Split Narratives: Dividing Your Story Between Two or More Narrators

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Image from Flickr by dadblunders.

There are several perfectly good ways to structure a story in terms of viewpoint, but (probably) the more common ones are:

  • A single first-person narrator, as in Florence and Giles or 600 Hours of Edward.
  • A main third-person narrator plus occasional omniscient narration, as in Harry Potter.
  • Several third-person narrators, as in The Song of Ice and Fire series, some getting considerably more “screen time” than others.

In this post, I want to think about stories where the narrative is split pretty much equally between two characters.

I’ve come across more books like this in recent years and wonder if it’s becoming a more popular viewpoint choice. (I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this in the comments!)

Here are some examples of books that are structured in this way:

Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) – the narrative is divided between two first-person narrators; the identity of one of these is concealed, though hinted at.

The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) – a particularly interesting one as the first book has one first-person narrator, the second book has two, and the third book has three.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) with three first-person narrators, Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, all with a different voice.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) – with two first-person narrators, their narratives combining to give two sides of the story.

Those are all first person examples. Of course there are plenty of third-person narratives split between multiple viewpoint characters, but they tend to be more likely to give some viewpoints considerably more screentime than others, and/or segue into an omniscient perspective.

A good third-person example that works in a similar way to the first person ones above is my friend Nick Bryan’s Hobson & Choi series, where the third-person limited viewpoint switches back and forth between the two titular characters.

Why Structure Your Story This Way?

As a reader, I enjoy strongly-voiced first person narratives, though they can sometimes take a bit of getting into. (If you’re after unusual/strong narrative voices, with a single narrator, try The Room, The Observations, or 600 Hours of Edward.)

One key advantage of a dual or triple perspective is that it offers variety and contrast: it can balance out a particularly nutty or weird narrator with a more normal one, or it can allow two flawed narratives to complement one another.

It seems to lend itself particularly to novels involving a core mystery, as it allows the author to conceal information without relying solely on the device of an unreliable narrator: Gentlemen & Players does this cleverly.

A split narrative also allows both sides of a story to be told: particularly handy if the author is seeking to explore issues like the lies we tell ourselves (and others), or the ways in which events are inevitably filtered through our experiences, our pasts, our moods. Gone Girl does this by splitting the narrative between Nick and Amy, two partners in a strained marriage.

It’s obviously not going to be the perfect narrative choice for every story, but if you’ve got a novel (or short story) that has two or even three main character rather than a single protagonist, it could well be the best way forward.

Making Your Split Narrative Work

Whether you’re splitting the narrative between first-person or third-person narrators, there are a few things you need to do in order to make it work – i.e. to make it a good reading experience, one that couldn’t be easily, or even better, delivered by a different narrative structure.

Give the Narrators an Equal Amount of “Screen Time”

While you don’t need to divide the book so that two narrators get precisely 50% of the word count, or three narrators get 33% each, it could be tricky to pull off a book with one first person narrator and occasional interjections from another.

(If you do want that, something involving diaries or letters might work for bringing in the additional voice – or a framing narrative where one narrator only appears at the beginning and end of the novel.)

Generally, with two narrators, it makes sense to alternate back-and-forth between viewpoints – I think other structures, like having half the book from one perspective and half from another, would be very tricky to pull off.

Make the Stories Intersect

The times when I feel split narratives go awry are when the narrators aren’t in the same place and their storylines aren’t sufficiently impinging on one another. As a reader, I often find myself much more invested in one character’s story than another (maybe it’s more exciting, maybe I just prefer that character) – and the other sections of the narrative drag.

If a split narrative is really going to work, the characters’ lives need to be bound up with one another. They don’t necessarily have to be in the same place or even narrating from the same time point within the story (take a look at the use of Amy’s diary entries in Gone Girl, for instance) for this to work.

For an example where – for me, at least – this wasn’t quite working, see the second book of the Chaos Walking trilogy, The Ask and the Answer, where Todd and Viola are apart for much of the book (though both bound up in the same larger-scale action of the plot).

 

If you’ve got a complex story to tell, with two or more protagonists (or a protagonist matched with a fairly sympathetic antagonist), then a split narrative could work very well. It’s also a good choice for mystery novels, or ones featuring an unreliable narrator – or even two unreliable narrators.

I’m sure that, with the examples in this post, I’ve only scratched the surface of split narratives – I’d love to hear about similar books you’ve read (or written!), particularly how the structure works with the story being told. Just drop a comment below to join in the discussion.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

25 thoughts on “Split Narratives: Dividing Your Story Between Two or More Narrators

  1. Oh, such a needed post! I had too many POVs in my current work, and tried to make things clearer by consolidating to two, but it doesn’t seem right to leave out one of the other character’s experiences… I’m thinking about what expectations for the genre would be (historical drama, Scotland, 1822), and how much I want that to influence my choice as well… it’s a boondoggle!
    Margaret Pinard’s last blog post ..From the Travels: Green Growing Things, England Edition

    • POV choices can be so tricky. Sometimes they seem inevitable and the POV decision is just tied up with the core idea for the story … but more often (for me, at least!) they take considerable thought and experimentation.

