On Form and Format

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For this week’s blog post, I’m referring you to an April 20 guest post—Follow that Thread!—I provided to Debra Goldstein’s lively blog, It’s Not Always a Mystery. That post builds on an intriguing essay by John McPhee about the complexity of organizing all the disparate pieces of the long, non-fiction narratives he writes so superbly. Many of his considerations apply equally well to fiction writers, who may not choose the most obvious way—strict chronology—to organize their work.

Two of the recent entries in the “Reading . . .” section of this website are cases in point. The book The Lullaby of Polish Girls (being published next month) moves back and forth in time with every chapter, but is set up to be easy-to-follow. In The Expats, a thriller I listened to, rather than read, the shifts in time and place were somewhat harder to follow, because I (mowing the lawn) couldn’t scan for a chapter title or detail to reorient myself. Still, it worked, though it’s the kind of book that could have been written chronologically and the chapters shuffled afterwards, so that the hero has only the information she should have had at any given point. In fact, I’m not sure how the author, Chris Pavone, kept it all straight otherwise!

To talk about structure in a purely mechanical sense, have you noticed that not only books, but individual chapters are becoming shorter? In the book I’m currently reading, some chapters are less than a page long, which works because most chapters switch voices from one character to another. But even in books with a single narrator, chapters may be little more than individual scenes.

This format is coming into vogue as a response to mobile devices. Authors and publishers envision people reading in short bursts, on iPads, smartphones, etc. I find all those breaks a little jarring (and they create lots of wasted space—less “book”), but it isn’t awful. What do you think?