Mathematical Mondays: The Percentages of Plot

Percentage SymbolI’m sure someone wiser, prettier, and kinder to children than I am has already discussed this, but it struck me the other day whilst working on the NaNoWriMo novel (sometimes affectionately, sometimes disparagingly known as “No. 2”) that I didn’t know whether my plot was proportionately pleasing, so to speak. Is what’s happening, happening at the right time, or is it veering drunkenly between rambling brain seepage and frantic plot explosions?

The answer is, yes, of course it is. But speed-writing 50,000 words in one month is no time to get clever. I don’t see how a book written that quickly can aspire to be anything other than a linear (-ish), traditional story with a beginning, a middle and an end. But where does the middle start and finish?

A play is much clearer. In a traditional play, there are usually 3 acts. The 1st act introduces characters and sets up the plot. The 2nd act is where stuff actually happens and misunderstandings occur, usually culminating in a terrible or hilarious event (unless it’s a wedding, in which case, it usually happens at the end). Then the audience goes and has a gin and tonic to get over the shock, coming back for the 3rd act, when either everyone is enlightened, or everyone dies.  Film structure isn’t much different (unless it’s one of those films, in which case don’t panic, because nothing has to happen at all).

A book, it seems to me, has more than 3 acts, but in a traditional story, something huge still has to happen either just left or right of the middle, spurring on everything after it.  Here, have a goo at this table:

How to structure the plot of a novel

Let’s say a book is 50,000 words (because that’s the NaNoWriMo target, and it’s waaaaay too early in the week to be arsing around with percentages on the standard 80K or 90K).  And let’s say we’re writing the next big thing – Irish Farmer Erotica. (And Ew. No, it’s not what you’re thinking.)

  1. The first 10,000 words, or 20%, is introduction and plot set-up i.e. the germs of the ideas, where we introduce Packie, our hero, and his obsession with tractors which will ultimately threaten to destroy Packie’s budding romance with his Mammy’s hairdresser.
  2. The next 20% is for the expansion of further supporting characters, the obstacles to be faced, and clues of what’s to come,  e.g. the odd behaviour of Packie’s cattle herd, signifying the imminent collapse of the tractor market.
  3. The next 20% is for great woe, calamity, love, hate, or chinese whispers, resulting in torment and confusion which must be overcome in order for the book to fully earn its ending. So the market collapses and the value of Packie’s tractor plumments, causing him to question his solvency, priorities, future, and the existence of humankind.
  4. Between 30,000 and 40,000 words should be reserved for the deepening of the crisis. Perhaps here, Packie’s now-worthless tractor dies completely, leading him to the inevitable denouement where…
  5. …in the last 20% of the book, we answer all the questions we posed earlier. So in the closing chapters, Packie realises that even bright and shiny tractors can’t hold a candle to the love of a good hairdresser, in the grand scheme of things. He goes out manfully to win back said hairdresser with honeyed words, only mildly lagging behind our nation’s greatest poets in literary foreplay. There is a scene in a hayshed at dawn. (Go Packie!)

Of course the sticking point is that, when having loads of fun plan-doodling on the back of an envelope for a story I will never write, it’s easy to plot based on percentages. In the real (as in, the author’s imaginary) world, stories aren’t contained in such strict cages. Particularly not in the first draft. My NaNoWriMo experiment is currently all 60-80% and no trousers. But that’s another story.

What about your plots? Are your big events at the start, middle or end of your book? Do you find you structure them traditionally, or not at all? Does it happen anyway, whether you plan it or not?

  6 comments for “Mathematical Mondays: The Percentages of Plot

  1. November 18, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Hi Tara,

    This is a great post and explains the anatomy of a book very clearly. I’ve just written my first fiction novel and I found myself umming and arhing with what you say. I just wish you’d written it this time last year when I was first starting out on my novel writing journey!


    • November 18, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      That’s a really nice comment, Laura, thanks so much, always nice to know you might be on the right track! I’d say there will be counterpoints to my argument though, everyone likes to structure things differently, but as I said, this month is no month to be getting clever OR arty… 🙂

      Very best of luck with your book, whether you’re editing or selling right now. I love the excitement. Keeps me awake!


  2. November 18, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    V helpful Tara.
    NaNo is total madness but I had to stop (I know I know, you’re not supposed to stop) to sort it out. I didn’t want 50k of TOTAL randomness, although I’ll have to settle for a little randomness 😀 I’l wait til it’s finished to see if I’ve even come close to the % mark. 😀


    • November 18, 2013 at 5:36 pm

      I found last year that it helped to think of where I was in the arc to spur me on into actually making things happen somewhere (rather than description after description of the setting I’ve already changed four times in my head!). If you have to stop to do it, so be it – otherwise you could end up writing 2 different stories instead of one coherent one, even if it is slopped together… Which I know isn’t the end of the world, but it is a fairly definitive cul-de-sac when you think about it…


  3. Penelope
    December 1, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    If it works for you fine, but I think the circular breakdown is better:


    • December 1, 2013 at 11:08 pm

      As explained in the post, this is supposed to be a crude simplistic outline. But it’s flattering that you feel it’s comprehensive enough to correct it!


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