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I'm working on a novel about the psychological struggle of 7 characters. It's got an ensemble cast, where every character has the same importance. I've got a structure for this that sounds good to me, but seems different than most novel structures I'm familiar with; I want to know if my structure sounds workable and effective.

The premise is that a group of 6 travel to one city which is rumored to be safe from zombies.It isn't,and there another person saves them. Here is the catch: I want to distance myself from horror and delve into the minds of these people, who now have the time to form more intricate relationships. In the second part of the book, each character is broken, and each takes it in a different way.

Here's the structure I'm working with:

  • In the first part of the book (which I've already written), the interactions are shallow with some spikes that show how they feel one for another,but in a world where you constantly run you don't even have the time to develop something more complex.
  • In the second part (still unwritten), I want to analyze each character in one chapter. Each chapter destroys one character with a dramatic event,they discover or get past they're fears,only realising that the war for survival is not over,and so each having parts in all individual stories.The idea is that one dramatic story shakes the character completely,gives them a new enemy so to speak,a new reason to live.That conflict(which is the key part of my vision) should slowly change each chapter,and only after the final climax everybody should really know themselves.

My concern with this structure is that it may be confusing to readers. This structure has each chapter focusing on a different character, with the other characters developing more slowly in that chapter. Will readers "get" what I'm trying to do with this structure? Will they be able to follow along with so many characters, developing at such uneven paces? Are there improvements you'd suggest to my story structure, or perhaps a different structure entirely?

Here is an example of a single character arc,of the first character to transform.

John was always a drone,doing what others say.

  • In his focus chapter, he is living with Elise(another survivor,not from the main cast,who is dying).She tells him not to go for help,because she wants the last moments of her life to be with a human.He is stubborn and against his principles tries to do something to save her,only to miss out on the last hours of her life.He is shocked and destroyed,but the best word would be lost.He is left with no path,and he must forge another.this is how his chapter ends.
  • Chapter 2: While another character is tested,John realizes that he must serve,but not only one.he decides that he will do nothing until that special person appears.
  • Chapter 3: the struggle doesn't go away,he just can't live alone even if he wants,so he decides to help them from the shadows.He is discovered at the end
  • Chapter 4: the main character of this chapter becomes that hero he wishes for,so he begins to serve again without question
  • Chapter 5: He is reminded of his loss,so he goes berserk killing zombies,becoming again just a soulless weapon.
  • Chapter 6: again the circumstances make him struggle,he starts to feel again for another women,but he can't erase the pain from his hearth,and the fear that it will happen again.
  • Chapter 7: the last one.A lot happens here,but in the end he realizes that everyone has a place in this world.He accepts his but without a women to live,just in his memory maybe,and the story ends...

This model would apply to all 7 characters: each character would have the center position in their own focus chapter, and developing gradually along their character arc in the other chapters. Again, my question is whether this structure sounds feasible, clear, and effective.

EDIT

A) Each chapter has one person as the protagonist, but there are some bonus chapters. For example, after John's and Lily's chapters (first and second) there would be another one that focuses totally on the group and how the previous chapters affected them. This should be filled with conflict and written in a way to make people want to read further.

B) The second way is that the first time John plays the major role, but each chapter loses the significance of the protagonist a bit. In the second, John and Lily are the stars, in the third even Lucy has a bigger part (while others have minor parts, of course). Until the sixth chapter, where only one character gets left out a bit. And in the final chapter of course, everybody has the same role and every resolution is played out.

What do you think about these two possibilities?

Thank you for helping me be a little bit better!

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Your English is fairly good, but help me understand your actual question or questions. Can you bold your question(s) or put them at the end, so we know what to answer? –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 8 '11 at 17:52
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So your question is if having a single character be the focus of each chapter will work? But the outline you give has me interested only in John... –  justkt Jun 8 '11 at 18:46
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Hi robizeratul; I've done a big extensive edit to your question, which I think makes it a lot clearer and easier to answer. I hope I've understood your intentions correctly! If I've misunderstood anything (or everything), please feel free to revert my edit, or make individual notes or corrections (you can do that, and see previous versions, by clicking on the "editied [x time ago]" link). Great question; thanks for putting so much hard work into it! –  Standback Jun 8 '11 at 20:34
    
(The one thing I really didn't understand in the original post was this line: "I thought of it this way,in the second part to analyze each character in one chapter.**But i am afraid of hurting them to much,and making the reader uninterested.**" If that's important, could you explain that, either in a comment or as an edit to the original question? Thanks :) –  Standback Jun 8 '11 at 20:35
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@NeilFein every time you edit these old questions, I come along and start to answer or something when I suddenly notice it's 1-2 years old and you just modified it a little. I keep falling for this! It's like a graveyard with party decorations. –  Aerovistae Jun 1 '12 at 21:34
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4 Answers