      Excellent point about genre conventions. I’d find it odd to read a split-narrative romance novel (not that I read much romance!) for instance, since they’re normally told from the heroine’s POV alone. Though E.L. James may be set to change that with *Grey*…

  2. Thanks for the great post! This is really useful as I’ve got two POV in my current project, my first novel 😋 only I’m worried now – I have one first person and one third person, given around equal ‘screen time’. Can this work? Has anyone else done it and if so, how fid it turn out?
    I chose to do it because it represents aspects if the character, for instance the first person character is much more open emotionally, and needs to discuss her feelings and thoughts with the reader, whereas the third person character is more isolated, and spends most of the time thinking without acting or speaking, a bit of a brooder I suppose.
    What does everyone think? Is it sensible to change or stick with it? 😁

    • I’ve done this, in my novel ‘Replica’. It’s about a young woman working in a government research laboratory, who is replicated without her knowledge in a flawed experiment. The replica, a mistake who will be disposed of, goes on the run. Alternating chapters are written in first and third person; first person for replica Beth, third for original Beth and the other characters.

      The advantage is that no reader has ever got confused about which Beth is which – and going by the reviews, most people don’t particularly notice the first/third changes. Interestingly,they do seem to identify more with the first person Beth.
      Lexi Revellian’s last blog post ..READERS in the KNOW – Replica podcast

      • I’m sure this can work, Abbey-Rose — I know one of my writer friends is working on a novel with a first/third split at present.

        I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head that I’ve read which have first/third (slightly addled today by teething baby!) but it’s definitely a possibility. I’d be happy to put together a post on it, or to see if I can rope in another author to do so, if you’re interested?

        Lexi, that sounds like a fascinating way to keep the two characters straight. I’ve read novels with a similar premise (one involved a past and future version of the same character, split by timetravel) that got really confusing. Did you experiment with any other ways of doing it, or did that choice just seem to fit right from the start?

  3. Goodness, time travel (which incidentally my WIP is) is confusing enough without adding a first/third person split!

    I think the idea of doing it in ‘Replica’ came to me quite early while writing notes, and I realized I needed a way of differentiating between two versions of the same young woman. The only problem was keeping their timelines roughly in sync as they had alternating chapters, and sometimes more happened to one than the other.

    Ah, babies – a new challenge at every stage until they leave home :o)
    Lexi Revellian’s last blog post ..READERS in the KNOW – Replica podcast

    • I always seem to have trouble with timelines (even with the most straightforward of novels) — I keep meaning to keep everything straight in a spreadsheet and never quite manage it!

  4. Margaret, I’d love to swap but I’m still kind of drafting and rewriting atm 😋 just yesterday I thought of a new section at the beginning, and had a rethink about some of the major plot points, so I don’t think anything I’ve got will make sense anymore 😁 also I’ve never shown anyone my writing; its a hurdle I’m yet to jump (excuses, excuses), but I’d love to see how you’ve done the first/third switch.
    Ali, that would be amazing, if you have the time, I’m sure its difficult with the little one (congratulations, by the way! 😤).
    Lexi, that sounds really interesting, and a perfect way of using two different POV. I’m not surprised people didn’t really notice the change; if you’re engrossed in a story with several characters you don’t really pay attention to hims and hers. Its worse to write it. Reading a section back and realising you’ve slipped into the wrong one lol 😖

  5. My novel I’m working on, actually, has five narrators, whom switch off every chapter. They’re generally in the same area during the whole story,
    Three are in first person, two in third person – Abbey-Rose, it works well for me. Never did think of it the same way with representing the different aspects, as this is kind of an experimental novel, mostly written impulsively during NaNoWriMo. It’s really fun so far, and lets me go through differing events or do a timeskip very easily from one chapter to the next.
    Each of the characters have a different perspective on the antagonist too, one of which is actually working with them, so I can get down the goals of the antagonist without it seems forced because its being relayed to that character.
    Been hitting all these points without even realizing it 😀

  6. That sounds interesting Allison. One of my characters is close to the antagonist as well whereas the others are in the dark somewhat – this has helped me resist using an antagonist POV, which I considered when his backstory ran away with me 😋 instead I’ve turned that into an idea for a short story.

    Thanks to everyone for all the help and making us newbies feel so welcome. I’m not very good at this social media stuff but I’ve been informed that I’ll need to be 😁

    • I’m pretty sure we’re all still learning social media as we go along … I know I am! And I’m thrilled that the lovely writers who comment here on Aliventures are always thoughtful and supportive, and add so much extra useful information and depth to my posts.

