Month: January 2018 Page 2 of 3

How Long Should Your Book Be?

This is a terrible question.  It doesn’t really mean anything other than “on average, we see XYZ wordcounts in this genre.”  And it says nothing about why.

Here’s a better question:

When do readers of this genre want to see subplots, and what kind?

A novel with one main plot is about 40-50K.  For example, The Stepford Wives is about 45K.  Most pulp novels have one main plot.  The early Doc Savage books are about 50K each.

Epic fantasies, contrariwise, have lots of subplots.  In fact, the readers would be upset if there weren’t subplots.  The Wheel of Time books are about 300K each.

In between are the things like The Maltese Falcon, which has the main plot (falcon/murder) and a subplot (love triangle). 67K.

Subplot = wordcount.

“Let’s talk about the current political situation at length” is a supblot.  See 1984 by George Orwell (88K), which has a romance, a rebellion, and a political treatise.

I could go on, but let’s say in general, a single subplot is about 15-20K of sheer words (about a novelette’s worth of plot*).  And that anything over 50K should have subplots.

And that when you get an arbitrary “how long your book should be” number from an agent or editor (or even just checking word counts on bestsellers), what you’re seeing, in general, is how many subplots are popular in a novel these days.


*I’ll post my best guess as to GRRM’s structure on a different day.  It’s different than this.

I’m trying to find an “ask” format that I feel comfy with.  I still haven’t yet.  I’m going to keep posting this one for a while, at least until I come up with something better.  Better than nothing, this one is, but not by much!

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Plot Shapes: The Turn of the Screw

I’ve been studying The Turn of the Screw lately.

  • A group of people are sitting around the fire telling Christmas ghost stories, as you do (this is a Victorian UK thing).
  • Storyteller (Douglas) claims that the story he’s about to tell comes from his sister’s governess, who has been dead 20 years.
  • He sends away for story, which later, before his death many years later, he gives to the unnamed narrator.
  • Douglas reads the story at this post-Christmas house party back in the day, which the narrator copies out exactly from the manuscript.  However, the setup that the narrator gives is from memory.
  • Then we get to the main body of the story.  For now, let’s just leave it at that, but there are more layers there.
  • The “frame” story never intrudes again, and never closes.  You never go back to the narrator or Douglas again–it’s not a frame story at all.

At first the significance of this didn’t hit me.  Okay, so it’s not a frame story, it’s just an introduction; that’s fine.  But this is kind of a standout as far as stories go.  Much like An American Werewolf in London, the story just…stops.  There is no wrapup, no denoument, no validation.  It just stops.

But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall.  I caught him, yes, I held him–it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

That’s the last paragraph of the story.  We don’t get what happened to the governess, what happened when that was the end of the story among the friends listening, or what happened with the narrator, as he wrote that all down.

Everyone talks about how the plot of The Turn of the Screw is about whether or not the two children were seeing ghosts or had just gone mad–or whether the governess had seen ghosts, etc.

Nobody talks about how the governess could have just been writing fiction–nobody has heard of these two kids dying in the first place–or how Douglas could have written this–there’s a hint in the beginning that he did (“But Douglas, without heeding me, had begun to read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of his author’s hand”), or it could have been the narrator making all this up.  Clearly, Henry James made all this up–but which, if any, of the successive levels of narration are unreliable (if any?).  Is there a truth or a falsehood to this narrative at all, or is it all in the reader’s mind?

Is this a story more about readers than it is about ghosts?  About how we forget that we’re reading a story at all?

As far as I can tell, the shape of this plot is a downward spiral, not just in “madness,” but into what makes a story in the first place.


(A note on the pacing and style in The Turn of the Screw.  The sentences and paragraphs tend to be long, full of clauses and punctuation–and interruptions–and multiple layers of reality; a paragraph isn’t just a straightforward relation of events, but a description of how the governess tells the story of what happened to Mrs. Grose, that shifts into straight narration of what happened, completely ditching the level of narration by the end of the paragraph sometimes.


