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The Process: Intertwining Narratives

INTERTWINING NARRATIVES

GoochExtension here! It’s no secret that I love works of fiction with intertwining narratives. Anyone who’s read my Arrested Development write-ups or watched Avocado City will likely be aware of my fondness for stories where multiple narratives are woven together in intricate and unexpected ways. That moment when two seemingly disparate plot threads dovetail can be immensely satisfying to experience, and still sends chills down my spine when it’s done correctly.

Much like the previous installment on action scenes (which you should absolutely check out if you missed it, as Tereglith did a damn fine job putting it together), this edition of The Process certainly won’t be of use to every budding writer. If you traffic predominantly in short-form fiction (web-comics, short stories, etc.), you’re probably better off sticking solely to a single narrative, unless your work genuinely warrants otherwise. There’s also no rule that says that any piece of fiction with multiple narratives has to weave them together – there are plenty of brilliant works of fiction where the A-plot and B-plot never coalesce. Having your narratives purely compliment each other on a thematic level (or, conversely, playing opposing narratives off one another for contrast) is a perfectly valid approach.

But, if you are looking to try your hand at intertwining narratives, here are some things you may want to consider:

FORESIGHT IS KEY

Many writers like to put pen to paper without much of a plan in mind, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – we all have our own creative process, and if you’ve some experience under your belt, you probably already have your own ways in which you like to work. But, if you’re aiming to create something with intertwining narratives, winging it simply isn’t a viable option.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to have your story mapped out to the letter, with every single story beat set in stone before you begin. But it does mean you need to be thinking ahead. If you don’t have some ideas in mind as to where your story is going, and how you can weave your narratives together, you’re much more likely to fumble the landing when you try to do so. Which leads us to the next point…

BRAINSTORMING CAN BE A USEFUL TOOL

I personally find that the act of crafting a story really opens up when you begin to contemplate your options, and all the places you can take it – and brainstorming possible story routes can prove immensely helpful when it comes to figuring out just how and when your narratives can meet up.

Let’s say, for example, you’re writing a piece around a bank robbery – one that happens relatively early in the story. And let’s assume that two of the characters you’re following are the primary perpetrator and investigator of the act, and now you’re looking to branch out and incorporate more plot threads into your story. Maybe there’s an unrelated character you’re following – how do they tie in? Perhaps they witness the robbery, or the robbery affects someone close in their life. The former option allows them to be tied into the investigator’s narrative, since they’ll undoubtedly be interviewed in the investigation, while the latter opens up a possible revenge arc. Or maybe one of your characters is the security guard at the bank, who loses their job when the robbery happens – if the robbery has casualties, you have the options of exploring their guilt (and that of the perpetrator, if you’re writing the character as such) – or maybe this leads into a “job hunt” story that, in turn, brings them into one of the other character’s narratives. They could unknowingly begin working for or with the perpetrator, the aforementioned unrelated character, or someone else with some sort of tie to the event, or its subsequent investigation. You might want to consider introducing the investigator character before the robbery takes place, to make their presence feel more natural once the investigation begins – maybe their opening scene allows for other main characters to be introduced as well?

I’m not saying these are all good ideas, but the point is, once you start thinking about directions in which you can take your story and its characters, you’ll generally find there are probably far more possible options than you first realised (unless you’re dealing with a really limited scenario, of course – in which case, that may be a good sign that intertwining narratives isn’t the best route for your story). From there, you can ponder the ways in which your characters might cross paths, and begin to single out the scenarios will work best for your story. Ideally, you’ll probably want to lean into the options that best contemplate the tone and themes of your existing ideas (ie. if two possible story routes both see disparate characters dealing with similar emotions, you can mirror them off one another – or conversely, you can do the exact opposite with your two most diametrically opposed premises, for example, juxtaposing a “slippery slope” tale of regret against a redemption arc).

BE MINDFUL OF THE BIG PICTURE

Once you have a good idea of how your narratives will play out and just how and when they’re going to line up, you may find yourself running into some structural issues. For example, the point of intersection between your A plot and your B plot may occur 20% of the way through the former, but 50% of the way through the latter. If you’re juggling several narratives, you’re probably going to find that certain things will need to happen in one plot thread before certain things can happen in another – the more intertwining you attempt, the more attention you’re going to need to pay to your story’s timeline, and in turn, its structure (which ties back to the installment I wrote on story structure a couple of months ago).

There are many ways you can handle this. For instance, you could reduce some of your characters to more minor roles so their absence at certain points of the story isn’t as much of an issue. Or you could expand on some of your story ideas so that more of the A plot plays out before it needs to intersects with the B plot (though be sure not to confuse retooling with padding out, because the latter will almost certainly be a detriment to your narrative flow). There are many other options, of course, but ultimately, if your story isn’t working, you will likely need to go back to the drawing board – and there’s no shame in that! The end result will likely be far better than if you try to force something that just doesn’t fit.

CONVOLUTION IS BOTH A FRIEND AND A FOE

The risky thing about having multiple narratives unite and affect each other is, there’s a certain suspension of disbelief required. After all, this method of storytelling is heavily reliant on different events coinciding – the likelihood of unrelated characters being in the same places at just the right time, or the actions of one character directly impacting another character’s life, can often come at the expense of realism. And you either need to embrace it wholeheartedly, or do whatever you can to make these coincidences plausible.

Personally, I’ve always opted for the former option – though my work tends to be more comedic in nature, so the ridiculous labyrinthine of unlikely events winds up being a big part of the joke itself. This can be done by simply lampshading it – having your characters overtly comment on the improbability of what’s transpiring – or by making your piece so absurd in nature that your audience is aware of its overall detachment from reality.

The latter option, however, requires a more subtle touch. You’ll likely need to sew some narrative seeds very early to establish credible reasons for how your narratives can plausibly coalesce – and likely craft characters that are more directly related to one another. In either case, the thought process is still the same: You’re thinking ahead about how your audience is going to react when your narratives intertwine, and adjusting your work to account for it.

OTHER TIPS

  • This type of storytelling is largely an act of juggling. As such, you need to be aware of where all of your story balls are at all times. Some writers may find it useful to make a chart or another type of visual age to help keep track. I also find it’s helpful to go back and revisit what you’ve already written for your story as you progress – this way, you’re less likely to drop one of your story balls.
  • This type of storytelling is also something that’s honed with experience. If it’s your first time attempting a story with intertwining narratives, maybe start small until you have a better feel for it.
  • As satisfying as it is to experience multiple narratives coming together in clever and unexpected ways, your work can’t be entirely focused on those moments. It doesn’t matter how inspired your pay-offs are if they’re not serving a fulfilling, engaging story in the first place.

 

If you have a suggestion for a future installment of The Process, and/or would like to volunteer to host one, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments!