I was looking through some old books of mine a few weeks ago, when I stumbled across a copy of Terry Jones’ “The Saga Of Erik The Viking“. Since I had vague memories of reading it when I was a lot younger, I thought that I’d take another look at it as an adult (who makes art and thinks that vikings are really cool).
And I was amazed!
Not only did I rediscover a brilliantly timeless (and ageless) story with far more unearthly horrors and fearsome monsters in it than I remembered, I also had a much greater appreciation for Michael Foreman’s excellent watercolour illustrations and lineart than I did back before I became an artist.
But, most importantly of all, eight words in the blurb on the inside cover really jumped out at me.
Those words were “Each chapter forms a complete story in itself“.
And, yes, they do. You can read the whole book cover to cover or (like I did when I was re-reading it) you can just skip to interesting-looking chapters. As long as you read the beginning before you read the ending, you can read the rest of the book in any literally order that you want to.
The whole story is technically a linear story (like most stories) but each chapter usually just begins with a very brief description of the main characters moving on from the events of the previous chapter (eg: “After they had celebrated their safe arrival on shore…“) and then the rest of the chapter is basically just a self-contained short story which ends with Erik and the vikings either staying somewhere or getting back on their longship and travelling somewhere else.
Apart from possibly Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics (where most volumes of the comic are completely self-contained parts of a larger story), I’ve never seen any other stories which use this kind of structure. And, the strange thing is, it really works. In fact, it may well be the best story structure ever created.
Why? Well, because it puts the reader in control of both the path of the story and the story’s length too. If you don’t really feel like reading a whole book, then you can just read a couple of chapters and still come away feeling satisfied. Likewise, if you want to read the interesting-looking chapters first and then read the other chapters later, you can do this too. It’s totally up to you.
Best of all, this structure is perfectly suited to one of my favourite genres of fiction – I am, of course, talking about “exploratory storytelling“. In case you’ve never heard of this genre before, it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect it to be – exploratory stories are basically just open-ended stories about exploring strange and interesting places.
Because you can read the chapters of ” Erik The Viking” in any order that you want to, it goes from being an ordinary linear story to being an interesting collection of tales which – best of all – can be explored rather than just simply read. It might sound like I’m exaggerating here, but this structure really changed how I saw the entire book.
This structure could also be fairly good for writers who, like me, are absolutely terrible at writing longer stories (or was when I was writing fiction regularly). This is because it’s like the perfect middle ground between writing a novel and writing a short story collection. You can write a series of short stories
Since short story collections are nowhere near as popular or attractive to publishers as they used to be, this could be the perfect way of disguising your short story collection as a novel (with all of the gravitas and popularity that comes with this).
Seriously, I don’t know why more writers don’t use this structure for their books – it’s absolutely amazing.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