A new twist on plotting multiple narratives

It’s always great when you figure out a method for something that works – even if it only works for you. Since I’ve been furloughed from my day job, I’ve plotted out three new manuscripts. And I’ve noticed that I have really figured out how I like to do it, based off the massive learning curve that was my first novel (which I wrote a few years ago and is currently being submitted to publishers by my agent).

I’ve also realized that whether I’m writing women’s fiction with a magic realism premise or reimagining a romantic British classic, I have my formula for narrative structure that I prefer. (At least, that’s the case with the four manuscripts I’ve figured out thus far.) And that is with either two or three narrative storylines, in two point-of-view (first and third) types and in both past and present tenses – such as one narrative in first person present (especially if this is the “today” story), and one in third person past. So when I plot my novels, I have at least two storylines that I need to weave into each other.

When I wrote the first drafts of my debut novel, I made the mistake of having one narrative going from start to near-finish cliffhanger about halfway through the book, then part 2 was the other narrative in its entirety, with part 1 resolved right at the end. At the time I thought it worked, but in fact it didn’t offer enough variation or interest to the reader, with no other subplots going on. It was only when I got some expert help that I realized I needed to weave the narratives together, and I wished I had plotted that out from the start, as the changes created a bunch of plot problems that needed fixing.

So that’s what I resolved to do with these latest works. However, it’s hard to plot weaving stories, because each narrative also has to have a continuous flow. It’s very easy to lose track of what’s going on. This simple trick is how I managed it:

  • Plot all of narrative 1’s chapters first. Make sure that, even though this isn’t the whole book, this single narrative works as a story in its own right. I write about three or four sentences on the general idea of what will happen in each chapter. I do this in Word, so it’s super easy to change.
  • Plot all of narrative 2’s chapters – again, just a few lines for each.
  • I then put all of narrative 1 in a certain colour type – say, red – and the other in blue. You’ll want them to be easy to differentiate.
  • Then the cutting and pasting begins. You need to take each chapter and squeeze it into its spot between other narrative chapters. It’s not always the case that each chapter will alternate one for one. When do you want readers to first get into the head of narrator 2? Do you want alternating chapters, or bigger chunks of story? For example, my debut doesn’t drop the bomb of the second narrator even existing until about a third of the way through the story, and then she gets a chunk of her own, but the chapter-swapping becomes more rapid towards the end of the book as the pace ramps up.

Of course, there’s always a really good reason why I have two (or even three) narratives – even those that tell stories that are decades apart. There’s a deep connection. Some kind of device that makes the reader understand why we’ve been seeing the world through two character’s eyes. Sometimes it’s a plot twist that comes close to the end, finally revealing that connection; other times, it’s perhaps more obvious, such as the two partners in a relationship and how each character views what happens. In the case of a big plot twist (such as a “she was her daughter all along!” type thing), then you need to figure out the order of your chapters so as not to reveal the wrong thing at the wrong time.

I’m sharing all this not because my method is in any way complex or groundbreaking, and certainly not because I recommend other people do it this way. Many writers don’t plot at all! But I’ve learned through my interactions with other would-be authors in Facebook groups and at conferences that many writers don’t even know where to start. So if this author can help even one other newbie with a prompt for how to plot – even if they end up going in a different direction – I’ll consider this a blog well spent.