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The Skeleton, Part II

Updated: Mar 25

A reader DM’ed me and said “a linear order is not as important to me as a 'meaningful order.'" My question is as follows: Since for most readers there is an order which is most satisfying, is there a way to know what the most “reader satisfying” way to order the plot and subplots?”

Get your kids reading!

Let’s take a stab at this.

I think it is safe to say there is no such thing as an answer which satisfies everyone. There is always a balance between the story a writer wants to tell and a story the reader wants to read. If a writer enjoys non linear narrative, but some readers like linear storytelling, the writer and reader will simply never jive. If a reader wants complexity as part of their escape to a book, but a writer is aiming for short, digestible chapters and a straightforward three act tale, the reader may feel bored.

That is to say the old adage, you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Authors should aim for the readers liking the same things they like to write. That is very touchy feely, but your beta reading group can give you a good idea of, “This works, vs. this doesn’t and I don’t like the pacing, etc.” Be sure you have a beta reader or three who like your genre, and your kind of subgenre.

More specifically, let’s touch on some rules of threading tales together.

We have to take a brief segue. Ziefle, M. (1998), Effects of display resolution on visual performance, Human Factors, says the average adult reads prose text at 250 to 300 words per minute. The average American citizen over 15 years of age spends around 16 minutes and 48 seconds reading for personal pleasure during the typical day as of 2021 according to some sources, closer to five minutes by others. Now it is important to remember these numbers account for people who read avidly and those who don’t read, so the range will be quite wide. I can’t find reliable numbers on the number of words an avid reader consumes per day. My wife clears an easy 10,000-15,000.

Why is this important? The first rule of threading plots:

Do not wait so long between threads the reader loses interest, or forgets the relevant details of the plot you are returning to. There is a reason people binge watch TV and binge read book series. It becomes more real to them. If a person is on the low side of reading time, say 5 minutes a day, at 250 words per minute they will read about 1250 words a day. That is an average length novel every seventy or so days, or two and change months. Will they remember something which was only touched on 15,000 words ago which was to them almost two weeks ago? On the other hand, if your reader reads a lot, the 20-minute range, they would have read that same related piece only about three days ago.

I would use all this to say don’t let any thread go completely for more than about 7,000 words. This would be less than a week for a slow end reader. Of course, no rule is absolute.

How many threads can your book handle? If you are talking about two unrelated storylines, my recommendation would be to find a way to alternate one chapter than the next with even levels of material. It will keep readers moving forward with a desire to know more, and you can bounce between POV’s easily enough to learn from different perspectives.

Now the original question did say explicitly “most reader satisfying,” and I think we also must consider genre. Action packed books which are serious page turners, need to be structured that way, with shorter chapters, high notes constantly hit, whereas slower burns, or perhaps romantic fantasy elements might need to slow, long chapters, with characters not interacting for long stretches to set the tension higher as they think about one another. I.E. The perspective of the reader lets them see both characters' thoughts, even though the characters don’t know they are both pining away. Satisfaction comes from meeting the reader's expectation or if you subvert it, doing so knowingly in the genre.

For order, I believe it is important to start on the right foot with the main plot and the core protagonist or antagonist in the story. This is part of being honest with our readers. We need to make the promise of the kind of story they are getting when they read our novels, and if we start with a one hundred percent romantic subplot in a book that is 90 % not a romantic story, it will confuse the reader as they set out on the journey with us.

An argument can be made for introducing plots in the order of importance after that, though as you did your scene layout, you can also work to intertwine more events into one scene as you go.

I hope this helps, and next time we will talk more about the first layer of meat on the bones, and how we flesh out chapters. Until then, remember, writers write.

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This is a really interesting idea. How do we know what the expectations are for our genre? I'm not sure a beta reader knows "I expect chapters to be 8000 words" and may struggle to give more specific feedback than the feedback you mentioned of something along the lines of it doesn't feel right. What resources do you use to find detailed writing trends in each relevant genre that are more scientific beyond the also useful act of reading widely and getting a feel for it?

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