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While this question may be a little nit-picky I realize chapters do help the flow of a book, and, since I'm now plotting a novel, I figured it's a good time to ask.

In a non-lineary storyline, I've noticed two ways chapters are laid out; I think the best way to describe it is dynamic versus static chapter sequence.

Static chapter sequences I would describe as a round-robin approach to subplots. For example, if there are 3 subplots, each "act" will be broken up into 3 chapters, with the order of subplots constant with each act.

A real-world example of this is Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson. When I was reading this the subplots were per-chapter to the point where it became annoying and monotonous for me. With this sequence, I see a few pros and cons:

  • Pro: the reader is able to predict what chapter goes with with subplot so they're not having to guess for the first few paragraphs.
  • Con: since chapters can control the flow of the story, the chapters may not coincide with the story flow.

Dynamic chapter sequences go with the flow of the story. You may follow one subplot for several chapters while another subplot may get a chapter here and there (and, in most cases, they end up getting an equal share at the end of the story).

A real-world example of this (that I'm reading right now) is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

For about half the book I was wondering if Salander was still alive (meaning she wasn't mentioned a whole lot). Pros and cons:

  • Pro: the chapters follow the flow of the story
  • Con: The reader may forget about small sublots.

Am I using the correct terminology? Is my question too confusing? Thanks, in any case! :-)

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This is a well-written question, with one problem: What is your main question? You seem to have left that out. (I'm assuming you're not just asking about terminology, or the wording of your question.) –  dmm Aug 8 at 15:21

3 Answers 3

Your terminology is fine, and I think either way might work depending on your story.

The idea that we're left wondering if a character is alive may be quite deliberate on the author's part. Whether the reader is frustrated or writhing in suspense is, again, dependent on the story.

I don't object to the idea of making the reader work a bit at remembering subplots, and that also allows for a pleasurable subsequent re-read, as you go through remembering where so-and-so was and seeing how the author deliberately put that character to the side for the other plots to develop.

On the other hand, if you have enough subplots to make George R.R. Martin reach for a scorecard, then consistent scene cycling wouldn't be a bad thing.

I would lean towards what you're terming dynamic, because I think it will generally serve the story better, but the static structure could be equally effective if warranted.

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This is how I see it:

Static:

Pros:

  • You can easier edit some subplots to fit better to main story
  • Easy to follow by reader

Cons:

  • You can give away the information, that every chapter is new subplot. duh

  • The overall flow of the story can be boring

Dynamic:

Pros:

  • Better flow of the story
  • Reader is given away the information exactly at time you want them to know

Cons:

  • Harder to follow by reader
  • Harder to edit in the later stages

Personally, as writer, I incline more to the static story building scheme. As reader, I totally love the dynamic one. Great example of totally well built dynamic story is Terry Prachett Discoworld stories

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A static division can make variation in chapter length feel more natural. Satisfying the expectation that a chapter will contain a particular subplot can counter the violating the expectation of similar chapter length. Such variation can be exploited to influence the pacing and tone within a chapter and among chapters.

For example, if one subplot has a character crossing a desert but not much is actually happening, a very short chapter can increase dramatic tension and the impact of the minimal activity (an effect similar to that of using short sentences and short paragraphs) and, when placed between longer chapters can increase the feeling of isolation (as might be appropriate for a desert passage or merely to emphasize the danger). Imagine the effect of this extremely short chapter when placed between two longer chapters.

"[Expletive]!" She bashed the fuel gauge with her hand.

The rising sun was already draining precious water from her body.

In a dynamic sequence such a short chapter might be harder to justify and the effect of greater connection with the character from the lack of a local antecedent for "she" ("of course, I know Julia; you don't have to introduce me") may be more pronounced. Even if chapters are labeled with the protagonists' names, a repeating sequence will make the reader skip over such labeling quickly (after the pattern has been well established).

A static sequence can also use the expectation of the presence of a subplot to emphasize the early ending of that subplot, reminding the reader—or even declaring without preceding explanation—that characters or the goal of that subplot have been removed. The tightening of the cycle from dropping one subplot can also increase pacing and tension without changing chapter length. For example, after a shipwreck plot lines for survivors might end with rescue or death. A skilled writer may even be able to drop a plot line without explicit statement whether it ended with death or rescue. Sudden dropping of a plot line can increase uncertainty by the unexpected breaking of expectation.

Expectation can also be exploited for a dynamic sequence as a recognizable pattern will tend to stand out from an otherwise arbitrary ordering. For example, with four subplots a series of chapters alternating between two subplots could be used to hint at romantic coupling (the protagonists dance around each other), to show separate sharing of similar experiences, or to emphasize the (possibly growing) difference between protagonists.

The transition to a recognizable pattern can also hint that seemingly random events may have some subtle connection, that chaos is being overcome, that individuals are becoming a team. The changing pattern of chapter sequence can foreshadow or reinforce the actual direction of the story.

Exploiting expectation is a standard component of writing, whether the expectation is satisfied, violated, or subverted.

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I should probably go back and edit this; the recognition that these effects were all about expectation came relatively late in the writing and the minor changes made to earlier parts to include this recognition seem inadequate. Structuring this answer around the idea of expectation could make it a better, more complete answer. –  Paul A. Clayton Aug 11 at 22:18

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