If you’ve read quite a few novels, then you’re probably more than familiar with stories that use alternating chapters.
But, if you haven’t, “alternating chapters” simply means that one chapter is dedicated to one storyline, the next chapter is dedicated to the other storyline, then the chapter after that is dedicated to the first storyline etc… and it carries on going in that order until later in the story.
Even though I haven’t really used this technique much (since I use first-person narration a lot and tend to write shorter stories), I thought that I’d give you four very basic tips about how to use alternating chapters. And, more importantly, what mistakes you should avoid.
1) Third-person stories: Whilst it’s certainly possible to use two alternating first-person narrators in a story (in fact, Max Brooks’ excellent “World War Z” uses more than thirty first-person narrators), I personally wouldn’t recommend doing this.
This is mainly because first-person narration is much more suited to focusing on a single character than it is to focusing on multiple characters within the same story.
Repeatedly switching between first-person narrators can get slightly disorientating if it isn’t done extremely well and if both characters don’t have different enough narrative voices for the reader to be able to tell them apart within a few seconds of starting a new chapter.
If you want to include multiple storylines and multiple narrators in a first-person story, then it’s usually best to stay with each narrator for at least a few chapters at a time rather than changing the narrator at the beginning of almost every chapter.
So, if you are going to use alternating chapters, then it’s usually much better and easier (for both you and your readers) to use a third-person perspective in your story.
2) Length: Although alternating chapters can obviously only be used in stories which are long enough to be split up into chapters, they work a lot better in novel-length stories than they do in any other length of story.
Whilst it’s certainly possible to use alternating chapters in novella-length stories (eg: anything between about 15,000 and 50,000 words), this means that you will have even less room to develop each storyline and each protagonist than you would if you only stuck to one storyline (possibly containing a small sub-plot too) and one protagonist.
So, if you’re working on a novella, then your story will be a lot better if you use the limited number of words available to you on just one storyline rather than trying to spread it out over two storylines. Yes, you can use alternating chapters for a few chapters in a novella if it’s absolutely necessary, but it isn’t a good idea to use them for too long.
3) Connections: This is another obvious point, but your two storylines should be connected in some way or another. If you’re telling two totally unconnected stories using alternating chapters, then you might as well just write two separate self-contained stories.
Yes, they don’t always have to be connected in a huge way and your two protagonists don’t even have to meet each other. But, both stories should at least have some kind of impact on each other in one way or another. Otherwise, as I said earlier, you’d be much better off writing two different stories.
I mean, even if one storyline takes place a hundred years before the other storyline, then that storyline should at least explain some of the reasons behind the “current” events in your other storyline.
Likewise, even if the only thing that your two storylines have in common is the setting, then the events of one character’s storyline should affect the setting in a way that has an impact (whether good or bad) on the other character.
4) No more than two storylines: As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve only talked about alternating between two storylines in this article. There’s a reason for this.
Although it might be easy for you, as a writer, to keep track of more than two storylines in your story – it might not be as easy for your readers. Whilst some stories are better suited to being read in a single session, it isn’t always possible for all of your readers to do this.
So, if someone hasn’t read your story for a few days, then they might not always remember the details of, say, eight different storylines as easily as they will remember the details of just two storylines.
Likewise, constantly switching between too many storylines can easily break up the flow of your story and leave your readers feeling frustrated or confused. So, by sticking to just two storylines, you can keep your story moving forward fairly easily.
Sorry that this article was so basic, but I hope that it was useful 🙂