Splitting Your Book in Half
Picture the scene: you’ve written your book, you look down at your word count, and the word count is somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 words. That’s far too many words for a book unless you’re going for epic fantasy, but even then you’d be pushing it a little. If you’re goal is to get the book published, you won’t be able to get past any agent or publisher with that word count unless you’re already established. So, what can do you do about it? Split the book in half—then you’ve got the first book and its sequel all sorted.
No. Don’t do that.
It’s very common to have that approach and, at first glance, it seems like it’d be a good idea. It’s not. There are a few problems which will be catastrophic to your narrative.
Much like just about everything in writing, you can—and, indeed, should—do whatever you want, but you will need to overcome the problems with splitting a book in the middle if you’re considering doing so.
Whether you rigidly follow the three-act structure or not, your novel will follow some kind of act-based structure—regardless of whether that was your intention—because that’s how people gravitate towards telling stories. If you split a three-act story in the middle, you don’t get two new three-act stories. What you get is Act One and a little of Act Two in your first book, and the rest of Act Two and all of Act Three in the second book. I’m using the three-act structure here just as an example; whatever structure you use, the principle still applies—you have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you are writing two books, you need to write two books. Each one needs a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if the second is a direct sequel.
Character arcs make a story. Watching the highs and lows of the characters on the page as they go through their journey until the eventual resolution is one of the great things that keep us engrossed in literature. Imagine how unsatisfying The Shining would be if it ended around the point where Jack gets locked in the pantry. There’s no completion of the arc, there’s just a broken thing that ends abruptly where it shouldn’t. Characters need to go through and complete their arcs within each book. A sequel should be a new arc, not the second half of the first one.
We like things to be resolved. That doesn’t mean that everything has to be tied up in a neat little bow, but the story you’re telling has to be resolved in some way. Yes, that may lead into new challenges to be resolved in the second book, but the story needs a resolution in the first one first. Cutting a book in half means that there’s no resolution, just a to be continued note at the end of the first book telling people that if they want to find out what happened they should buy the second book. From a reader’s point of view, it is unsatisfactory, cheap, and comes across as a marketing stunt designed to exploit you to pay more money. It is the novel equivalent of clickbait.
While the other reasons have all been about the book itself, this one is more about the publishing industry. If you’re a new writer, a publisher is not going to risk tens of thousands of pounds—if not more—on half a book. That’s because the harsh reality of the industry is that the majority of the time, that half a book won’t sell enough to cover its own costs. That means that they’ll never publish the second one. More than likely nobody will because the first one didn’t do well enough. Ninety nine percent of the time, your first book has to be a self-contained piece so that it stands on its own if there are never any more of them.
The simple message is that splitting your book in half is a lazy way of doing it. You can go about trying to find a solution to the problems it causes, but you will need to put in some work. That said, there are ways to go about it.
You can split the book in the middle and then condense your first act so it doesn’t take up so much of the first book, shrink your second act, and redo the third act so that it brings about a resolution to that first book’s story. Then you do the same for the second book. This is a fairly detailed rewrite and will need additional writing, so sections may still get cut to make it work. Your story will also change a lot.
It’s likely that a lot of the extra word count will be in the middle of the book, which if you map it onto the three-act structure will sit in Act Two. Take out as much of that as you can and move it into a new second book. This way, you keep the beginning and end as you wanted, but take out some of the middle. The removed content will end up in the sequel, which will need its own opening and closing and will come about as a result of things that happen in the first book.
Splitting a book in half means that you’ll have to butcher both halves into something that they weren’t originally: two completely separate entities that bear very little resemblance to what once was. The simplest option, really, is to kill your darlings and just remove stuff that isn’t necessary. A lot will be superfluous, so just get rid of it. That solves the word count issue and retains the main story, probably making it tighter and better as well. I know it’s a hard thing to do, but rather than splitting your book, take a look and ask yourself, truly ask yourself if all of those words, those side plots, those amazing characters and that fantastic world you’ve built is necessary. Does the book need it, or do you?
© 2020 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.