Mrs. Grose watched them with positive placidity; then I caught the suppressed intellectual creak with which she conscientiously turned to take form me a view of the back of the tapestry. I had made her a receptacle of lurid things, but there was an odd recognition of my superiority–my accomplishments and my function–in her patience under my pain.  She offered her mind to my disclosures as, had I wished to mix a witch’s broth and proposed it with assurance, she would have held out a large clean saucepan.  This had become thoroughly her attitude by the time that, in my recital of the events of the night, I reached the point of what Miles had said to me when, after seeing him, at such a monstrous hour, almost on the very spot where he happened now to be, I had gone down to bring him in; choosing then, at the window, with a concentrated need of not alarming the house, rather that method than a signal more resonant.  I had left her meanwhile in little doubt of my small hope of representing with success even to her actual sympathy my sense of the real splendor of the little inspiration with which, after I had got him into the house, the boy met my final articulate challenge. As soon as I appeared in the moonlight on the terrace, he had come to me as straight as possible; on which I had taken his hand without a word and led him, through the dark spaces, up the staircase where Quint had so hungrily hovered for him, along the lobby where I had listened and trembled, and so to his forsaken room.

This whole book is like an unclosed parenthesis.

Simple Horror Plots, Part 4: The Suckers

There’s always some sucker willing to bumble into the wrong part of town…or some small town willing to host something it shouldn’t.

  • Something’s looking for trouble.
  • Surprise, surprise, our characters are just the suckers needed–wrong place, wrong time, and distracted.
  • Technically, the characters didn’t ask for it, although maaaaybe they tried to get a little something for nothing.  Or they’re the kids of the people who actually deserve this crap.
  • Trapped, the characters decide to make some trouble for the something that made trouble for them.
  • The characters win–but they’re changed.  Or the characters lose–and are changed.  Or the characters die and someone else watches the tragic ending–and is changed.

I think this is the one for things like Cabin in the Woods and Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby, that kind of thing.  ‘Salem’s Lot.  Stephen King practically has an industry based on this plot.

An interesting twist that Bentley Little sometimes does is to make it look like he’s doing The Suckers, and really it turns out that the characters deserved this shit all along (The Ignored).

What Do Readers Mean?

By themselves, books don’t mean anything.  They’re code marks on paper.

In order to “run” a book-slash-program, a reader has to read it.  Hardware for the software.

You can’t predict what the hardware is going to do to the software with 100% accuracy.  Sometimes it won’t run.  Sometimes it runs a mysterious program that you never coded for.

Write all you want.

The interesting part is the reader.

Simple Horror Plots, Part 3: It’s Fine

The first signs of trouble were small.  So small that we ignored them.  Ditto the second, third, fourth, fifth…

  • There’s a relatively minor problem.
  • Everyone blows it off (although there might be one person who panics about the situation in an obviously useless, “it’s all in your head” fashion).
  • Until it’s too late to do anything preventative to head off major consequences.
  • Successively larger efforts to fix the problem may in fact just make things worse.
  • Grand Guignol moment.
  • Either it finally gets fixed and things are fine (mostly), or it doesn’t get fixed and everything’s fine because the relevant people are dead, so…yeah.

Gremlins.  The Orphanage.  Death Note.  The Haunting of Hill House.  Hamlet.*  When I was brainstorming this, I was thinking about The Cabin in the Woods, but now I’m not sure about movies of that type.  There are a lot of movies where the problem was always horrifically, massively bad, but the characters don’t find it out right away.  This is more, “Yeah…we kinda just helped make this even worse.”


*That is, if you look at Hamlet as a horror movie with Hamlet as the antagonist.

Simple Horror Plots, Part 2: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The main character has a dilemma.  It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation–but there’s damnation, and then there’s damnation.

  • The character has a problem, or is called in to deal with a problem.
  • The character has to choose between a couple of craptastic options.
  • They try to avoid choosing.
  • But eventually, they have to choose.
  • In the end, the choice comes from an instinct that shows the true character of the chooser.

This is stuff like The ExorcistThe Babysitter, anything having to do with John Constantine, a lot of Devil’s Bargain stuff (although not really demonic possession stuff).  Sometimes you’ll get devil’s advocates for one or both sides.

What Makes a Book Engaging?

