split-narratives

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.