Are Fragmented Novels a Fad?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

The last four novels I’ve read all have one thing in common: The structure for each is fragmented. In other words, the stories aren’t told in a linear fashion and often are told from multiple points of view. Is this a fad? Or is this a method we should expect to see more of?

Before expositing on why I think many authors are using this structure, let me tell you briefly about each novel’s framework. (By the way, I don’t necessarily recommend these novels. They just happen to be my most recent reading choices.)

1. The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff. This novel’s  structure is complex, with five points of view introduced in the first few chapters. It moves from historical characters to a contemporary story, which is told from one person’s point of view. I found five points of view (and moving between historical and contemporary) a complicated beginning to the book. I couldn’t find an anchor from which to push off to different time periods and different characters. Plus, the author didn’t identify whose historical point of view you were reading until you came to the end of that person’s section (many were journal entries, letters, and other ephemera). Boy, howdy, it was a challenge. I liked several elements of this novel, but the structure wasn’t one of them.

2. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. In this book, the author also moved between historical and contemporary, but there puzzlewere so many points of view, I honestly can’t recall how many. The part of the novel that kept throwing me were three  contemporary women’s points of view. The women were all trying to solve the same mystery, and as each woman died, the next one took over at the spot where the first left off. They each had significant numbers of people in their lives. Because I read in short spurts rather than for hours at a time, I was constantly lost in the modern sections of the book. A secondary character would pop up, and  I’d have no recollection of how that person fit in the book. Wendy, on the other hand, reads in big clumps, and she loved the book, recommending it to me. I can’t say I loved it, although the writing was superb.

3. The House Girl by Tara Conklin. This story’s structure was much simpler than the others. It, too, moved back and forth from historical to contemporary, but each time period was told from one character’s point of view. I found the way the author entwined the two time periods intricate and satisfying to observe.

4. Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. Even though this novel doesn’t move back and forth between historical and contemporary and it’s told from only the protagonist’s point of view, the structure is the most complex of the four books. The book is divided into parts rather than chapters, and each part has sections in it that are delineated with three asterisks. I soon learned to pay attention to every time-frame the author offered because the story moves back and forth, forth and back, overlapping parts of the storyline. The book starts out with a murder. Everything in the story rotates around the murder, with the events before the murder unfolding and the events after the murder also unfolding, but you never knew if you were moving backwards or forward when you started a section, or in what ways the story would overlap with some event you already had read, or what gaps in the story would be filled in later–you hoped. The only way to know if you were reading about pre-murder occurrences was to carefully note the date or time reference given close to the beginning of each section (“not quite a month ago,” “in the saloon of the Eight Mile House at San Miguel Station, on the fourteenth of September…,” etc.). To further confuse the unalert reader, the entire book was written in present tense (“Jennie sings a lilting tune,” “Ernest’s long jaw cracks,” etc.), which meant you had no clues as the direction the calendar had just moved. I actually found this structure fascinating in its complexity. But I couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to achieve.

Each of these books are “fragmented,” which is a term often used to describe a novel that isn’t linear. Why does it seem to be especially popular among writers? I think it’s because our lives and attention spans are fractured. We dip into people’s lives on Facebook, feel as though we’ve connected with them, and then move on. Trawling down your wall entries is a journey into joys, sorrows, suffering, celebration, silliness and poignancy. Twitter flashes messages at us at the rate of 140 characters at a time, always moving on to the new message without your even touching a button. Emails are journeys into the mundane, the advertisement, the complex, and the EOM in the subject line. Television and films flick scenes quickly at us, moving so fast from one part of the storyline to another you better watch closely to keep up.

Is it any surprise, then, that novels reflect that same frantic switching of scenes, time, and perspectives?

(I’ll be out of the office today and might not be able to join the conversation.)

What fragmented book have you read lately? Did you enjoy the fragmentation? What do you think the author was trying to convey through the structure? What do you think about writing a fragmented book yourself?

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43 Comments

  • I read a book similar to this over the Christmas holiday. Keeping up was difficult. I lost interest quickly. One thing that added difficulty, along with that … one of the characters words were written in a different dialect (if I am wording this correctly). That was hard to read … but the writer also wrote the narrative around that in the same dialect (just for those chapters with that certain character). I had to plow through it.

