Diced and Spliced

The novel is an elastic artistic form. Because it consists of numerous scenes, its construction does not need to be linear. If the protagonist needs a flashback in order to explain a present-day aversion, for example, a scene out of chronological sequence can be dropped in. Because of its fragmented nature, novelists have extended its overall form in kaleidoscopic directions. 

An inexperienced writer tempted to use this freedom, however, can create a hodgepodge. If you are writing a continuous narrative and after a while it starts to seem boring to you, you can cut it up into chunks and distribute them throughout the book. If 4-5 time periods are alternated, you can set up a pattern that the reader can follow. 

From a structural viewpoint, what happens when this narrative strategy is adopted? Rather than a longer skein of narrative that builds cumulatively, you now have to make the chunks count. If there is no payoff at the end of a short skein, why did the reader bother reading it? In other words, you have multiplied the number of times that a reader reaches a break. If she comes to enough of these points feeling mystified, she may put the book down, forever.

In the hands of a skillful novelist, discontinuity is not a problem. Such a story is told so far within the mind(s) of its character(s) that plot is not as important. A person can have contradictory thoughts. If a series of plot events go in skewed directions, though, the result may be hopeless confusion. A scene of a father reading to his children in bed, for instance, seems less touching if it comes after he has murdered his wife. 

What can be done to make the pieces cohere? If outer events—plot—are placed in juxtaposition, you can use inner events—thoughts of a character—to provide glue. A mere sentence or two of the protagonist’s reflections about an earlier scene can make a connection between the two scenes. If the character spends a paragraph considering the long-range effects of, say, child abuse, any scenes featuring that abuse are linked to that scene in which the paragraph appears. Cause and effect may not be occurring in chronological sequence, but you can create bridges to make the jagged structure hang together.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for scenes that seem incomplete, stranded by themselves. Can you find a topic, in dialogue or narrative, that is common with other scenes? You can insert in that spot a character’s thought which includes those scenes—and create linkage. 

“A well-thought-out story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story.” —Isaac Babel

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

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