When To Use Alternating Chapters In Your Story

Well, I thought that I’d talk about alternating chapters today. If you’ve never heard of this before, it’s a technique that is quite common in thriller novels. These novels will often have two or more main plot threads (focusing on different characters in different places) and each chapter will switch between them.

For example, if your story has two plot threads (let’s call them “A” and “B”) , then a traditional thriller novel style alternating chapter structure would look like “A B A B A B A etc..” This is useful for a number of reasons, but the main one is that it makes your story a bit more gripping.

If you end a chapter on a small cliffhanger, then your reader has to read another chapter before they can see how the cliffhanger ends. Of course, the chapter they’ve just read might also contain a small cliffhanger, which makes the reader want to read the next chapter etc…

Yes, you need to include some non-cliffhanger chapters in order to give the reader a chance to take a break and return to your story later. But, alternating chapters add a bit of extra suspense to cliffhanger chapter endings.

Likewise, having two plot threads also adds an extra sense of scale to the story and, when you need to speed up the story near the end, you can bring the two plot threads together into just one (typically by having both characters meet each other) for an even faster and more focused final segment.

But, sometimes, it is worth using another chapter structure instead.

Firstly, if you’re writing a story that uses first-person narration, avoid using alternating chapters. First-person stories work best when they have a single focused plot thread (rather than lots of confusing jumps between different narrators). Alternating chapters work best with third-person narration! But, if you must use alternating chapters in a first-person perspective story, be sure to clearly signpost who is narrating at the beginning of every chapter.

Secondly, if one of your chapters is longer than usual, then it can sometimes be a good idea to split it up into two consecutive chapters in order to keep your story’s chapter length reasonably consistent. And, yes, this is an important thing. If your reader knows how long a chapter will be, then it is easier for them to think “ I’ll read just one more chapter“.

Following on from this, if you’re writing a longer fast-paced segment and you don’t want the pacing slowed down by a drawn-out cliffhanger in the middle of it, then avoid using alternating chapters here. Instead, use your chapter endings as a way to add a brief dramatic pause to the action (with something like a small cliffhanger that is resolved on the next page).

Thirdly, you might want to include stand-alone chapters occasionally. These are chapters that focus on characters, settings etc… that are relevant to the main story, but only appear once. Typically, they’re used to flesh out a fictional world, build suspense and/or add a sense of scale to the story. Of course, if you use these, then they will disrupt a traditional “A B A B etc…” alternating structure.

The best examples of stand-alone chapters can be found in British splatterpunk horror fiction from the 1970s-90s (by authors like James Herbert, Shaun Hutson etc..) where a new character will be introduced at the beginning of a chapter, only to die horribly at the end of it. In addition to adding a bit more horror and scale to the story, one other advantage of this technique is that – during the early chapters – the reader can’t be entirely certain which characters will be the main characters (which adds a suspenseful “anyone can die” atmosphere to the story).

Fourthly, don’t use alternating chapters if it ruins the pacing of your story. Not every story needs it! This is something that you’ll probably get an instinct for if you read lots of books by lots of different authors.

Not only will this allow you to see your story from your reader’s perspective (since you’ll have recent experience of being a reader), but it will also show you some of the options available when it comes to chapter structure and it will also give you the experience of seeing stories as a whole (which can be difficult if you’re in the middle of writing one).

Finally, be sure to think about your reader’s memory. One of the good things about alternating chapters is that it means that it usually isn’t too long before the reader’s memory is refreshed about your story’s other plot thread. So, if you’re using a different chapter structure to the typical “A B A B etc..” one because of pacing, drama etc… reasons, try not to neglect one of your plot threads for more than a few chapters.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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