    And I’m not knocking the written dialect … I’ve read books that I loved with this. This particular book was just hard.

    I keep telling myself I need to read it again to give it another chance.

  • Currently reading A Study In Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes book. Reading aloud with the wife. Last night finished part 1, where the perpetrator is captured in London. The first chapter of part 2 then switched to the desert of the American west, forty years earlier, and no recognizable characters from the first part. Talk about disconnected! One surname is the same in both parts, and I can only assume that Conan Doyle will make the reason for the disconnection clear in the coming chapters.

    The fragmentation was jarring, and most unexpected. Not sure how I feel about it yet. I guess authors were doing that in 1886 too.

    • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

      I love that book! Yep, he does mess with you, taking the story back so many years. Still enjoyed it though. You can count on Doyle to make it all make sense in the end.

  • I have enjoyed a few fragmented books, but only if I can follow it without too much effort. I tend to lose interest if I get lost easily. I haven’t given any serious thought to writing a fragmented book myself. I’m not opposed to trying something new, but I’d like to master the liner plot before tackling a new challenge.
    I teach creative writing at the International Summer School of Fine Arts. Many of my students, all gifted teenage writers who choose to spent their summers expanding their writing skill, love the fragmented style. I wonder if the preference is generational. I didn’t grow up in a Facebook driven world like my students and my own kids are.
    Thanks for a thought provoking post, Janet.

    • Amy Sauder says:

      Andrea, I agree with you. I have read “The Forgotten Garden” and a couple other fragmented books lately. Some I’ve enjoyed if I can follow well. (For “The Forgotten Garden” the beginning was muddled, but once I got the hang of it I liked the book.) I love the idea of it spanning generations and I like different POVs as long as it makes sense still. But it’s hard to pull off in a way that’s easy to follow. I like the idea of writing a book like that, but I know I do not have the skill yet, so for now it’s all linear for me and I enjoy reading the quality fragmented stories I find.

  • I haven’t read many fragmented books. The most”fragmented” might be The Help. Which wasn’t all that fragmented. :) I enjoyed that particular book. It’s hard to follow a book where the author doesn’t anchor the reader into the scene, at the least with POV.

    I tend to think linearly, and literally, so I’m not sure I would ever be able to carry off a fragmented storyline. :)

  • I’m not always a fan of fragmented novels, but one book I felt managed traveling between past and present well is Circle of Secrets by Kimberley Griffiths Little. This is a middle grade novel that I read with my girls a couple of years ago. The mystery, secrets, and family drama created a superb novel. I did, however, struggle with it in the beginning until I truly understood what was going on.

  • I LOVED The Help! I think because the story premise is that the MC is interviewing all these women, the multiple POVs totally work.

    I barely made it through The Forgotten Garden. I’m not a huge Kate Morton fan, whenever I read her stuff, it feels like it’s raining and cold.

    I am like Jeanne, I like linear writing. It doesn’t have to be A, B, C and D. But it does have to have a flow to it.

    Meandering Squirrel Moment: When I read the title of the post, all I could think of was William Shatner, that sweet boy from Laval, Quebec. There’s a Pinterest pin that speaks of the Shatner Comma. So that, everything, you read, gets frag, mented, and now, you have, to read this, in your, head, like, Kirk.

  • Guilty! I wrote a story that was fragmented, using multiple flashbacks early in the story…essentially telling two parallel stories in different timeframes.

    Although the Beta readers liked it, I was advised to restructure it in a more linear fashion, if I wanted to see it published.

    So I did, and found that the more conventional telling opened up possibilities that simply didn’t exist using the gimmick of fragmentation. Character development was improved, motivations could be folded in logically, rather than having to be crammed in quickly…or worse, left to the reader’s assumption.

    Looking back, I was so close to the story that I simply couldn’t see the consequences of the structure I initially chose. It worked for me, because I could see the full story arc…and that it worked for my Betas (one of whom is an established author) is something of a miracle.

    But it was a mistake, and one that I do not intend to repeat.

    • I should add that the story retains a bit of fragmentation, in the form of a longer flashback introduced about halfway through the story. But it is foreshadowed, and the development of the main protagonists is allowed to proceed unimpeded through the first half of the book.

  • Jill Kemerer says:

    I’m not a fan of fragmented stories or excessive POV’s.

