Writerly Math: Yeah, I know, you don’t like math …
(Excerpt from Complete Boot Camp for Fiction Writers)
There are two ways you need to divide up your time in your story.
One division happens with you decision – how much storytime should you spend in actual pages, or words, in each of your three Acts? Act One is your set up. Act Two is all the stuff that gets you to your climax, and Act Three is that climax, that final battle. So how much time do each of these take up in your story? Good question.
The second concern relates to plotlines in your story. If you have one or more POV characters in your story, they will each have a storyline, or a plotline. So how much storytime, in pages or words should you devote to each plotline? Another good question.
3 Act Time Allotment:
A good rule of thumb:
20 %–Act I–Beginning–Inciting Incident–Life is thrown out of balance. This typically occupies 20% of the story.
70%–Act II–Middle–Escalating Complications and Reversals–The struggle to regain balance. This typically holds the bulk of the critical action, coming in at 70% of the story. Here is the bulk of your story, and here is where many writers struggle, especially beginning writers. (Lucky for you I have all sorts of help for ‘the mushy middle' here in chapter four in this book! So don't worry, we'll get there together.)
10%–Act III–End–Climax that is a Revelation–The Final Battle in which balance is restored. This typically occupying 10% of the story.
These are loose relationship guidelines only, an overview if you like to demonstrate how long a writer typically needs to set up the stakes of the story in Act I, act out the struggle in the story in Act II, and finally to resolve the story in Act III. As you know, every story is different. You may spend more time on your climax, because it is warranted. Expanding the beginning isn’t always a good way to go, as you’ll want to get your hero up and battling the conflicts quickly, but again, every story is different. The skill is to know these guidelines well, and then manipulate them equally well, should your story demand it.
Plotline Time Allotment:
Here’s a good rule of thumb:
I POV–Gets 100 % of viewpoint scenes. Easy peasy, lemon squeezie.
2 POV’s– Plot A POV gets 70% of story time; Subplot B POV gets 30% of story time.
3 POV’s–Plot A POV gets 70% of story time, Subplot B POV gets 20% and Subplot C get 10% of story time, respectively.
Do you see the constant here? Plot A maintains its rightful place on the marque: Plot A is always the headliner.
Note: Plot B and Plot C should have more going for them than cheering on and assisting Plot A. As I described back in Chapter 6, Settings and Scenes, Plot B and Plot C can be used effectively to create cliff hangers and up the tension in your story, they can give your reader a breather from a tense situation, they can mirror another plotline, they can develop theme, develop character, introduce new threats, change the trajectory of the story, any number of useful things. Sub-plotlines do much more than cheer Plot A along.