Another way we may break chapters is to indicate the passage of time, this can allow us to collect scenes together and form longer chapters, though not always. It can be a particularly useful way of breaking chapters if we’re telling a chronology bending story that is told over two or more time periods. This doesn’t mean that a story that bends chronology has to be told by simply splitting chapters every time we change the time frame, we can change time frame then have several chapters before we change back.

There are ways of changing the time frame within a chapter such as flashback or stream of consciousness but these can be tricky in some cases. Stream of consciousness is tricky in itself while flashbacks and stories told in multiple time frames are not always the same thing. A flashback can be short or long but it is usually related to the character whose point of view we’re focusing on at the time. If we’re telling a story in two or more time periods we may have one or more of the time periods unrelated to the point of view character.

A classic example would be the multi-generational story. In such a story we may have three generations of the same family in such stories characters may overlap, we may even have a couple who appear in all three time frames, but we probably won’t have all the characters in all the time frames. Similarly we may have characters that narrate certain time frames but have either not been born or have died so can’t appear in other time frames. At which point if we say move from granddaughter as a young woman to grandmother as a young woman there would be no overlap between these two times which would prevent this from being labelled a flashback because it is not the granddaughter flashing back to something she experienced.

Making this change within a chapter could be confusing because it makes it harder to distinguish between these two times. Moving seamlessly from one to the other can appear to happen between chapters but within chapters it can throw the reader so instead of paying attention to the story itself they are struggling to orientate themselves. This doesn’t mean it is impossible, this is writing after all and new things are being tried all the time, it’s simply tricky and something to be aware of.

While breaking based on a change of time can be beneficial it doesn’t mean there aren’t also difficulties involved. As with changing by scene it can lead to very long or very short chapters which may not be what we wish to do. While I’m not advocating every writer sets themselves a preferred chapter length and try to stick to it we may have a series of quick time transitions but we don’t want a series of short chapters. Or we may have a continuous flow of time, rather than a gap where we move backwards or forwards, and we don’t want to put it all in a single chapter which could end up being dozens of pages long. As I said before, just because we often break our chapters one way doesn’t mean we have to break them the same way every time.

Of course, it does beg the question: If we’re not breaking by time or scene, how do we break?


For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on narrative structure see Finding Your Voice.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

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