    I like to deeply connect with the main characters. A new point of view means another protagonist to root for, which dilutes my ability to focus on the MC.

    The reason I don’t usually enjoy fragmented plots is because it takes me too long to read them. I’m like you, I typically read in short bursts. It’s difficult to keep track of a story when it jumps around chronologically. Frankly, it’s too much work, and I read for an escape, not a workout!

    • Well said, Jill. I agree completely. This could explain my newfound interest in romance and why romance is so popular in general. One heroine. One hero. Period.

  • I’ve read some fragmented books that I’ve really enjoyed, but as others have mentioned, too much of that can get confusing. I think you may be right, Janet: the surge of this kind of book may be related to social media.

    If I ever attempt a fragmented book, I’m sure it won’t be anytime soon. :) I imagine it’s not easy to pull off.

  • I haven’t read many of these types of books. That sounds so confusing! Susan Meissner does a great job of writing in the past and present (historical and contemporary), but she always clearly labels whose POV you’re reading at the beginning of the chapter. And if I’m remembering correctly, she only uses one POV for each. I recently read her “Fall of Marigolds” and it was really good! I wasn’t confused between the time periods or POVs at all.

  • Unless the story is really compelling, I find fragmented novels difficult to read for the same reasons as Jill.

    That being said, there are some authors who pull it off very well. During the 1980s, many romances followed this format. Lush scenery, over-the-top description, and snappy dialogue from multiple viewpoints was the order of the day from several mainstream authors. Of course, that was a different time and readers’ needs and attention spans varied from today’s.

    Today, writing AND story have to be sublime if I’m drawn into “fractured” and “fragmented.” I just don’t have time to use a fork AND a knife to get to the meat of the matter. I want to dig on in and devour the story!

  • Southpaw says:

    I haven’t read one yet, but I’m interested in checking one out, perhaps The House Girl.

  • I read The Forgotten Garden, and experienced some of the same frustrations Janet did. There were so many differed POV voices, that it was hard to connect with any one character.

    • Angela Mills says:

      I was reading this on plane on the way home from Mount hermon and I was so engrossed that I didn’t even realize we had landed. I felt some parts didn’t hold my attention as well as others, but by the time I got to the end, I was pretty hooked.

      • Some of the disconnect for me could’ve been because I listened to the story on audio. The transition between point of view wasn’t easily recognizable in that context. Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Christine Dorman says:

    I read a novel last year that went back and forth between modern day France and 13th century France during the crusade against the Cathars. The book did have multiple points of view but was written most often from the POV of the main modern day protagonist and the Cathar protagonist. Overall, it was an engaging story and I was able to follow it. The thing I disliked about the book was the prologue which was written like a rough draft of a screen play (Alice walks over to the dresser and opens it kind of thing). Thankfully, the writing style in the novel proper changed to past tense and read more like a narrative. If the whole book had been written that way, I wouldn’t have finished the first chapter. So the fragmentation didn’t bother me tremendously, though I did occasionally have to flip back in the novel to remind myself who so and so was.

    The first novel I wrote was actually titled FRAGMENTS for the third through the fifth drafts, and it is written in a non-linear style from multiple points of view. There are two main points of view, then an occasional scene written from a secondary character’s point of view. I used this structure purposefully because one of the two main characters has Dissociative Identity Disorder (usually incorrectly called Multiple Personality Disorder). Since David lives in a reality made up of discrete moments of time, I decided to reinforce that by not writing in a chronological, linear fashion. Also, I do not always immediately orient the reader by labeling sections, e.g. “June 2, 2014, L.A., California.” This was a risk and I constantly strove to find a balance between having the reader somewhat share David’s experience without totally frustrating the reader. Most people who have critiqued the novel (critique group readers, editor, professional writers) have not had an issue with the fragmentation.

    The title, however, has changed. I discovered that there are a zillion books (especially, for some reason, poetry books) entitled Fragments. The new title is SHATTERING THE MOONFISH.

    Blessings on your day everyone! :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Christine, your novel sounds complex but for a good reason. I often wonder if novelists are choosing fragmentation just because that’s the in way to write.

      • Christine Dorman says:

        Thank you, Janet.

