Historia’s resident agony aunt, Dr Darwin, answers another question about the craft (and art) of writing. This time: how to write a parallel narrative novel which grabs – and keeps – your reader.
Dear Dr Darwin,
I have fantastic idea for a novel which is made of two almost entirely separate historical narrative threads plaited together, rather than interacting plot-strands making up a single narrative. But various friends have said they don’t like dual timelines, parallel narratives and that kind of thing, and now my confidence is wobbling: I don’t know whether I can do it, I don’t know how to do it, and I don’t know if anyone will buy it when I have.
Daunted of Delingbole
Was it Elizabeth David who said that if your friends don’t like garlic, get new friends? Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Barry Unsworth’s Stone Virgin, and Tobias Hill’s The Love of Stones all work this way, as does my own The Mathematics of Love. And that’s before we’ve counted novels like William Boyd’s Restless or A.S Byatt’s Possession, where documents – letters, poems, an account or apologia – form one strand which sets off and shapes the other’s action. And I’d argue that it’s a particularly rich field for any writer whose interest in historical fiction is founded in a sense of history as a continuum of change.
But if you want to sell books it’s as well to understand why some readers don’t like this kind of thing. The thing is, a novel which alternates sections of Story A, with sections of Story B, is going against the fundamental principle that everything in a narrative relates to the same central story. So it’s tacitly asking much more of the reader than the single-storied novel.
First, we must hold on to and follow the story of A even though it keeps being paused while we’re whisked off into the world and people of B; then when we’re dropped back in A we must pick it all up again. And if we love B more than A, or vice versa, we have to put up with the one we don’t like, till we get back to the one we do. If one or both narratives are also told out of their internal chronological order, the reader has to work even hard to assemble what actually happened in each.
But by breaking the convention of a single central story, you are also implicitly saying that your two stories are related: that there are riches to be found in the interaction, inter-illumination, even friction, between the two: not just in story and plot, but in situations, characters, themes, prose and ideas.
So our extra work in assembling each story separately despite interruptions, is only rewarded if we simultaneously do the opposite, reading across the strands to find those riches. For a story-minded species, it’s the cognitive equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy.
So my first suggestion is that you must not only make sure the riches are there, you then need to build in enough hints, echoes and parallels, as well as plot connections, to help us find them. You may need to go right back and ask yourself why, really, you want to do this – because that must be why the reader will want to read it.
A lot of how you get the reader to read the strands together is in the sequencing and juxtaposition of the sections, so you may need to plan rather more than usual, either before the first draft, or once you have the two stories individually developed and pinned down.
Remember, too, that in the first chapters of a novel readers are open to any form of storytelling, and eager – unconsciously – to intuit what kind of reading it needs, as well as who’s important and what’s at stake. We’ll learn anything, if the book teaches us clearly – but after that it’s rarely a good idea to change how it works.
Another risk is that since you’ve carefully built the narrative drive of A so we care about the characters and want to know what happens to them, when you switch us to B, we’re grumpy and frustrated. Indeed, one agent rejected an early version of The Mathematics of Love because she said that readers resent having to read the strand they don’t care about. Certainly, don’t set up an artificial cliff-hanger at the switch: we’ll feel manipulated. Make sure that each section of A does find a satisfying, chapter-ending sort sort of climax or natural pause, so we don’t mind leaving it for B.
And as we land in B, we need to relax before we can immerse, so make sure you anchor us firmly and quickly. You could head the section with the name of B’s main character or setting, if that seems appropriate. But certainly a date at the top, alone, is not enough, because a lot of readers just don’t read them, any more than most of us read chapter numbers. Plus, for a date to mean anything, we have to remember what the previous date of this strand was, and/or how it’s different from the other one, and then do the maths; none of which is what we bought the book for.
Essentially, if a reader ever wakes up in the middle of one of your pages and thinks, “Hang on – where am I?” you’ve failed in your basic job. So the real glue for keeping the reader not only anchored, but getting the most out of such a novel, in the text itself.
At a switch all we know is that we’re about to be somewhere we weren’t before, so my rule of thumb is that the first sentence of B, after a switch, should have at least two things or qualities which couldn’t possibly belong to A, and vice versa: names, objects, places, voicy-ness. This need for specifics is particularly easy to overlook if you kick off with a line of dialogue, because without anchoring specifics such a voice is coming out of a loudspeaker in no-man’s-land.
Indeed, the play of contrasts and connections between A and B is not only practical, it’s also very much part of why those of us who love such novels, do love them – so don’t be afraid to push contrast of narrative voice, characters’ voices, scenes, situations and settings, nor to counterpoint differences with parallels, echoes and mirror-images.
And don’t forget that while we were immersed in A, the importance and urgency of what’s going on in B has slackened for us a bit, so it may need boosting again. Don’t over-do it, though: we read far faster than you write and it wasn’t that long ago that we were last in B. Light-touch echoes and subtle reminders, not repetitions and restatements, are the order of the day.
One more thought: don’t be afraid to Tell, especially when you’re switching strands. There are many times when it’s much better to say: ‘Even in May, John found it difficult to believe Jane wasn’t coming back to Berlin,’ than to do anything subtle and Show-y about how the view from an apartment (which apartment?) showed the linden trees in leaf (hang on, are lindens like limes? And when do they leaf?), but it wasn’t much comfort him (to whom?).
As for anyone buying it: the reward for the reader’s harder work is a deeper and richer experience, so as long as the reward is large in return for that effort, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, This is Not a Book about Charles Darwin, was published in February 2019, and is an account of three disastrous years trying to write a novel rooted in her embarrassingly well-known family.
Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor) and was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University; her how-to book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, was published in 2016, and she shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing.
Read more of Dr Darwin’s writing advice, from how to tell your story and finding your voice to doing the research and avoiding infodumps. Find the answer to what historical fiction really is – and what to do if you don’t want to fictionalise someone’s story but you’re not a biographer.