I've got a lot to say in response to this, but I won't get around to it in the next 24 hours. Until then:

  • The Jane Austen Book Club has a structure extremely similar to what you're describing. (Other ensemble casts I can think of are more typical of series, but this book is an exception, methinks.)
  • There's a roleplaying game which revolves precisely around the structure you're interested in, called Primetime Adventures. It's exactly what you've described: parallel story arcs for an ensemble cast, intertwining and interacting, with each character getting the spotlight at a different point. The book discusses this structure enough (particularly pointing out its strengths and advantages) that I think you'll find it valuable even without any interest in the roleplaying game itself.
  • I'll expand on this when I have time, but my nutshell reaction is: the structure itself is great, but cramming even small developments for all 7 characters into each and every chapter sounds very dense and difficult to pull off. I'd leave myself more leeway if I were you: more than 7 chapters if you need 'em; not having every character develop in every chapter.
  • Also, figure out where the climax goes in this structure. If it's during a single character's focus chapter - might that unbalance your structure, making that character more important and significant?
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thanks for the info,i'l take a look at what you said when i will have the time.I added now some new ideas in the original edit,take a look if you want please! –  robizeratul Jun 9 '11 at 18:05
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I think the structure will work, and I personally would find it interesting to read.

Depending on how you structure the first half I wouldn't have to much trouble with one chapter focusing on a given character at a time. If you already have a single point of view for each chapter, having one chapter staying with a single character wouldn't be a problem. On the other hand if you often change POVs with scenes having a chapter with one character might be a bit jarring, but if the story is compelling it wouldn't be a major issue.

That being said, of the two styles you offered I like the first one best. Have one or two focus chapters and then seeing how those changes affect the whole group would work well. It would allow you to keep engaged with the whole ensemble.

The real trick will be keeping the flow of the story going, making one focus chapter lead into another in a way to keep the reader engaged. Like in your example A above, the events in John's and Lily's chapters could lead into something that the whole group has to deal with. The results of those events then pushing another character into their focus chapter.

Just make sure that the climax of the story is part of the ensemble story, possibly touching back on all the focus chapters to show that they wouldn't have been able to survive with out these events. That way all of the focus work then leads feeds back into the end of the story and make the whole tale stronger.

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If each character has enough development, I think that sounds fine, and interesting. "Ensemble" is the correct word. Would the first and last chapters star everyone? (everyone who's still alive, that is.)

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yes,in the second part each chapter would build up the tension,so that in the end you can see the final resolution.Each character would be the main in they're chapter,and after that have a small role.I feel like i need to make the balance between making people wanting to read on.That's the problem,if for example John is the first to be the main,and people really like John,would they still stick around to see what happens?because John's part will be eclipsed by each chapter.Could i fix this by making the whole thing bigger?so that even John is more important?Thank you for your interest! –  robizeratul Jun 8 '11 at 20:55
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you can make sure that John appears in each chapter, even if it's only briefly, or you make your chapter ending tantalizing enough that the reader keeps going, waiting to see what happened to John. Or both. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 9 '11 at 0:23
    
yes,that's a good way too.I'm afraid of the ballance a bit.The idea is what if somebody loves John very much,and isn't interested a the rest of them?who do i manage that?One idea is to feel John presence at all time,so even if he isn't the most important,people know that he matters.What do you think? –  robizeratul Jun 9 '11 at 18:23
    
I think you're worrying about something which is out of your control. Each reader will have his or her own favorite character. What if everyone hates John? What if half your readers love John and half hate him? So what? You can't please everyone. Write the best story you can. Don't try to micromanage your audience. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 9 '11 at 19:03
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This is exactly the kind of story that I enjoy, and would love to create someday.

That said, "ensemble" stories are often difficult to follow. Since change of character is so frequent, change of voice is a must. I have read many stories in this vein that failed at establishing a unique voice for the characters, and thus were taxing to read. At the same time, this seems to be a favorite style of William Gibson - he often has several concurrent but separate plot lines toward the beginning of his books, which then merge toward the end.

It can be a very effective tool for establishing a large world, and evoking feelings of loneliness, which should fit your theme quite well. Similarly, when characters finally join forces, it often comes with a feeling of relief and joy.

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thank you!i will take a look at William Gibson as soon as i can.Take a look at my edit and tell me what you think! –  robizeratul Jun 9 '11 at 18:15
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