        I think you are right in your theories. Fragmentation does seem to have become an “in” way to write and it may be for the reasons you mentioned in the post. Our contemporary society is so into sound bites, tweets, fast-paced movies and tv shows, and the scrawl line that moves along at the bottom of news and sports shows. Additionally–and sadly–I think many people are living fragmented lives with their attention focused on five things at once.

        I hope you have a gentle afternoon. :)

  • Nevil Shute did a bit of fragmentation in “In The Wet” and “The Rainbow And The Rose”, using flash-forward and flashback, respectively, in major portions of the middle of each book.

    Interestingly, both used ‘intermissions’ in the out-of-phase sections, dropping back into the story’s ‘real time’ found in the beginning and the end for a short break and update. That worked pretty well.

    The results were mixed. He used a third-person POV in the ‘fragment’ sequences, but the voice was a bit too similar to the main narrator. It wasn’t confusing, given the context – but it was a bit bland.

    As storytelling, they worked quite well, but he was a master of the craft.

    Tom Clancy commonly used multiple third-person POVs, with abrupt breaks in action to go somewhere else. He got away with it in some books (notably “Debt of Honor”), but others, like “Red Rabbit”, were unbearably turgid. At the end of that one you wanted to roll on the nukes, to put the readers out of their misery.

    Clancy’s best work, “Without Remorse”, used much less fragmentation that the others, and contains his only really coherent character. That says something, I think.

    • Two more thoughts,pursuant to the above –

      1) For fragmentation to work, the plot has to be compelling and very carefully scripted.

      2) Likewise, different characters using different POVs have to be very distinct, and their stories told in uniquely different voices. (Barring the exceptions, like Clancy, who used an almost expository nonfiction style.)

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Andrew, I think the distinctive voices is key to fragmentation working. Without that, the characters are all muddled together.

      • Christine Dorman says:

        Andrew, you are exactly write in saying that a fragmented novel has to be “carefully scripted” to work. The few fragmented novels that I’ve read and liked (which have been few in number) were compelling, as you said, and very well put together. My own experience in writing MOONFISH was that it was like piece together a mosaic. I wrote the first draft, by the way, in linear form, then used flashback on and off in the second draft. It took that long to get a clear feel for what really needed to be in the story and what didn’t. Also, the first two drafts were written from a limited third person point of view. Then I started working on arranging the parts of the story. I don’t want to say which scenes went where because some “scenes” are in more than one place, but from a different point of view. Then it still took another two revisions to try to make the picture more of an impressionist’s painting rather than a mosaic. I loved writing the novel, but as I’ve said previously on this blog, I doubt I have another novel like that in me, so I when I became aware of the necessity of branding, I realized that wasn’t the novel I should shop.

  • Jenny Leo says:

    Just reading some of these descriptions of fragmented novels made me feel tired, lol. I’ve enjoyed a few novels with multiple points of view and time periods, but they need to be very clear about who and what and where. One whiff of a postmodern scramble and I’m outta there.

    My first novel has one POV and one time period. My current WIP has two POV characters and two time periods (historical and even-more-historical). That’s about as fragmented as I’m willing to get.

  • Another fragmented novel I read in the last couple of years is Grisham’s Calico Joe. It has three timeframes: the present; about 40 years prior in a certain month; and those same 40 years prior but a few months earlier, all told from the same POV character. I found it very difficult to keep the timeframes straight. It definitely detracted from my enjoyment of it.

  • Angela Mills says:

    I LOVED the Secret Keeper, but I read in big chunks like Wendy. I will usually read a book straight through, staying up until 2am if it’s really good :)

    I have an idea tucked away for what sounds like it might be a fragmented novel, though I didn’t know this term until I read your post today. I haven’t read the Frog Music, but your description made me think of the show, Lost. Fun to watch, but sounds too confusing to read. I like a challenge, but in this stage of life, if I have to think too hard, I’ll probably give up!

  • Jamie Chavez says:

    I agree with equating it to our fragmented lives; so now we have the Sesame Street school of novel-writing. :) There is quite a bit of it going around, and in the hands of an accomplished writer it can be lovely. (In lesser writers, though, fragmented just feels … lesser.)

    I’ve read several excellent fragmented books (Iain Pears is a master: An Instance of the Fingerpost and Dream of Scipio are both done this way) including all of Kate Morton. Forgotten Garden was my first of hers and I loved it. I adored Time Traveler’s Wife, too, once I quit worrying about the dates.

