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I am presently writing a novel, but it is going to be incredibly large (over 200,000 words when complete). I am aware that I will need to cut a lot of sections, but I'll be worrying about that later. For the sake of this question, let us assume my novel is complete and is 210,000 words in total length.

What I am wondering is this: Do the various sections of the plot (exposition, rising action, climax, dénouement, conclusion) have to be (lengthwise) proportion to the length of a normal novel? For instance, if book A's exposition ends at page 32, and book B's exposition ends at page 35, but my book is three times larger, would it be acceptable for my exposition to end at page 95ish?

My question applies not only for exposition, but for all five of the section: exposition, rising action, climax, dénouement, and conclusion. Should they save the proportional lengths? Or should I cut back the length of the exposition and dénouement and just have my rising action be extra-long?

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  • the length of the chapter doesn't really matter, but what matters is that it serves the plot.
    – Crimsoir
    May 5, 2022 at 13:19
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    I think the biggest risk is pacing. You don't want things to feel like they're being dragged out. Having some lesser plots play out on a smaller scale could help there.
    – user54131
    May 5, 2022 at 13:44
  • You probably want to think about a more complex structure, although there are a lot of ways of structuring a long novel. There are a lot of existing questions here about writing trilogies and series of novels, and the same principles apply. It'll depend on things like whether you have lots of separate plots and characters, or are focusing on one person over a long time. Don't worry too much about following someone else's specific structure though.
    – Stuart F
    May 11, 2022 at 20:23

2 Answers 2

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Don't edit before you've finished the first draft

As you say, it's best to let the first draft out on the page and postpone worries like structure and size to the editing phase.

So whatever I say here, don't worry too much about it until you have your first draft and are ready to go into editing. (You'll likely strip down, rip out and restructure in editing anyway... First drafts are, as has so famously been said, shit...)

Make it attractive to the reader

Story structure is a tool for making the novel and the plot move along and to make it attractive to the reader.

In one sense this means, you can make the book as long as you like, just keep the reader interested and attracted every step of the way.

The big question is, how do we do that? How do we know where to place our plot points to keep the reader glued to the page? How do we know how long the acts can be before the reader gets bored?

We can of course use beta readers, but maybe only once or twice per work, so we'd better use all available knowledge to make the novel as close to "exciting all the way" as we can get.

And that's a balance between structure and "exciting on the page". Usually, a good book, movie, or stage play is a bit loose with the structure in order to make the scenes work.

What does structure really do to the story?

Being off on the structure can have several effects.

If the story is long but not exciting on the page, it gets boring and put down.

A story that has its first plot point halfway in is usually a sign it has been badly structured. You're going to feel that the end is abrupt (this can be seen in some movies and stage plays.)

A longer first act will likely also feel like the beginning is dragging on and never cutting to the chase...

If the acts are too short you could be brushing over important parts of the storytelling.

If your first act is too short it could mean you're skimping on establishing the real world (maybe the world at stake or the world that must change) and its characters, leaving the reader with less investment in the world, characters, and ultimately the whole novel.

If the middle acts are too short it could mean both character development and setting aren't used for maximum effect.

Middle acts that feel long or boring (some call them sagging middles) usually feel that way because character and plot development isn't optimal. Both your story (the external story) and your main character (the internal story, character arc) need to come from a defined beginning, then change noticeable in the middle and arrive at a defined ending.

The only exception is if your main character is a hero or a super (they already believe in the truth of the story and follow a flat or testing character arc) then they change other characters (noticeably) or even their whole world, after having gone through hell themselves... (Katniss, anyone?)

And likewise, a final act that is too short will likely come off as an abrupt and possibly less meaningful/impactful ending. "What do you mean 'and then they killed the villain'? If it was that easy, why did I spend all this time reading the other acts? Come on!"

A long final act, on the other hand, will probably come off as dragging out the end and could be caused by not ending subplots before the final clash between the protagonistic and antagonistic forces.

Rules for novel size

Your work will be judged by readers on external things like cover, font size, and page count (maybe a bit less so in an e-book) so a publisher will also have notions on novel size.

Especially if you're debuting.

The most common notion is that genre and audience are important when determining the min/max length of a novel. For instance, a children's book could never run 200k+ words. A Sci-fi/Fantasy book might if you're introducing whole new worlds with unusual physics and culture. While urban fantasy might not have to explain a whole world and could get away with fewer words.

It's not impossible to get a large book published, it's just going to be harder.

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Perhaps. Length will make it extremely difficult to get published (unless you publish it yourself), just for the expense of editing, proofing, and then binding the book, if nothing else. Famous authors like Stephen King can get away with that, even a long book will be a bestseller with their name on it, their publishers know that and that means there is very little risk for them in putting in the extra work.

They have no such assurances with an unknown author, or indeed published authors that have not penned any bestsellers.

Besides actual $$$ expense (which may be mostly overcome with digital publishing and self-publishing), there is the issue of reader boredom.

The average length of novels is not so much dictated by publishers, but by the buying audiences. Many are reluctant to commit to a 200K word novel. And the triple length acts create the possibility, if not enough is happening, of just becoming boring. Too much exposition, too much of characters explaining, too much crap for the reader to memorize. These can all be story killers. Nobody wants to read a long leisurely Act I that is the full length of a short novel that is packed with action and moving fast. Those were for the wealthy upper class a few centuries ago, that could just entertain themselves all day, and had no radio or TV.

You can do it, but you need to add a lot of conflict, be it emotional or physical, circumstantial or targeted. You need to keep the audience engaged, do not assume they will read just because you wrote it. If they get bored because nothing is really happening and they are just being told a lot of stuff to remember, they will put it down and seek something else more interesting.

The essence of story entertainment is people dealing with change. You get some pass for the introduction, showing your new-to-the-reader character(s) and illustrating their "normal world" through action and activities. But you cannot let that get boring, before the reader stops caring you must introduce some change (the inciting incident). The story moves from "status quo" through a series of nested problems being addressed, and a series of failures by your hero(es), until finally they are victorious against the problems and either return to the status quo, or create a new normal. (Or get defeated, but those tend to be less popular stories.)

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    I understand your point with the difficulty of publishing such a massive novel--I have done plenty of research concerning that. But my question was not concerning the feasibility of publishing such a work. Rather, I am simply curious as to whether the proportions should match that of a 'standard' novel. I would, of course, later on, cut out sections to make my novel a more standard length, but for the time being, I am simply curious as to whether or not everything should be built to proportion or if some things should be shortened or lengthened.
    – Wyvern123
    May 5, 2022 at 15:37
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    Based on examples, I'd say perhaps keep the intro (the "Normal World" and day-to-day life of your POV character), normally about 1/8th of the story before the inciting incident, about the same length. the rest can be proportionally larger. I say this because readers are expecting something to happen by then. There can be exceptions, in Rocky, Stallone extended the "Normal World" section to 50% of what is normal for a movie; 4x as long. It was the only way to build sympathy for Rocky, but his normal world had several conflicts in it, so that kept it entertaining.
    – Amadeus
    May 5, 2022 at 16:03

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