Can you have two independent storylines in your novel that only merge near the end? Or are you going to confuse readers if you do that?
Mike posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I just found your blog while researching writing techniques, but I love what I’ve seen so far. Thanks for everything you do.
Now my question: I have been writing for a short time (approx. 7 mos) but have decided to undertake a huge fiction project that spans at least three novels, possibly four.
A pivitol part of the first two books is the translation of an ancient journal. This leads to the first book containing two storylines that merge into one as the story reaches its climax. The best way that I can think of to distinguish between them is to insert lumps of journal entries as alternating chapters. There wouldn’t be as many journal entry chapters as the regular story ones, but toward the end the journal entries would stop as the truth is revealed.
What is your opinion on doing it this way? Would this work successfully or Leave the reader too confused to continue? With little writting experience, I’m not sure how many assumptions we should make about the readers. Any insight would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time.
Randy sez: Mike, it sounds like you’ve taken on a pretty ambitious project here — a 3 or 4 book project for your first novel is quite an undertaking. But J.K. Rowling did OK with her 7-book first project, so it’s possible to do quite decently in a big project like this.
My rule of thumb is that readers are smart. If you give them enough information, they can deal with multiple storylines without any problem.
Tom Clancy tends to do this a lot. Several of his novels include characters (in one case a large tree) that don’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the story. Then, near the end of the book, the person (or tree) converges with the main storyline. I don’t recall ever being confused by this.
So Mike, I think you’re free to do what you want with these journal entries, as long as you make it clear that that’s what they are. You can do that using some sort of a dateline at the top of each journal entry. If I were doing it, I’d play it very straightforwardly, with a dateline something like this:
From the journal of Leonardo da Vinci, May 23, 1512
I assume Mike isn’t writing about Leonardo, but you get the idea.
Generally, your reader is smart and can handle radical changes in time, place, and point of view without any confusion — as long as you make it clear what each time, place, and POV actually is.
This does not mean your reader WANTS you to skip around willy-nilly. The grand illusion you are giving your reader is that she is in some particular time, at some particular place, and inside some particular person’s skin. Your reader wants to get comfortable and experience that time, place, and soul for at least a full scene. Once the scene is over, she doesn’t mind going somewhere else.
If you avoid jerking your reader around too often, she’ll be happy.
What does “too often” mean? That varies from one reader to the next. I shoot for an average scene length of about four pages. Some of my scenes go as long as ten or twelve pages. Some are as short as a paragraph (during a high-action sequence of scenes). But an average of four pages (1000 words) is what I feel comfortable with.
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