    But mostly I think writers just can’t figure out how to tell the story. I think “fragmented” has replaced omniscient POV, which seems to have gone out of favor.

  • Sue Harrison says:

    My last 3 published novels were fragmented,and I wrote them that way as a study of good vs evil within an intense headlong dive into two very diverse ancient Alaskan Native cultures. I based the several Voices I developed to tell my stories on my studies of several Athabascan languages and the Aleut language, their rhythms and the way they use tenses and cases. I loved writing these novels. They were a puzzle that captivated me for years. The critics were very kind. The sales? Ummm. Not nearly as good as my first trilogy, books that were not nearly as fragmented. My conclusion: most people read to relax and be entertained. Maybe I need to speak to that majority! :-)

  • “Cloud Atlas” was both a fragmented Movie and a Novel.

    Historical Fiction (past-present-future) never looked or read so good.

    If you see only ‘one movie’ this year . . . you really should get out more often.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I struggle with fragmented novels where each POV character is written in the first person; I continually mix up their stories and am often confused bu who did what.

    • Sue Harrison says:

      I agree, Peter. First person POV so seldom uses the POV character’s name, and the pronouns aren’t enough to prevent that cumbersome “who am I here?” question that can stop me dead when I’m reading a novel.

  • Allison Duke says:

    I recently read The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan and found it to be very fractured. It switched back and forth between time periods, POVs, and narrative styles. The writing was lush and beautiful, but I was frustrated by trying to figure out the story. The switches seemed to happen at very random times, so there never was any flow to the book. As a reader, I never could decide what the author was trying to accomplish with all that.

  • I chose a fragmented approach to my WIP because that’s how the story asked to be written. The fragments are back and forth in time, but always in the main character’s POV. Both critique groups liked it, but it took one member awhile to “get it.” It’s in the hands of the beta readers now, so I’m eager for their feedback.
    While I don’t recommend “The Time Traveler’s Wife” because of its language, I loved the challenge of understanding how the chapters fit together.
    I’m not sure, but I think even the classic, “A Tale of Two Cities” might fit as fragmented, as the scenes and main characters shift -between the two cities-until it all comes together.
    Just my thoughts.

    • Sue Harrison says:

      I think almost all of Dickens’s novels are fragmented, Barbara. He writes on such a huge canvas that I don’t know how else he would approach it. I love his work, but I do prefer his novels in which the main character is clearly defined (Oliver Twist) rather than just one of many (Bleak House).

  • Meleah Heavner says:

    Hi Janet,
    (I’m a newbie…) The Help comes to mind. I’m not sure if it would be considered fragmented, because it doesn’t switch around chronologically, but it does switch back and forth some, between various characters acting as the narrator. It doesn’t bother me, though, because whenever the narrator does change, it’s at the beginning of a new chapter that is named after that particular character, and since it’s clear that the main character of the overall story is a reporter gathering information from each person, it’s also clear to the reader why that specific method is being used. I can’t remember any other example right now, but I know I have read a few fragmented stories- or rather, attempted to, but then ended up not finishing them, due to the confusion. As it happens, I’ve had that concern about the story I’m currently writing, because it involves three women who end up forming a bond by which each helps the other two in solving their individual problem. Consequently, I’ve ended up finding it necessary to do quite a bit of rotating around, as each of them becomes the main character for awhile, in order to keep the plot moving. I’m not sure if that is going to end up being the best way to organize the story or not, but I haven’t been able to figure out a better way to do it, thus far. Say a prayer!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Meleah, welcome to our blog! I’m not sure I’d categorize The Help as a fragmented novel because the story is told linearly. I would describe it as having shifting POVs. To me, a fragmented novel would also play with time sequences, intermixing time frames or jumping back and forth between times.
      I’m finding, as I read more and more fragmented novels (because that seems to be a popular way to tell a story), that I’m okay with working through the fragmentation if I understand why the author is doing it. It’s when it seems like artifice that the style drives me nuts.
      For you, it sounds as though you aren’t writing a fragmented novel but are working with shifting POVs, which is a challenge to do well. The voices need to be distinctive, which The Help did so well that I never felt lost–even if the chapters hadn’t been labeled, I would have known who was “speaking” in that chapter.

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