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AO3 Story Organization: Section, Chapter, Story, Series or Collection?

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I see a lot of works on AO3 that are structured in ways that feel a little strange to me, and so I’d like to talk about how I organize my writing.

Decision process: When to break a section, end a chapter or end a story

For me, a story is one piece with a reasonably-well-defined beginning and end. Depending on length, it may or may not have breaks or chapters within it, but if it does have chapters, I will make some attempt (not rigid) to make those chapters roughly similar in length. Some of my stories have 10,000 word chapters, some works have chapters that end up around 1000 words per. In one series, there are stories with no chapters that are 10k and stories that are 8-10k and have 7 chapters. But I rarely have a story that will have a super short chapter and then super long chapters, simply because that’s not how I usually write. It’s not wrong to write variable length chapters, but that’s not how I usually do things.

Sometimes chapters are determined by POV… for example, I might only change POV when I change chapters. Sometimes chapters are determined by day, one chapter per day, for example, or by plot elements (i.e. competitions, vacations, major life events.) Chapters are a way of breaking stories up into more manageable subunits, episodes, installments. I’ve read a few books that simply had no chapters, and it is honestly kind of exhausting as a reader. It’s easier to process fiction in segments.

The longer the chapters, the more likely I’m going to use section breaks. Section breaks are a good way of skipping the boring bits. We don’t always need to know exactly how someone got from point A to point B unless it’s actually interesting and relevant to the plot. We don’t need to know every moment. Often if I’m getting stuck or bored with writing, it’s time for a section break and to write the next interesting bit. My beta readers will very occasionally ask “but how did we get from point A to point B” but that doesn't happen often. I have no hard and fast rule about section breaks other than I DO put them in if there’s a time gap, change of scenery or a break in the action.

Now what is a hard and fast rule for me is that each story is its own. Chapters are not well-suited to “one chapter per story” when the stories are not actually connected to each other. Lots of people use chapters this way, and as a reader it is frustrating for me for a variety of reasons.

  • Kudos: I want to give each story kudos! If you put multiple stories as chapters in one larger story, you only get one kudo for all of them!
  • Confusion: It is disappointing to me if it looks like there’s another part to a story and then we’re in a whole different AU.
  • Trigger warnings: Your whole story gets every trigger warning for every chapter. If people have a hard “nope” on a specific subject, they’re going to give your entire “story” a pass, even if they’d happily read the chapter that isn’t about whatever trope they avoid.
  • Fandom confusion: Putting all your fanfics in one story as different chapters even if they’re in different fandoms is a huge turnoff. I don’t read most crossovers, even if I’m familiar with all the relevant media, and if I see fandoms I don’t recognize, don’t enjoy or don’t care about in the fandoms section, I’m not even going to open it. It may up your hit count for that story, but it puts off more readers than you get.  

 

We have two other huge tools for keeping stories associated with each other.

SERIES are best for multiple stories in a common universe. They may be tied together thematically, but it’s best, IMO, if stories in a series are well-connected with a common backstory. They don’t necessarily have to be linear, it’s not uncommon to have a side story that runs concurrently with other stories, say, from a different character’s point of view. It’s not even completely out of line to do a “what if” different version of a story within a series, au of an au, for example. And series might be useful for “I have a vast store of headcanons on Tumblr that aren’t tied together but it doesn’t make sense for them to be entirely separate and they’re really short.” But putting those in separate stories makes it much easier for readers to pick and chose, and will make it so that people who would nope out of one story in ten don’t nope out of all ten because the tags are so complex. A series is an outstanding way to group together a bunch of stories that tie together and depend on one another for chronology and plot. Series are fantastic for helping people understand what order you want them to read things in.

A better place for a large number of headcanons or unrelated shorts might be a collection. That’s also a good place to put together a bunch of stories from different people in a similar or same au universe, or stories based on a theme or prompt. I have, for example, a public collection that is for ficcy recipes from Check, Please, including food, and another overlapping series that is my booze recipes only. Collections can be set up in ways that other people can easily add to them, or not.

