Structure, Time, and Pacing

Continuing this blog’s decent into irrelevance by writing nothing but meandering posts about writing once every 2 or 3 weeks, I thought I’d share a discovery I’ve made while writing.

When I set out to extract the corn kernels from the lumpy turd of my science fiction manuscript and string those together into a new, perfectly crafted and well-honed masterpiece of prose and plot, I found the going, shall we say, tough. It wasn’t that it was hard to find the good scenes. Those were actually easy to spot. But once I had extracted them, hosed them off and lined them up one next to another, they started to dictate an internal structure that I hadn’t noticed before. One decidedly more n line with the book I wanted to write, thankfully, but also a structure that I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen for this story.

My initial impulse was to dismiss this self-generated structure and impose the one I wanted. I am after all the author, isn’t that how it works? I may have zero control over anything in the real world, but in the imaginary ones that exist just as marks on a piece of paper (or ones and zeros on a screen) I am the word and the law, right?

Not necessarily.

I had wanted to run with a 3rd person-limitted POV, alternating chapters between the two primary characters. But this wasn’t working out. The good bits of the story — the ones I extracted from the lumpy mess and wanted to shape into a new story — they were all from the main character’s POV. Trying to shoehorn another POV character into the story led inexorably to unimportant digressions, unnecessary scene set-ups and multiplying sub plots involving minor characters, leading ultimately to the very same  story bloat I was trying to escape. So I embraced the single POV character, remaining firmly in 3rd person limited.[1] This created an interesting side effect in the story structure. If the main character needed to be present for something to happen, I had to get hi there organically. This slows the pace, which is fine, as this allows me to create the sort of dreamlike, weird tale/hauntological atmosphere. But what it also does is make the chapters longer.

Now, I don’t know how other writers determine their chapter structures. Some have arbitrary rules[2] while others seem to have more organic rules.[3] Since I decided to just stick to one character POV, this means in effect, there’s nothing stopping me form just foregoing chapters altogether, like in a short story or novella. After all, chapters are just a convention form the days when novels were serialized. However, if I handed an agent or editor a 300 page manuscript with nothing but scene breaks, they’d look at me like I was mad.

Seems readers like convenient starting and stopping points, regardless of how the story is being told. Sort of like how you could watch all 10 episodes of season 1 of Game of Thrones back to back like a single 10 hour movie, but it would probably drive you to commit bloody acts of sexposition.

Anyway, I started looking at the plot outline, and realized it segmented into episodes divided by breaks in time and location. Whenever an episode reaches it’s denouement, there would be a cut in time before we picked up the story again. This allows me to juggle subplots and structure each episode like a short story, so that you feel, by the end of each chapter, like both you and the characters have discovered something. After a few chapters, you (and the characters), start to pick up connections between the disparate subplots and they start to gel into a whole. What this does is create longer, more intricately structured chapters that allow me to play around with time in fun and interesting ways. Since this is a time travel story, this opens up opportunities that weren’t necessarily there with a more tightly wound plot, especially when it comes to pacing. No longer bound by the need to run headlong through the plot, I’ve got a little elbow room to set up the sort of slow tempo build-up you want from an atmospheric mystery-driven story.

So if you ever wondered why some books were made up of long rambling chapters while others were made up of short pithy chapters, that’s kinda sorta how that works.

1. This isn’t quite as limited as you might think. There are interesting little ways around this. In order to get glimpses into other character’s motives and head space, I decided to borrow a classic from the world of stage drama, the “French scene,” in which new characters enter and the characters already present hand the action over to them and then exit. This was developed as a way to maximize time and use small stages to better effect. One of the most famous French scenes is actually English, when Ophelia enters durring Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Moliere was a master of the French scene—Tartuffe uses it almost exclusively.
2. Chuck Palhanik has said a chapter should be no more than 7 pages long. For his  minimalist, hyperreal style, that works. But I’m not writing one of those. John Rogers has said that the ideal length for a chapter in a pulp novel is 2500 words, as it forces you to discard anything not related to the plot and sprint on to the next scene as quickly as possible. Again, great for pulp novels. But I’m not writing one of those either.
3. If you do have multiple POV characters and are following them around in limited 3rd person, alternating chapters between them makes sense. Especially if you’re writing a Martin-esque multi volume doorstopper series. But even if you aren’t, your characters or plot should dictate soem sort of inherent structure. maybe time is a structuring device, and so each chapter is a different day.