Does Your Multiple Storyline Novel Work? Questions to Ask Yourself | Jane Friedman

Does Your Multiple Storyline Novel Work? Questions to Ask Yourself | Jane Friedman

Photo by Aditya Wardhana on Unsplash

Today’s post is by editor Tiffany Yates Martin (@FoxPrintEd). Join her on Friday, Sept. 15 for the online class Handling Multiple Storylines.

Writing a cohesive, layered, deeply engaging story can feel like conducting an orchestra where you’re also composing and arranging the music and playing every instrument. Add in multiple storylines—more than one POV or timeline—and the task becomes exponentially more complex.

Multiple storylines come with even more challenges than writing a single compelling story thread, but they can also offer faceted, layered stories that deepen the reader’s engagement and experience.

Whether you’re a plotter, a pantser, or something in between, a little forethought and planning can help prepare you for the challenges writing multiples can present. and asking yourself a few key questions can help you ascertain whether multiples are working in your story.

Are multiples even necessary?

Oh, sure, it sounds like a fun idea—tell a particular story from the point of view of all the players involved, or weave together different timelines that intersect or affect one another. But not every story lends itself to the format. Watch for the warning signs that your story may not be the multiple you thought it was:

  • The storylines aren’t meaningfully connected to each other. There has to be a reason for these stories to be unspooling in the same manuscript. How do they affect, impact, or reflect one another? What makes each one intrinsic—what ties them together into one cohesive story arc, theme, or idea? Do they build on one another? Illuminate each other? Intersect, correlate, or even present alternate realities of a single storyline? How would the overarching story arc be diminished or fundamentally changed without all the storylines you’ve included?
  • One storyline or character is consistently more fun to write—and more engaging to read—than the other. Almost every story will be difficult to write at some point—you may stall out, dead-end, or get lost in a detour. But if you or your early readers find yourself repeatedly struggling to get through one point of view or thread of the story, you might consider whether it’s actually meant to be a separate storyline. Writing (or reading) that feels like a slog can be the GPS equivalent of “make a U-turn”—a signal that you’ve gone off course and the route lies elsewhere.
  • One thread peters out or you’re padding. If a storyline wraps up too early, or you find yourself struggling to fill chapters for it, that can be a warning flag. You may be trying to create a separate storyline from something that ought to remain backstory, or you may have a supporting character(s) who isn’t meant to be a POV character.

One way to check this is to ask: What overall story are you telling, and whose story is it? Defining these answers clearly can help you determine which threads are intrinsic—as can the next question.

Is each storyline fully developed?

A separate POV or timeline in a story is a promise to readers: that this thread is important, that it’s essential to the story in some key way.

If you introduce a POV, readers make an unconscious assumption that this character is essential—and thus we expect them to be fully fleshed out, intrinsic to the story, and to travel a clear arc. If the story encompasses multiple storylines or timelines, readers expect that each one will be fully developed, cohesive, and have its own story arc and resolution.

If not, it may be a sign that that particular thread doesn’t need to be a separate storyline, but might perhaps work better woven into the main story.

How does the story unspool?

Structuring multiple storylines has been commonly diagnosed as a leading cause of anxiety, depression, hair loss, fatigue, and digestive issues.

Okay, maybe not in any medical journal, but any author who’s tried wrangling multiples can likely attest to the frustration factor of not only giving each storyline a compelling, fully developed story structure in its own right, but also weaving them together into one effective and cohesive whole.

Multiple-storyline story structure shouldn’t feel random or disjointed—ideally you will lead your readers fluidly between them so that each thread heightens, illuminates, reflects, and/or adds impact to the other(s). That means considering not only the structure and arc of each independently, but how they interrelate throughout the manuscript.

One protagonist may be “up” when the other is down and vice versa, or their arcs may parallel one another—but whatever is happening to one character in their thread should be germane to the other character(s)’ experience and arc in the other.

Romance novels, for instance, often alternate the hero’s and heroine’s POVs in a linear, chronological structure where each storyline offers another facet of or perspective on the other, but both move the overarching story forward, and each character is playing an essential role in furthering the arc of the other. In multiple timeline historical, a “past” thread often sheds light on a later or present-day thread.

In Between Me and You, Allison Winn Scotch alternates both POVs and timelines in telling the story of a couple’s courtship and eventual divorce from each of their perspectives: The wife’s story unfolds chronologically forward from meeting her husband as her career as an actor skyrockets, alternating with his thread told chronologically backward from the end of their marriage, when his once-promising career as a filmmaker is also on the rocks. When the two timelines intersect, the POVs stay separate but the timelines run together.

But a linear structure is far from the only possible choice for multiples. They may be “chunked,” with multiple chapters from one storyline grouped together (as in Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half); or they may be “tree branched,” following seemingly diffuse threads that all lead back to one central trunk (as in Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). Or, one storyline may serve as a framing device for a main storyline, as in Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys or Camille DiMaio’s The Way of Beauty.

Some stories use combinations of these and other techniques. Anthony Doerr in All the Light We Cannot See, for instance, alternates POV chapters chronologically in certain sections of the book, and also offers a linear progression of multiple timelines, one of which spans years while the other spans days.

There are no “rules” for how to structure multiple storylines—except that you should ensure that your structure allows you to answer yes to both of the following questions:

Do you reorient readers early in each storyline?

Shifting between storylines can be confusing to readers, and you may risk losing them.

It’s crucial to let readers know not only which thread they’re in early in each transition, but to offer “connective tissue” to remind readers where you left the protagonist of each thread when they last saw them, and—if time has passed in the storyline—what has happened to the characters since.

The former can be accomplished through devices as simple as time or date lines, chapter titles, or section headings (for instance, a character’s name). But you can also do it with context—details about each story, the characters, historical facts, the setting, etc.—or with character voice (as in Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures).

Do readers stay engaged in each storyline throughout?

If readers don’t feel fully invested in a storyline, they may put your book down (and not pick it back up). Making sure readers stay fully engaged with each thread is largely a function of all the above—making each storyline essential, fully developed, and tightly structured.

But it’s also a more granular challenge: How do you engage readers deeply chapter after chapter, and keep them hooked and invested even as you move the “camera” away to do the same thing in each additional storyline—over and over again for the entire duration of the story?

Just as in chapter and section ends of single-storyline stories, do you leave readers with some unresolved tension, a question, or some other type of “cliffhanger” each time you transition to another thread? It’s especially crucial with multiples to end in medias res as well as begin there. You’re planting a hook each time you draw readers away from one story that will leave them eager to return to it—and then you take them exactly where they don’t want to go at that moment: to another thread.

But you drop another hook there, beginning the new thread also in medias res, plunging readers into the action, keeping momentum and stakes strong, and building them even stronger as the storyline unspools—before you repeat the process all over again.

Doing this consistently throughout results in the “unputdownable” stories where readers can’t stop turning pages, desperate to know what’s happening in one thread even as they get powerfully sucked into another.

Handling Multiple Storylines with Tiffany Yates Martin. $25 webinar. Friday, September 15, 2023. 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Eastern.

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, join us on Friday, Sept. 15 for the online class Handling Multiple Storylines.

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers. She is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She is a regular contributor to writers’ outlets like writer’s Digest, Jane Friedman, and writer Unboxed, and a frequent presenter and keynote speaker for writers’ organizations around the country. Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com.

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