      Allison, this is the one I read excerpts from a while back, right? Really looking forward to seeing the finished thing. 🙂

  7. Hi Ali, welcome back! I’m probably a bit behind the times but Welcome!

    I’ve not thought of writing two narratives. One’s enough for me. I’m not sure I’ve read any novels with more either, although, would you count Wuthering Heights as a two person narrative?

    The kind of novels I like are when they’re told by unreliable narrators. You know, this is how it was – but then, as the story unfolds, you discover that’s not really how it was. My narrator in the novel I’m writing is like this. Also, I’m thinking of getting this narrator to tell her story from two ends of her life, 8 year old child and 80 + year old woman. Would you class that as a two-person narrative, of sorts? Or split narrative?

    I did consider two different characters telling the story but then, I didn’t want the character who’s narrating now to be found out. At least, not without, explaining herself. Is that weird? 🙂

    • Thanks Tom! I’d think of Wuthering Heights more as a novel with a framing narrative, personally, since Lockwood’s narrative starts and ends the book.

      I think you’d really enjoy Gone Girl — unreliable narrator action in spades! On balance, I like unreliable narrators — I’m not sure I’d want to read them all the time, though. Taxes my poor brain!

      That’s a really interesting one with the child and elderly woman. Have you read Ian McEwan’s Atonement? That has a degree of this going on (I won’t say more and spoil it, if you’ve not read it).

      I’m sure all sorts of things we do as writers are weird. 😉 It sounds like you’ve thought through how best to make your narrative structure and choices work with the story you want to tell. Hope the writing goes smoothly! How far through the novel are you?

  8. Thanks Ali. This is really helpful to me for getting a handle on different types of narration. I shall give Gone Girl a look. Yes, I have read Atonement. It’sa brilliant book. I have to say I got the idea for my novel before I read it :). Someone heard what I was planning and recommended I read Atonement. I’d love a film version! I think though as it’s taking shape and your explanation, it’s going to be a framing narrative. Thanks.

  9. Hi, my new is Ricky wright, I would like to have your expertise on writing, I’m failing on this point of my GED, they gave two story they are similar, I have to write from both story, and combine them in one, I would love your help, thank you, sincerely mr.wright.

    • That sounds like a tough task, Ricky! I’m afraid I can’t help with homework etc (I get too many requests) but I wish you all the best with it.

  10. Dear Ali,

    I am a middle school teacher in Minnesota. Could you suggest some young adult novels for teenage boys? Also, how can I explain that some books have two protagonists in a simple manner to my students? They are baffled when there are two protagonists. They often think one of them has to be the antagonist.

    Please respond when you can. I really enjoy your blog.
    Nina

    • I don’t read much YA, but you could try the Chaos Walking trilogy, which I enjoyed. The Knife of Never Letting Go has one viewpoint character (Todd), but the second book, The Ask and the Answer, is told from both Todd and Viola’s perspectives, essentially making both of them protagonists (they’re also separated from one another, so they’re both progressing the action differently).

      Could you relate the protagonists thing to films they might have seen that have essentially an ensemble cast of heroes? (E.g. Avengers, the Star Wars films.) There are often several “goodies” who we root for and who drive the action, but they are distinct people with different personalities and possibly different goals.

  11. I’ve written a novel that uses two narrators. Narrator one, a female, tells the bulk of the story, mostly in third-person, but sometimes in first-person and occasionally becomes an unseen character in the story, and sometimes becomes unreliable by taking unauthorized breaks. Narrator two (male) has to pickup the story when narrator one drops the ball, and revels humorous reasons why she keeps exiting the story. Narrator two is always third-person. Both narrators are omnipotent. There is even a time when the two cross swords with each. In the end, there’s a possible romance developing between them.
    It was great fun, but some say it’s confusing. You think?

    • I have to confess that my first reaction is yes, that sounds confusing! But it really depends on how smoothly you’ve executed it. If it’s a comic novel (sounds like it is), then the unusual form could well be working in its favour.

      If possible, I’d suggest finding a few people willing to read the whole thing — or at least a substantial chunk of it — so they can give you some feedback on whether it’s quite working how you want.

  12. I’m struggling with this as I wrote a story about an addict in 2 different voices- her real story in 3rd person because she’s detached & the addiction story in 1st. But the literary agent said it didn’t work. So now I’m wondering if I put them both in 1st.

    • Ooh, that’s an interesting case — so a story within a story? I could envisage it working, but if the agent feels it’s not quite coming together, you might try rewriting a shortish passage in 1st and see how that feels. Is there some different way you can convey that sense of detachment?

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