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I usually set a word count goal for each of my chapters, say 2000 words. But sometimes I can't meet that goal, for any number of reasons. What should I do:

A. Continue anyway, and hope to increase word count elsewhere.

B. Keep working on the chapter, till I reach the word count. This will mean the creativity will suffer.

I know there is this question , but it talks about meeting a daily quota, but I'm talking about meeting the quota for each chapter (as I can meet the daily quota easily by writing more chapters, but then my final book is very short).

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I must say I like this question and the other one about "breathing space" because they address matters of pragmatic necessity versus the broader goal of doing a good job. In both cases the problem arises from having been given practical advice that seems to conflict with aesthetic sense. Nicely put as well. –  One Monkey Sep 9 '11 at 11:22
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My personal experience: I originally outlined my current WIP into 30 chapters, to which I allotted 3,000 words apiece, giving me a total of 90K. But in reality, the chapters came out everywhere from 1,500 to 6,000 words, and that's fine. Give each chapter as much or as little space as it needs. –  JSBձոգչ Sep 9 '11 at 14:37
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6 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Do you really want to bloat a chapter just to meet an arbitrary quota?

Besides that, till you haven't finished the book, you cannot tell how many words a chapter will have. Because you will rearrange, rewrite, and (most important) delete unnecessary stuff.

So don't sweat it, start a new chapter, keep writing and drop a quota for chapters. If your story is written with short chapters and it is brilliant and compelling, do you really want to make it boring and dull by adding unneeded stuff?

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+1 - if the author feels there's not enough detail in a scene, that's something to work on. But just... not enough words in a chapter? Not a problem, for me. –  Kate Sherwood Sep 9 '11 at 11:30
    
Seriously, that's a weird place to have a quota. I understand the idea of "I need to write X amount per time unit" to keep oneself productive, but why would you have a quota on size? I agree with John; it seems completely arbitrary. What purpose does it serve to insist that chapters be thing long or that short? –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 9 '11 at 12:22
    
@Lauren, when plotting, I divide my story into scenes, and put those scenes into chapters. And then I set a word count target for each. This is to know how long my book will be- as usually they always end up short –  Shantnu Tiwari Sep 9 '11 at 12:43
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Ah, I see. I think what you need is not a word count target but an outline target. You break your scene into beats, and most if not all beats have to serve a plot purpose. So now your question becomes "Did I accomplish the task(s) in my outline in this scene?" Then "short" becomes irrelevant, because it doesn't matter what size it is, it's whether you've used it properly. So to speak. ;) –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 9 '11 at 13:33
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It's fine to have a target goal, but it doesn't have to be a hard and fast rule. Your idea of splitting the story into distinct scenes is spot on, so focus more on making sure the scene is complete rather than the number of words you think you need. If you're done telling the story of what happens in that scene, then there is no need to keep adding to it. If you feel there is still more to tell, then do so, whether it's adding more details about the setting or more dialog between the characters. However, make sure that what you add truly contributes to the story, otherwise it's just fluff. –  Steven Drennon Sep 9 '11 at 13:36
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On the one hand a story is a story, putting more words in it doesn't make it more the story it just makes it the story with a bunch of extra verbiage growing over it like ivy up a wall or mould on cheese.

On the other, if you have this terrible feeling that the bit of the story you've told is too light or unfinished then maybe it is.

The problem is that, as the author, you have probably spent some time thinking about your story. If you haven't then problem solved, take a break, re-read the chapter fresh and think about what you're trying to achieve in this chapter (other than some arbitrary number of words).

If you have thought about it a new problem comes up. A story is a very particular type of communication. A communication intended to enthrall and entertain. In order to achieve this the story must tell audiences exactly what they need to know as they need to know it.

The nagging feeling that this chapter is "a bit light" is a symptom that you have been restricted from delivering necessary depth or interesting plot information because you are somehow restricted by what the audience currently knows or doesn't know. The liberty to make the chapter more complete may be found by reviewing what's already written and trying to find out where there's information missing. Essentially there's a possibility that you need a "pay off" but you never did the "plant".

However, you could just be over thinking it and the chapter may just be suitably eloquent and perfectly concise. These are the problems of balance you must overcome on your own.

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Some possibilities:

  • Add a complication to the chapter's conflict. Make sure it's a meaningful complication—i.e. one that contributes to the story. Consider:
    • Increase time pressure.
    • Raise the stakes for the MC.
    • Remove an option from the MC's repertoire, so that the MC has to struggle more to figure out what to do.
    • Reveal something in the middle of the interaction that changes the MC's understanding of the situation, so that the MC struggles not only to overcome the chapter's obstacles, but also to understand what the heck is going on.
    • Introduce another character into the interaction.
  • Do something in an earlier chapter so that the interaction in this chapter is more complicated for the MC. In the earlier chapter, you might:
    • Give the MC greater knowledge of some complicating factor. That gives the MC more to think about, more challenging decisions to make, more tradeoffs to consider. So throughout the chapter, you can show the MC weighing these complicating factors. It also might increase (or decrease) the MC's choices of action, and increase the range of responses the MC gets (or fears) from the opponent, some other character, or the setting.
    • Misinform the MC, so that the current chapter is more puzzling.
    • Put some additional MC goal or value in jeopardy.
    • Show an event in the MC's past that is somehow echoed (or otherwise relevant) in this chapter.
    • Give the MC a trait or flaw or attitude that makes this chapter more puzzling or complicated or difficult.
  • Combine two chapters into one.
  • Add a scene to the chapter.
  • Move a scene from a later or earlier chapter.
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Setting a word count is a personal decision. Meeting the goal is a personal decision. If you were doing piece-work and being paid for it (by the piece) it might matter.

You might be doing this in your writing but IMHO it has nothing to do with the craft of writing.

You could just as easily set a goal of X publishable/sold words. Unless you sell them each day it is just a goal you've set.

I will suggest that if this is what you must do to force yourself to write each day then perhaps you don't really have the fire in the belly to be a writer.

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Chapters are another level of organization; just as much as you organize your story in paragraphs, sentences and (at a higher level) books and volumes.

If you're setting a goal for yourself to meet "2000 words per chapter," it's up to you to define the exceptions and the additional modifications that you would require if you broke your goal.

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Try freestyle writing for 10 or 20 minutes. Freestyle writing is when you put down any idea or thought that comes into your head and writing down without editing or correcting. Just writing. You might come across new ideas or topics that you had not written about. You can also try a mind mapping tool like Xiosis Scribe which combines mind mapping with word processing.

You can also add some additional research into what you have written. Add some quotes or what previous authors on the subject had written.

If all else fails try a 16pt font, double wide lines, 4inch margins and set align to full justified :) Just kidding.

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