Well, when the longer short story project (which I probably won’t post here) that I was writing at the time of writing this article started to turn into a larger story than I expected, I suddenly realised that I needed to split it up into chapters and to add a second story thread to it too.
If you’ve somehow never heard of this before, it is where – for example- the odd-numbered chapters of a story focus on one storyline and the even-numbered chapters focus on a different, but related, storyline. If you’ve read a few novels published within the last few decades, you’ve probably seen at least one example of this.
So, I thought that I’d look at some of the things that you can do with multiple story threads. And, yes, whilst these can be applied to different types of stories, they are best suited to stories that use third-person narration (which can easily jump between locations and characters without confusing or annoying the reader).
1) Emotional contrast: One interesting thing that you can do with multiple story threads is to give each one a slightly different emotional tone. For example, you could have a story where one plot thread contains more serious drama and the other contains more comedy.
Not only does this provide more variety for both you and your readers, but this contrast also means that each chapter evokes stronger emotions because it is contrasted with the chapters before and after it.
This is a fairly old technique which goes all the way back to the “Grand Guignol” theatre of the 19th and 20th centuries. I saw a recreation of this at the Abertoir festival in 2009 and the interesting thing was that, between two horrifying, shock-filled short plays, there was an utterly silly comedy play. This comedy play meant that the terrifying melodrama of the play directly after it was twice as shocking because – a few minutes earlier – you were laughing.
So, yes, this is an old technique. But it works really well 🙂
2) Mini-cliffhangers: I’ve talked about this before, but multiple story threads are an essential part of the thriller and horror genres because they allow for lots of mini-cliffhangers.
Simply put, if you end a chapter with a small cliffhanger of some kind, then the reader has to read through the next chapter – which contains your second storyline- before they can see how the cliffhanger is resolved. Of course, the chapter that the reader has to get through in order to find out “what happens next” can also contain a mini-cliffhanger of it’s own, which pushes the reader to read the next chapter etc….
If you’ve ever read a modern thriller novel, you’ve probably seen some version of this technique and, along with things like shorter chapters and a more “matter of fact” writing style, it is one of the things that makes these novels so gripping. But, of course, it can also be used in a slightly more subtle way in stories in other genres too.
3) Depth, variety and redundancy: Although each chapter should be relevant to the story you are telling, multiple plot threads allow you to add a lot more variety and background detail to your story. After all, if you are showing two related storylines that are happening in different locations, then this makes the “world” of your story feel larger and more expansive.
In addition to this, multiple story threads give both you and your readers some variety too. Having two slightly different storylines can allow you to take a break from each one at regular intervals, which means that you’ll be less likely to get bored of your story or feel uninspired by it. The same can be true for your readers as well.
Plus, another advantage of multiple story threads is that they give your story a certain level of redundancy too. In other words, if your reader doesn’t like one of your story threads, then they’re probably going to keep reading for the simple reason that a better story thread is just a chapter or two away.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