Writing a novel with a dual narrative—where two different characters get to share their point of view as narrator—can be a particularly fun creative project for an author. But it comes with its own unique set of challenges, too.
How do you make it clear which character is narrating? How do you fit the two arcs together? What makes these two narratives one novel, instead of two separate stories?
These and other crucial considerations can make the difference between a manuscript that sings with resonance and tension, and one that flops under the weight of confused story lines, conflated characters and frustrating breaks between arcs.
Here, we’ll explore some of the most important aspects to consider while drafting.
Which character is the primary protagonist?
Yes, you really do have to choose, even if the narratives will share the spotlight abut 50/50 throughout the novel. Something has to give your book a clear center and keep it propped up, like the pole at the center of a tent. This is the plotting and thematic heart from which everything else should stem—even if that’s through creative interplays across space, time or perspectives.
When in doubt, consider: Which character’s perspective does your story start with? Which does it end with? They should be the same character. And that character is your tentpole.
What distinguishes your point-of-view characters?
When flipping back and forth between two perspectives, you can do your reader a great favor by making it easy to distinguish between the two at a glance. While tags at the start of each section are nice, what I’m really talking about here is voice.
As each character is brought to life on the page, look for opportunities to make them distinct from each other, including factors like different perspectives, word choices and body language. The more easily a reader can flip to a random page and tell which character is narrating, the better.
Are both points of view absolutely necessary to the story?
If this answer isn’t an easy yes for you, pause and reconsider your dual structure. Can the same story be told through one character’s perspective? Maybe it’s a story just as well told if one of the characters is supporting cast!
But if your gut gives you a resounding yes to this question, both perspectives are absolutely necessary, then great. What do these two characters bring to the story that must be told together?
I know many authors, including myself, who don’t identify the themes of their manuscript until after the first draft. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is an important question to be able to answer for dual narrative, so if you don’t know it going in, noodle on it as you draft and look for opportunities to make the answer an easy yes. Make sure you have an answer about why both narratives are necessary before you revise, so it can inform how the manuscript takes shape.
How will each character’s arc interplay with the other?
Part of the enjoyment of dual narrative is the way the two arcs bump up against each other.
Sometimes this is a literal crossing of paths at key moments, such as in Lauren Oliver’s Replica, in which two characters from completely different worlds must help each other at a crucial juncture.
But for others, especially if the characters are in different time periods or otherwise separated, this might be done through thematic interplay or parallel scenes. In The Lost Apothecary, one modern-day woman wrestles with the aftermath of leaving her cheating husband, while in the 18th century, another doles out poisons for husbands to women who have no other means of escape.
In my novel Departures, the two sisters may seem very similar at first glance, but really, they are foils. Their arcs reflect this by offering an inverse of each other in their setting, twists and the characters’ different responses to similar circumstances.
Or, as Susan Elliot Wright explains, dual narrative can also be used to undermine the characters’ reliability and build suspense—such as in Gone Girl.
The creative possibility here is endless.
How and when can the story transition between threads?
The conceptual and thematic aspects of dual narrative are crucial, but at some point, the rubber must meet the road. Personally, I found the logistics of executing dual point of view the hardest part.
In each section of the narrative, the story must spend enough time to allow the reader to get emotionally invested, and to move the plot forward. When you transition to the other character’s perspective, it can be a careful balance to find a suspenseful hook to conclude on that will keep the reader eager—but not so eager they’ll resent the break in narrative.
Knowing where the line is can come down to genre, style, and story—in other words, it’s a judgment call. So if you’re writing dual narratives, be sure to read a lot of dual narratives, too, especially within your genre, to study what works and hone your instincts. Beta readers can also be invaluable for this as well, so ask them for their feelings about these important transition points between characters.
Dual narratives are rewarding to write
Writing a dual perspective novel can easily tie you up in knots. But it also opens up the doors to rewarding opportunity between characters and story lines. With some consideration during the early drafting process, dual narrative opens the door to new creative space for your story, and a lot of creative interplay. Don’t be afraid to dig deep into its layers and experiment with it.
E. J. Wenstrom believes in complicated heroes, horrifying monsters, purple hair dye and standing to the right on escalators so the left side can walk. She writes dark speculative fiction for adults and teens, including her new release, a young adult dystopian novel titled Departures (August 10, 2021). When she isn’t writing fiction, E. J. Wenstrom is a regular contributor to DIY MFA and BookRiot, and co-hosts the Fantasy+Girl Podcast. Learn more at her website.