stumbling blocks, but things are also starting to be tied up. Remember, you’re saving the most major one to be reached around the 95% to 99% point
The final coast to the final word is aftermath, how things fall out now that the goal has been reached, plus yet open questions answered
Math gives a very loose guideline on placement of things. This should help those who write scenes and then try to fit them into the puzzle or those who make things up as they go, which is how I do it.
I’m sure there are plenty of authors out there who would disagree with me on these things, but they aren’t usually trying to sort things out in the analytical part of their mind. In fact, my muse was using this system long before I recognized that there was a system!
Excerpt from 60 Ways to Plot or Dodge Writer's Block by Beth Daniels