My Merlin fic (41 chapters and a prologue, see the first chapter to see how I dealt with the fact that AO3 doesn’t allow prologue numbering) is in someone else’s collection for the Big Bang it was a part of.

One rule of thumb might be that if it matters what order a group of stories are read in and/or they’re connected, put them in a series. If it doesn’t matter, or they aren’t connected (in the same fic universe), put them in a collection.

 

So, some examples and why they’re organized the way they are:

In the series, Actually, I Do Make the Rules , I have six separate stories. The first one was supposed to be a one-off, is less than 3000 words and is focused tightly on one character’s perspective. It has a distinct flavor and voice. The second story is completely different in structure, voice and POV. It covers a much larger time-scale, is more introspective, and is from a different POV. It’s about one person’s experience of a specific thing over a long period of time.

The third story has two different POVs within it, but is entirely about one specific event. It has a distinct and different feel from the two stories which precede it, and while the POV shifts at the scene break, it’s not really long enough for chapters and doesn’t easily break into them, and it is tightly focused on one event and reactions to that event.

The fourth story is about a specific event but is longer, and takes place over 7 chapters, most of which are pretty similar in length (except the last: first and last chapters are OFTEN exceptions in length). There are a few scene breaks in some of the chapters, but it is pretty arbitrary and more about length than anything, for readability purposes, whether a given break is a chapter or scene break.

The fifth and sixth stories are actually closely tied together, and in print would be part one and part two of a novel. On a TV show, stories like that end up being “two-parters.” The primary thing that separates them as stories is chapter titles (I took all the chapter titles from lullabies, with the first part having one lullaby and the second having another) and that part 1 ends on a dramatic climax that needs a breather after it. It’s actually more a 3-part story, but the chapter titles were too good to give up.

Now, all of these stories except the last two are “complete unto themselves” and work pretty well even if you haven’t read the others in the series, but they are chronologically linked and form a common narrative. I have a handful of other stories in that same fandom that are not linked together, stand on their own and aren’t a series.

In Translations on Ice , I started with one story, thought it was a stand alone, but added a chapter to it later. I might someday add a third chapter to that story, but there was a pretty big shift in tone between Lost in Translations and Translations over Distance . The second story has short chapters, covers a chunk of time quickly, and the pacing is distinct from the first story. The next (currently two, will be three) stories are more closely tied, a trilogy of sorts, but each story has very different pacing, mood, and length. The first story has no chapters, the next has 16. And there will be a side story or two about other characters which will stay in the series for the reader’s sake, but which won’t have the same titling schema.

Putting them all as chapters in one long fic would be awkward because the chapters are so incredibly diverse in length and tone across the series.

Now, I have three fandoms that I write in that involve mlm relationships. And people who like one of my stories and want to read mlm stories might want a heads up. It would not be inappropriate for me to make a collection that included my Yuri!!! On Ice fics, my Check, Please fics that are about Bitty and Jack, and my Merlin novel. Or to put my “Fics that have been partially posted on AO3 but are available in full elsewhere” in a different collection. Fics can be in as many collections as you want, though for practical reasons it’s probably polite to keep it to 3 or fewer.

There’s no need or benefit to stuff “every fic I wrote for X fandom” into one collection, because AO3 already lets people see all your fic from one fandom, simply by clicking on your name and then clicking on the relevant fandom.

Lastly, how short is too short to be its own story?

TRICK QUESTION. If it is complete, distinct from other stories you’ve written, and not a smaller part of a narrative whole… it is its own thing and can be a single story. 100 word drabbles can be their own stories. AO3’s database doesn’t care. And as a reader, I’d really prefer to see every individual thing be its own individual thing than get a lot of unrelated things as individual chapters in a single stories.

You could have a haiku that was its own story.

It could be related to several other works as part of a series and still be its own story! It’s really okay. I tend to err on the side of separating things that are not closely related. There are lots of ways of associating them if they’re somewhat connected but not part of a whole.

 

I hope this helps! Let me know if you have other questions about writing, organizing or importing stories to AO3.