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.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Being able to handle it is one thing, liking the approach is another. I have to say that every time the blurb on a book even suggest that they are doing what Mike is planning, I put it down and look for something else.
More generally I find that I identify more with one plot line then the others, and find interleaved chapters annoying. From my point of view the other plot lines become filler I have to get through before getting back to the real story.
My most extreme dislike is however reserved for books that follow a protagonist and an antagonist in this way. Resulting in me as reader knowing what the antagonist has planned before the protagonist does. I would much rather share the discovery with the hero.
Colleen Shine Phillips says
Francine Rivers did this in her novel, The Scarlet Thread. It totally worked for that story. Not everyone has the experience of this author, but the point is, when well done, it makes for a great novel.
Pauline Youd says
Hi Randy. It’s Pauline, one of your mentees at Mt. Herman a couple of years ago. Your answer to Mike’s question helped me, too. I’m writing the story of Ezra and Nehemiah (Coming Home). Since Ezra doesn’t actually appear on the scene until over half way through the book of Ezra, I wanted each important character to tell his part first. I also wanted to include the very interesting and sometimes funny letters that go back and forth between the opponents to building the temple and the current Persian emperors. Your suggestion of dated journal entries shows me I can do what I really wanted to do.
Tammy Bowers says
Great answers, Randy. Your blog is such a good resource for new writers, I really appreciate your willingness to share your expertise.
Daniel Smith says
Good question and a good answer. I have two cents to add:
When I have thought through this concept in the past, I realized a lot of popular TV shows do this. CSI for example. They will almost always have two independent story lines (theirs rarely come together) so that they can focus on one, build it up to a climax point, then switch to the other after the commercial. Back and forth they do this until one resolves and then the other. It’s a useful technique. You can do the same more or less by alternating chapters though the rules aren’t set in stone.
One other point: To avoid confusing your reader, do not do stream-of-consciousness or relate information our of sequence. Note I said sequence, not chronological order. In most storylines these will be the same thing, but there is a sequence to sharing and relating information to the reader. Stay true to this and your readers should have no trouble following multiple storylines.
On a related side note, I just finished reading “The Hunt for Red October” for the first time. Randy is absolutely right about Clancy. So Mike, you might want to read one of his novels to see how it’s done. If you would like to see how this is done in a fantasy setting, I recommend Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy which is written in a similar style. Just remember to pull all the threads tightly together at the end.
Daniel Smith says
out- of sequence.
Greg Sisco says
I’d say you’re fine to do this. Like Randy said, as a general rule, readers are smart. When you write with confidence, they tend to come along for the ride. There will always be people like Konrad who simply find that it is not to their taste. Personally I love multiple storylines that intertwine or converge near the end. All you can do is tell your story in the best way you know of that it can be told, and if you write a great novel, the rest will follow.
Think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is considered one of the great classics. It is really readable, although there are several story lines, not only two. (Almost all of them journal entries, btw.)