I don’t know about you but when I first seriously considered writing a novel, I attacked it the way which made the most sense to me - formulaically.
I did some research: how long are books usually? OK, 20 chapters is a good round number, how many words do I need per chapter? What’s my average scene length? So how many scenes am I looking at per chapter? And now can I build a narrative with clues and plot points which fit with my nice, neat little layout?
In my own way, I was trying to break what seemed like a mountain of a task into more realistically sized molehills. And do you know what? This approach might work really, really well for lots of writers.
However, what I’ve recently realised is that I was boxing myself into a restrictive narrative structure with no room to be structurally creative. I was letting a predefined structure lead my plot, instead of the story.
When it’s done well, chapters are defined by the story, rather than word count; they are qualitative rather than quantitative. When I realised I couldn’t even name my chapters because they lacked narrative focus, I chucked my plan in the bin.
You can learn from my mistakes.
Alternative Narrative Structure
Now, lots of my very favourite books begin with Chapter 1 and end with Chapter… well, you get the idea. But there are other ways of structuring a story which never even occurred to me when I was first trying to turn my mountain into molehills. Here are some great examples:
The Martian (Andy Weir)
This one is straight forward: The Martian is told largely from stranded astronaut Mark Watney’s perspective as he struggles to survive on Mars after being accidentally left behind by his team. While Watney races to improvise food, heat, water and power, NASA and his crew race to figure out a way to save him.
The Martian is structured as a diary. Watney records logs of his fight for survival, thoughts and discoveries in the first person. This is a fairly standard structure for fiction cloaked in the mask of a diary. However, it’s essential to the story for us to understand, at certain points, what the personnel at NASA are doing or his team aboard the Hermes. Weir never allows these secondary characters the intimate first person status of Watney, instead relegating them to third person. Intermittently, we are allowed a tiny but telling peak into the manufacturing process of certain spacecraft parts, marked in italics, or we are allowed to read a transcript or communication, marked in a typographical font.
Not only is The Martian a gorgeous example of a different narrative presentation, it’s a really, really good story. If you haven’t met Mark Watney yet, read this book.
The water Cure (Sophie Mackintosh)
The Water Cure follows the story of three sisters and their family, isolated from a toxic world in an old hotel by the sea. The story changes viewpoints throughout the narrative and the chapters are simply titled for which sister (sometimes all three) is narrating. Sometimes these sections are less than a page, sometimes quite a bit more.
To give us a glimpse of the outside world, Mackintosh includes tiny snippets from the hotel welcome book, as written by women who have come to the family for help. As the narrative continues and events come to a head, the welcome book snippets show a building bleakness of events in the outside world.
The Kingdom (Emmanuel Carrère)
The Kingdom follows Emmanuel Carrère’s brief obsession with Christianity and his flirtation with the bible. At first glance, you can see that there’s something a little bit odd about the layout but the story is delivered in easy to absorb bite-sized pieces so you don’t think about it too hard.
When I realised what Carrère was doing in The Kingdom, I genuinely laughed out loud. It fits so beautifully with the persona of cheeky arrogance Carrère paints himself with in his more autobiographical novels.
Chapters are treated as their own super slim volumes, complete with their own cover page. Each of these chapters is broken down further into numbered chunks of text and then further still into even smaller chunks of text, separated with a centred asterisk.
Have you guessed yet?
The Kingdom is structurally modelled on the Christian bible - book, chapter and verse. A wonderful fit for both Carrère’s persona and the subject matter.
OK, Mr Field (Katherine Kilalea)
The story focuses on the introspective world of Max Field, a concert pianist who, after breaking his left wrist, flees to a South African villa. The book does indeed have numbered chapters but is broken into three sections: Summer, Autumn & Winter, which all offer a representation of the passage of time, the progression of the narrative and Field’s deteriorating mental health.
Breaking a book into sections isn’t spectacularly unique in itself - Ready Player One (Ernest Cline) segments the stories into levels so we can play along with Parzival as he progresses through the Hunt for Halliday’s Egg. There are tonnes of examples - Call Me By My Name by André Aciman is another.
OK, Mr Field makes the list because there are two further narrative devices which support the structure of the book: the crumbling and ongoing dilapidation of the villa, which is inexplicably tied to Field’s sense of self, and the continuous progress of a new build on the hill behind Field’s house, neatly marking out the passage of time in a narrative which could easily become blurred and unanchored.
I wouldn’t describe OK, Mr Field as popular fiction, necessarily, but the plot is masterfully put together and beautifully illustrates the powerful role embedded devices (such as the erection of a house) can play in narrative structure.
I’m definitely not saying that you shouldn’t structure your book by chapter! I’m also not saying that you should try to be experimental simply for the sake of appearing avante garde.
Rather, let the story guide you. Consider carefully whether there might be an alternative way to tell your story which better serves your narrative, your readers and your voice.
If you’re feeling inspired, here are some ideas for ways to challenge a standard narrative or add some extra flavour:
Set your story non-linearly, moving backwards and forwards along the timeline. Just make sure you give the reader enough information to keep up!
Change viewpoints or tenses. Remember to make sure that what you’re doing is enriching the reader experience, rather than muddying it.
Leave out a plot point and reveal it later; when done right this is a great way to build tension and keep the reader turning pages.
Add a device (such as a building site, a growing tree or a wilting rose in a jar) to help emphasise the passage of time or physically mirror the changing stakes / building tension of the story.
Think about how you want to break up your story. I’ve read books which had no chapters and just had scene after scene, denoted by line breaks. Would doing something different work for your story? Would it better suit your characters and their journeys?
Don’t be afraid to defy convention or challenge the status quo! And if your book is best presented chapter by chapter then let that be your decision, rather than your default.