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Multiple Storylines

Novels almost always include multiple storylines. But when it comes to short stories, whether it’s due to the brevity of space, or the intense focus on the primary storyline, we often see stories that only travel one path. This tendency can lead to stories that feel flat and undeveloped. There’s simply not enough going on in the fictional world.

There are many ways to include another storyline in a short story. If you add a second POV, you have immediately created a complexity that wasn’t in the story before. How does this character view the events of the story? Is her perception different from the other character? What do we learn about the world through this character’s eyes that we didn’t know before? In Jamel Brinkley’s story, “Wolf and Rhonda,” the POV switches back and forth between two characters, a man and a woman. The story wouldn’t have been able to access the relationship between these characters without changing its POV. The fact that the story begins with the man’s POV and ends with the woman’s POV also sheds light on the meaning of the story. In Kate Petersen’s story “Singles,” the POV also shifts between a man and a woman. In this story, the POV shifts begin to happen more rapidly as the two characters become involved, a way in which the form echoes the content.

Adding a storyline that focuses on a character’s backstory is another way to accomplish this. In “A Day,” by William Trevor, Mrs. Lethwes moves through her day from waking up in the morning to going to bed at night. In her thoughts, though, we learn the story of her husband’s affair and the life she has subsequently imagined that her husband leads with his mistress. By alternating between the present moment of the story—a day in the life of Mrs. Lethwes—and her memories of the past and her thoughts, Trevor creates a complicated and nuanced portrait of his character.

Alternately, a separate storyline can be created that, at first, seems somewhat separate from the primary narrative. In “Cathedral,” by Michael Sheehan, the present moment story, about a couple lost in the woods, is broken up by a first-person statement by an artist who created the place in the woods that the couple is searching for. So the two storylines are connected, but it’s not until the end of the story that we truly understand how the two threads are sewn together.

Almost always, adding to or complicating the major storyline will create depth and nuance. Often, experimenting with drafts by adding POVs, new storylines, backstory can help to understand the primary story at a deeper level. The key is to make the multiple storylines connect in some way, to ensure that everything is ultimately related to the underlying meaning.

Exercises

  • Take a story that you’ve written that only has one storyline. Add a storyline that focuses on a moment from the character’s past, moving back and forth between the present and past, section by section. What do you learn about the character by doing this? How can you make the segues between the past and the present lock together? Try to make the two storylines connect, somehow, toward the end of the piece.
  • With a story that has one storyline and one POV, add another POV from a secondary character. You can do this throughout the story, but you could also try it as a frame: begin and end the story with this secondary POV. How does this character’s understanding of the events of the story change the meaning of the story? Does this secondary POV shed light on the primary POV? When there are differences in perception, which character seems more reliable?
  • Take an existing story that feels flat. Begin writing a completely different narrative that seems, at first, to be unconnected. What are the points of intersection between the two storylines? How can you begin to pull them together? What are you learning about the characters in both storylines by examining the connections between them?

 

by Laura Spence-Ash