What do The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel have in common? They’re all award-winning stories written by talented authors. Yet, these three books are also different genres, different styles of writing, different timelines and locations, different points of view, different everything! So what do these books have in common? What makes them a pleasure to read? In my opinion, these three stories share something vital. They all contain expertly woven story arcs from multiple storylines.
In the past, I have tried to write a novel with multiple storylines with limited success. Writing a novel with a linear narrative, written with one point of view—no flashbacks or flash-forwards—is difficult enough. But what do you do if you want more than one story arc? How do you manage it all without becoming completely frustrated?
A favorite author of mine shared their technique in a recent email. Now, I’m NOT going to share the pictures they took of their current work in progress. THEIR story isn’t MY story to tell. However, I LOVED this author’s technique for keeping multiple story arcs straight so much, I wanted to share this with you.
*Also, I use the terms “story arc” and “storyline” almost interchangeably. Yes, I KNOW that’s not always correct, but if you’re THAT nit-picky, you probably wouldn’t be reading this post in the first place. 😉
Before we begin, what do I mean by multiple story arcs?
In The Poisonwood Bible, we have first-person narration from five different characters, each character sharing their version of missionary life in the Belgian Congo in 1959. They tell their stories in alternating chapters. Sometimes the character opinions differ from one another. Sometimes they share flashbacks. Could you read one character’s narration and get a complete story? Maybe. Is this story confusing? No. Each character has their own story arc, although all the individual arcs become tied together by the end of the novel.
Sarah’s Key takes place in Paris, 1942, and in Paris, 2002. Again, the chapters alternate between characters. In this case, the 1942 story arc is told in third-person limited, while the 2002 story arc is told as a first-person narrative. Could you read each story arc separately and get a complete story? Absolutely! Is this story confusing? No. While each story arc is its own complete story, the two stories tie into each other very well and tell a bigger, more complete story as a whole.
Station Eleven takes multiple story arcs to an eleven! I counted SIX major story arcs (plus some minor one) woven together like the ultimate Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon tapestry—minus Kevin Bacon. This book is the most optimistic dystopian novel I’ve ever read told in third-person omniscient and third-person limited. Could you read each story arc separately and get a complete story? No. The story arcs tie into each another too tightly. Is this story confusing? No. While this book flip-flops back and forth in time—AND contains multiple story arcs—it’s deceptively easy to read and follow along. Each story arc is its own thing and also part of the collective. In fact, when I tried to pick this book apart in order to better understand the incredible crafting skills that went into Emily St. John Mandel‘s novel, I realized that Chapter 53 could have worked as the first chapter in an alternate universe. It almost reads like a prologue. But instead of putting it at the front of the book, she ties the book up with this chapter. Chapter 53 chronologically starts before Chapter One. It’s a gutsy move! I don’t recall seeing this done in any other book—and I read a LOT of books. It WORKS really well. There’s a couple of short, page-long chapters after this, but…yeah. The end of this book is super-satisfying, something you seldom see in dystopian novels.
So, how do writers do this?
Here’s a simple way to create multiple storylines:
- Write each storyline as its own separate story—beginning, middle, and end—with (temporary) chapters. Do this for as many story arcs as you think your story needs. If I were trying this for the first time, I’d stick with two linear storylines, to keep things less confusing, like Tatiana de Rosnay did for Sarah’s Key. I might consider Barbara Kingsolver‘s first-person technique. I’m SOOO not ready to try writing anything remotely as ambitious Emily St. John Mandel did for her expertly crafted novel, but a more experienced writer might be able to handle this. Don’t worry if your individual stories aren’t perfect. You’re going to have to adjust them to fit inside the bigger, main arc of your story, later on.
- Once you have ALL of your individual storylines written out, pick a color to represent each story, and print each one on its corresponding color of paper. For example, if Sarah’s Key were printed out this way, we could print the 1942 story arc on blue paper and the 2002 story arc on pink paper.
- Use a binder clip or paper clip to keep each “chapter” together. Write a brief description at the top of the first page of the chapters. What is this chapter about? Do this for every story arc. Don’t ignore this step. You don’t want to accidentally drop a section and have to go hunting for individual pieces of paper. We want to stay as organized as possible because things are about to get messy!
- Take your first storyline and lay the “chapters” out in one long row. A hallway is helpful, but any area where the pets/kiddos/other people won’t be tracking through is good, too. Now, do the same thing with the next storyline. Using Sarah’s key as an example, we’d have one long row of blue 1942 chapters and underneath, a row of 2002 pink chapters. Are you with me so far?
- Now, comes the fun/messy part. Pick up the individual chapters from each story arc in the order YOU think they should be arranged in. This is where you need to use your artistic flair and imagination. Which story arc will you start with? Will you go blue, pink, blue? How about blue, blue, pink, pink, blue? Will you tell the stories in a linear fashion or should they be arranged another way? This could take a long time to figure out. Or not. Every story and every writer is different.
- Once you have all of your chapters stacked into one, neat, rainbow-colored pile, it’s time to figure out how we’re going to transition between the various story arcs. Some authors create letters, emails, diary entries, or postcards, etc.—like epistolary novels.—between the chapters. Some novels use chapter headings to let the reader know who is speaking and when. Above all else, we don’t want to confuse our readers! You can use sticky notes to flag the places where you think you need to write a transition piece.
- Put the entire pile away until you’re ready to look at it with “fresh eyes.” You’re going to have to read through the entire stack. Does the arrangement make sense? Do the story arcs come together to create a bigger picture? Flag what needs “fixing” with sticky notes. You may need to write more chapters or even remove some chapters to make the novel flow. And that’s okay!
- Once you have everything roughly the way you think it should go, you can use your paper copy as a reference to electronically copy/paste your various story pieces into ONE coherent word document.
You’ll still need to edit the Franken-Novel and Beta readers are going to be a MUST, but this might be an easier (and faster) way to write a book with multiple storylines/arcs, especially for a visual person. It might be worth a try!
What are your thoughts? Have you ever tried to write a novel with multiple storylines, timelines, or perspectives? What worked for you…and what didn’t?
Let me know in the comments below!