What’s your Word Budget?

What's your Word Budget?Master of short stories Mary Robinette Kowal delivered a guest lecture for Sanderson’s 2020 course which raised the interesting question: what’s your Word Budget?

Subtitled the MICE Quotient, it sets out Kowal’s framework for fiction. No actual mice are harmed in this process. MICE stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event.

Since she’s working in short fiction and even shorter flash fiction, the concept of a word budget appears early on.

Word Budgets exist in all writing, whether you explicitly count words or not. In short fiction it could be 500 or 1000 words. A novella might be 20,000 to 50,000 words. A full length novel: 70,000-100,000.

The more elements you include, the more words you have to use to describe them all.

Simple stories might describe the milieu (world) or scenic location, a character, an idea or a single event. You can do a lot with a small number of words.

The more elements you throw in, the more words you need to cover all of those elements. If you’re profligate with the number of elements – more locations, characters, ideas, events – the faster you use up your word budget.

Balancing the Budget

When the word budget is under strain, there are three choices; cut the number of elements, write really tightly to contain the same material in the limited number of words, or expand the word budget to fit the available content.

Option three isn’t always available; flash fiction is by definition short. Short stories for competitions are constrained in length. Non-fiction (yes, the Word Budget applies here, too) has a word-count constraint. Articles, too, contain real-world ‘characters’, milieu, ideas and events.

Novelists don’t get off scot-free, either.

Supposing my novel is a spry 65,000 words. It’s divided into 25 chapters. My average word count is ~2500 per chapter, give or take. Chapter length isn’t consistent, depending on how many scenes there are in each chapter, or, how much heavy-lifting each chapter has to do in progressing the story. Long or short chapters stand out to the reader who expects a certain amount of structure. Those exceptions to the novel’s average length chapter need to justify their presence. Not only do I have to keep tabs on the number of MICE per chapter, I also have to pay attention to structure across the novel, including individual chapters.

Short chapters that deliver the required story arc give you more words to spend on longer chapters that require more room to cover all their MICE elements. The same goes for scenes and individual dialogues. But beware, word counts that swing wildly up and down like a seismograph can indicate structural issues with the story.

This is just scratching the surface. We’ll look further into MICE and Word Budgets soon.