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Narrative Tension: Is Serialisation an Answer?

Narrative tension is vital in a novel and writers often struggle with how to introduce it. Can it be done with shorter chapters? Can it be done by ending each chapter with a cliff-hanger? Can it be done by interleaving twin stories? Or should we be thinking more broadly than this?

The device of interleaving twin stories in an ‘oscillating structure’ is particularly successful in Anthony Doerr’s recent book, All the Light We Cannot See. The novel has what Doerr describes as a binary structure

‘oscillating back and forth between two protagonists in a kind of bilateral symmetry. I found that by suspending one narrative for a few pages and returning to the other, it generated some old-fashioned narrative momentum because a reader was left in suspense, wanting to know what was happening to the character we’d left.”

(Anthony Doerr’s interview with Nancy Smith can be found at:

But there’s another way to introduce tension and that is serialisation. Hillary Kelly writes, in a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post, that the novel

is now decidedly a single object, a mass entity packaged and moved as a whole. That’s not, of course, a bad thing, but it does create a barrier to entry that the publishing world can’t seem to overcome. Meanwhile, consumers gladly gobble up other media in segments — whether it’s a “Walking Dead” episode, a series of Karl Ove Knausgaard ’s travelogues or a public-radio show (it’s called “Serial” for a reason, people) — so there’s reason to believe they would do the same with fiction. What the novel needs again is tension. And the best source for that tension is serialization.”

“Why can’t the same techniques that once galvanized readers be revived? Today, when a novel is released, it relies on a series of tried (but not always true) advertising methods. The book is accompanied by a simplified synopsis targeting a specific audience, inflated with blurbs from “influencers” and dropped onto reviewers’ desks with the hope that enough serious critics will praise it that it will wriggle onto a prize list... Publishing houses have a brief window to push a work into the public’s consciousness. If the pilot doesn’t light, the novel doesn’t move. But with a constant stream of exposure over a period of six or 12 or 18 months, a novel would stand a far better chance of piquing the public’s interest.”

…“Imagine if HarperCollins had slowly unveiled Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second novel over a period of six months.”

Serialisation seems like a great idea. However a cynic might argue that if this is such a brilliant way to revitalise an industry that’s in the doldrums, why hasn’t a publisher stepped in to fill the niche and make some profits?

Well, the answer is that they have, although only for particular genres of fiction. For an informative piece on publishers that are experimenting with serialisation, see the January 2014 issue of Scratch by Jane Friedman. This can be found at:

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