Writing a novel with multiple storylines can be a fun challenge. However, as your storylines diverge, it is important to make sure all of the story threads do in fact weave into one story tapestry. Otherwise, the reader will leave your story feeling muddled.
Here are a few methods to make sure your various storylines hang together as one and keep the reader feeling engaged.
Present multiple sides of a single story.
The most straightforward way to carry off multiple storylines is to present a single story from multiple points of view. This weaves the tapestry together easily and cleanly. In Daisy Jones & the Six, all of the band members tell one story: the band’s rise and fall. Each character presents their own view and own substories, with the two stars, Daisy and Billy, getting the most airtime.
You can spice up this method by ensuring that some of the POVs cast doubt on previous character accounts, present an unreliable version, or in some way turns the story on its head. Piccoult does this in Nineteen Minutes where she presents a school shooting from different characters’ points of view, but her goal is to change the reader’s judgement about the events as each new perspective is presented.
Write the path of characters finding their way to each other.
This keeps the tension up as two main characters or groups head for that meeting the reader knows is coming, the crux of the story. In All the Light We Cannot See, the reader waits on pins and needles as Marie-Laure, the blind girl, hides in her uncle’s home during WWII, while Werner, conscripted by the Nazis for his precocious engineering skills, heads in her direction. Doerr makes the meeting feel inevitable and suspenseful, keeping the two stories closely linked, but he doesn’t stop there. The two stories are further intertwined by the children’s history. It is Marie-Laure’s family that hosted a science radio show, which reached the orphan, Werner, and sparked his interest in engineering and still comes to him as fond memories as he faces the nightmare of war. That third piece is important. As you make the upcoming meeting of the characters a center point of your novel, how else can you connect the characters?
The wider the storylines verge, the tighter your central premise and theme need to be.
If you have two or more storylines that ramble, especially where the characters are leading separate lives apart from each other through much of the novel, it’s crucial to have something that knits the stories close together. This can the burning question, a mystery that all of the characters are working to solve, or someone at risk that multiple characters are trying to save. One of my favorite wide-ranging novels, The Lake House, has quite a number of characters and spans back and forth over a century, but all through the novel, Morton ties it together with a single question: what happened to the baby who disappeared?
Additionally, if you have parallel storylines running, it’s important that they’re linked by common themes. Think how in the TV series, This is Us, one episode may cover different time periods, generations and locations, but in each one, the threads deal with the same theme – the impossibility of being a perfect parent, say, or addiction.
As our world has become more chaotic, it is quite common to see storylines bob and weave across various characters, settings, and wider plots. This is a good thing, as our culture comes to recognize the variety that feeds into our own stories. If this is the story you’re writing, that’s fantastic. Just don’t forget to give some thought to how you’ll keep your multiple storylines unified into one central story.