Writing a dual narrative
I’ve always enjoyed reading dual narratives, possibly because I’m greedy – it’s a way of feeling like you’re reading two books at once. All my novels so far are dual narratives, and I knew when I started my first novel, The Things We Never Said that I wanted to interweave two stories, gradually revealing the link between them.
Writers choose dual narratives for various reasons. You may want to present two sides of the same story, to show the same events from two characters’ viewpoints in order to make the reader question the accuracy of each, as in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Or you may want to show the same character in a different time period – I’ve used this myself more than once. Often, we use dual narratives to highlight perennial themes or to show parallels and differences across generations or cultures. A really great example is Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, which is told as four dual narratives – the viewpoints of four Chinese mothers contrasted with those of their Chinese-American daughters.
My own decision to use dual narratives is based primarily on my desire to show how events in the past can impact on the present, but also because I like to offer the reader some variety. I like to use two different voices, but I also like to have strand that show different times and places.
Initially, I wrote the first novel in three parts – Maggie’s story, then Jonathan’s story, and then a short section tying things together. It wasn’t a good way of presenting the finished novel. If your reader has spent the last hundred and fifty or so pages engaging with a particular set of characters, it’s then difficult for her to move seamlessly into the company of another set of characters without it feeling like a wrench.
I’ve had this reading experience myself, and even when I’ve finally managed to engage with the new section, it’s often only after a sense of needing to persevere. Although I wanted my reader to be reluctant to leave each thread, I didn’t want her to feel disappointed at having to move to the other strand, and I certainly didn’t want it to feel like hard work to continue reading my novel! So I decided that the best approach would be to interweave the two narratives from the start.
It was a daunting task, and at several points, as I sat on the floor of my study surrounded by pages of the novel, I felt it was an impossible one. But then the novelist Jane Rogers gave me some very good advice: ‘Don’t look for connections initially,’ she said. ‘Just look for clashes.’ So I did, and happily I didn’t find any, so although my first attempt weaving the stories together (a Maggie chapter then a Jonathan chapter and so on) didn’t work brilliantly, it didn’t not work, so I was able to feel more confident about trying again. That was the point at which I abandoned my original chapters and printed out scenes instead. I was then able to restructure the chapters and make them much shorter. This allowed me to make most of the connections I was beginning to notice. For example, after a chapter in 1963 ends with an emergency dash to hospital, I was able to start the next chapter with a similar emergency dash in the present day; although this one has a completely different outcome. There aren’t many such connections, but it’s extremely satisfying when it happens.
As well as similarities, you need differences, and changing the structure of your chapters in this way allows you to juxtapose lighter moments with darker ones so that your reader is able to experience a range of emotions.
It goes without saying that the voices in each narrative must be different and distinct. You can do this by making the characters speak in completely different ways, perhaps reflecting a different social or educational background. But this can be limiting, so you need other ways of showing difference. The Things We Never Said has a male and a female protagonist, and both narratives are third-person, so it’s immediately obvious whose story we’re hearing at any one time. I perhaps chose the easy(ish) option for this book.
With The Secrets We Left Behind, the two narratives involved the same character, but with 30 years between them. To make the distinction, I used a first person voice for the present-day character, and a third person voice for her 17-year-old self.
In What She Lost, I have a much trickier set up – there are two main characters, Eleanor and her mother, Marjorie, and we hear from each of them at various periods in their lives. For this novel, I relied heavily on making each time period as clear as I could, but I also focused closely on the characters, on their emotions, on the way they thought and felt, because these are the true differences between people who may appear similar on the surface.
It’s worryingly easy to become confused when reading a novel that jumps from one narrative to another, so it’s really important to orientate the reader right at the start of each new chapter. Maggie O’Farrell’s first novel, After You’d Gone, jumps about all over the place in terms of who’s speaking and when; but she’s brilliant at establishing who, where and when at the beginning of each new section. I’ve re-read that book a couple of times just to observe how she does it!
The dual narrative can be tricky, but weaving your two stories together can be extremely satisfying for you and your readers, so it’s definitely worth the effort. Here are my tips for making it work:
- Write each narrative separately first.
- Introduce both narratives quickly so that readers know they’ll be moving between the two.
- Keep chapters short.
- Look for clashes first, not connections – you’ll spot connections and similarities later and you’ll be able to tweak your chapter or scene endings to emphasise them.
- Don’t be wedded to your original chapters – look at scenes and shuffle things around if necessary.
- Make sure you have differences as well similarities. Changing the structure of your scenes and chapters will allow you to juxtapose lighter moments with darker ones so that your reader is able to experience a range of emotions.
- Make the voices distinctive and different. The voice should come from the heart of the character, but the same character will have a different voice at 20 than at 40. Even if you have two 45-year-old female characters, make them as different as possible – social background, worldview, friends, interests, and it’s particularly important to differentiate their language, both for internal thought and dialogue.
- Orientate the reader quickly the start of each new section.
- Be prepared to have several goes at getting the order right – you’ll get there in the end!