(A writer emailed to ask, “What makes a book engaging?”  I, who am constantly in need of topics upon which to write blog posts, did a little huzzah.)

What makes a book engaging?  Back up.  What does a (fiction) book actually do for a reader?  What is this mysterious “entertainment” that writers aspire to?

  • Escape.
  • Distraction.
  • Empathy.
  • Perspective.

I feel like that goes across genres.  Another way to name those things might be “setting, plot, character, and theme.”  Or rather:  “In order to entertain a reader, you have to have a good setting in order to provide them escape from reality; a good plot in order to keep them hooked even when the outside world tries to intrude; good characters in order to let them walk in someone else’s shoes; and a good perspective on the story, as an author, so that the reader finds meaning in the story even after they’ve closed the book.”

I highly advise prioritizing plot last.  First take someone out of their world by engaging them with the other three, and then worry about holding them there.

Simple Horror Plots, Part 1: That One Thing We Don’t Talk About

For some reason, nailing down horror plots is harder for me than mystery plots, so this is even more tentative than usual.

  1. There is a problem.
  2. The backstory* is so epic that it dominates the present or real story.
  3. Wait wait this problem comes from the epic backstory that we never talk about and didn’t learn the real lesson from.
  5. If we talk about it, it might go okay; if not, kablooey.

This is a lot of Stephen King.  The ShiningBag of Bones, that kind of thing.  Nazareth Hill by Ramsey Campbell.  We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver.

Mysteries have frame stories, too, that center around a crime in the past that was never resolved.  I see a lot of overlapping.  But I think the main thing that makes it horror here (plotwise) is that the thing Must Not Be Spoken About, where the mystery aspect seems higher if the thing is All Full of Dead Ends.


*Which might be plural.



The Secret of Writing a Series

So let’s say you have a series of books, movies, TV episodes, TV seasons, etc.  Any given series of storytelling.  Doesn’t have to be linear in time.  Doesn’t even have to be about the same characters (a la romances about a number of sisters, etc.)  With or without an overarching plot.  Could just be “monster of the week.”

What’s the secret of having a good series?  All other things being equal?

Having the setting be the same but different.

Let’s look at Harry Potter as one example:

  • Book 1, Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone: Explore Hogwarts.
  • Book 2, Chamber of Secrets: Explore the dark/forbidden side of Hogwarts.
  • Book 3, Prisoner of Azkaban: How the wizarding world interacts with muggles.
  • Book 4, Goblet of Fire: The wizarding world is truly a world now, although it mostly just comes to visit.
  • Book 5, Order of the Phoenix:  That strange country, the past, which would like to repeat itself.
  • Book 6, Half-Blood Prince: How the bad guys see all of this.
  • Book 7, Deathly Hallows: Isolated from the castle/Final battle at the castle.

All of the books except the first half of Book 7 center around Hogwarts and its environs; none of the books are about the same parts/aspects/perspectives on Hogwarts.  And each of the plots influences/is influenced by the aspect of the Hogwarts setting that is invoked.

Take a look at other series that you like.  Not only are the settings probably not exactly the same, but the plots also vary a bit based on that aspect of the setting.

Simple Mystery Plots, Part 7: The Frame

Okay, the frame as a narrative device.  Most writers have at least heard of it.  There’s a story within a story.  But let’s look at this from a mystery perspective:

  • A crime happens or is discovered (in the case of a long-past crime).
  • The main action of illustrating the crime happens on another level, for example, the past or a fictional story (even if the crime happens in the “present” frame of the overall story).
  • The crime is not resolved in the other level of the story, regardless of where it occurs.
  • An action must be taken in the “present” for the crime to be resolved–the truth brought to light, the crime solved/resolved, or even hiding the crime entirely.

This is stuff like PossessionThe Arabian Nights (a crime story rather than a mystery per se, really), Heart of Darkness, Wuthering Heights (there’s a lot of “he stopped loving her today” sensationalist fiction in this vein, of course), BaudolinoA Study in Scarlet, A Devil in Velvet, and Shutter Island.  I would say that A Daughter of Time doesn’t fit this, because the sections of the past never really take over the narrative.


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