How do you feel about alternating chapters?

kathy_t

I find I have grown a bit weary of novels that are presented in alternating chapters that jump the reader back and forth between time periods. For example, in two novels I read recently (The Gown and Letters to the Lost) there is a young woman in current times who, having recently experienced a bump-in-the-road of life, is floundering about her future direction. Then she happens upon a way to connect with a woman who had a much more interesting bump-in-the-road some generations back in time. Thus begins the alternating-between-time-periods chapter structure. And the back-in-time chapters are by far the most interesting because therein lies the real story to be told. And luckily, the young woman in current times ends up fulfilled, feeling she has accomplished something worthwhile. And oh yes, she finds a new boyfriend in the process.


I'd be interested in hearing whether others feel this writing technique is a bit overused.

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Carolyn Newlen

I recently read The Dressmaker's Gift by Fiona Valpy that jumps back and forth from Paris in WWII to the present. It bothers me a little, but I really liked the book. I have also read Letters to the Lost and, again, liked the story. I do agree that the past is more interesting than the present.

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yoyobon_gw

I don't mind it at all, as long as I know where I am , time-wise. It frequently puts the story being told from the past in perspective. Of course it all depends , ultimately , on how talented the writer is.

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reader_in_transit

IMO, it has been overdone. There might be some books in which it is used effectively. I haven't read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, but have heard this technique works in that book. However, in most instances I prefer one of the plot lines over the other, so it is detrimental to the most interesting plot line, taking away the focus from it. My interest flags when I get to those not-so-interesting chapters.


The last book I read like this was The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis. The older story was much more interesting than the second story.


One of the books that, IMO, is almost ruined by the less interesting plot line is People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. The modern plot line felt to me like it was a filler to get to a certain page count. I also wondered if the mother-daughter conflict on those chapters was autobiographical. Of course, other readers may have loved the second story.


The question I ask myself when I read these books is: was this really necessary? And most of the time, the answer is No.

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socks

No, I usually avoid books like that. I want to go from A to Z in a story. Not A, C, B, D...

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vee_new

I just ordered a cheap copy of Letters to the Lost and I'm getting 'stuck in' with the modern/older story line, but then the chapter ends and I have to rethink where I am. It doesn't take long to catch up probably because in this eg it is quite a simple/undemanding story.

Kathy, how do you and others feel about books that tell the story from the point of view of many different characters? So we get one told by 'suspect Tom', another by 'PC Plod', one by 'Fatima' the beautiful 'victim' and maybe yet another by a mysterious 'onlooker'.

Christie's The Case of Roger Ackroyd is a clever eg of this although you need your wits about you when reading it. ;-)

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annpanagain

Vee, I don't remember that about Roger Ackroyd! I rarely come across mystery books where the story is told from different viewpoints.

I like Laura Levine's Jaine Austen mysteries where the story is interrupted by emails from her parents with the latest disaster caused by her father. They are so amusing that I read them all at once then go back to the main mystery.

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vee_new

Annpan, in the Roger Ackroyd story I seem to remember that each witness told his/her own story chapter by chapter . . . some possibly true others less so. Of course regular mystery/murder fans may have known what to expect, but I certainly didn't.

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yoyobon_gw

Is it possible that enjoyment of this type of writing has a correlation with creative thinkers ?

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kathy_t

Reader_in_transit - Yes, it's true that Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See is presented in alternating chapters, but they do not jump the reader between time periods, and one story does not serve as a framework for the other. Instead, the chapters jump the reader between the lives of two protagonists, and both stories are equally compelling and wonderfully written. The two characters are children, a French girl and a German boy, whose lives are dramatically changed by WWII - in very different ways, as you might imagine. In this case, I vote a resounding "yes" in favor of the alternating chapters. In this book, the technique is used effectively and enhances the novel ... IMO.

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kathy_t

Vee - Generally speaking, I feel that alternating chapters between characters is much more justified than alternating chapters between time periods. Knowing how various characters view a situation is often quite interesting and enlightening. To me, it mimics real life, as one person's triumph can indeed be another person's tragedy. I also think alternating-character-chapters requires much more skill on the part of the writer to pull it off well.

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msmeow

For me it depends on whether the structure really helps or advances the story. Just read The Gown and I thought it had good flow even though it switched from past (between two characters) to present. All the Light We Cannot See drove me nuts switching from him to her every chapter and I gave up on it. I also read The Masterpiece and I didn't care for it much, but I think that was more of a character issue than the story structure. I almost gave up on The Light in the Ruins because of the rigid switching of time and characters every chapter, but I did end up finishing it and was glad I did.

Donna

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kathy_t

Bon - I personally do not see a correlation between alternating chapters and creative thinkers. I do remember the very first time I read a book with alternating-character chapters (many years ago) and I thought it was a brilliant, creative, and highly original technique. That was William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Now that I'm older and more well-read, I realize it may not have been so original after all - perhaps just new to me. But the alternating time-periods has become rather formulaic, and although sometimes effective, I would not label it as being particularly creative.

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kathy_t

Annpan - I love your technique of reading all the interrupting family emails first, then returning to read the real story in Laura Levine's mysteries. That's what I call creative reading! You made me smile, as you so often do.

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kathy_t

Donna - I agree with you that the alternating time periods worked rather well in The Gown. I'm not sure why it was "okay" in this book, but rather annoying in others. Perhaps it is due to the author's skill.

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Rosefolly

I'm with Reader-In-Transit and several others here. It can be a clever technique, but it is overdone. What once was novel is now just a tired trick. Surely there are more interesting ways to interweave the past and the present!

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astrokath

I seem to remember that Roger Ackroyd only had one narrator, Dr Shepherd.

I don't mind this technique although I have been known to skip a chapter if one ends in a cliff hanger, and I really must find out what happens :)


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annpanagain

Kath, I have skipped almost the whole book to read the end if someone or an animal is in peril!

I thought the same about Roger Ackroyd but didn't have a copy to check. Vee, you must have been thinking of another book!

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vee_new

Annpan, yes you are correct about R A. I think I remembered that although it was told in the first person, each character was brought in (to in the drawing room!) to say their piece, giving a slight shift to the story.

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