Books Magazine

Guest Author – Susan Elliot Wright on Writing a Dual Narrative

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

Susan Elliot Wright (credit Jonny Ring)Top 10 Summer Reads 2013 has already attracted huge interest and as promised, I’m featuring some of the titles on the Literary Sofa, starting with Susan Elliot Wright’s debut novel of family secrets, The Things We Never Said. Susan is a loyal follower of the blog who I’ve come to know in real life so it’s a genuine pleasure and inspiration to see her become a published author. I was so impressed with Susan’s handling of a dual narrative in the book that I invited her to share her experience of writing it (my mini-review follows):

I’ve always enjoyed reading dual narratives, possibly because I’m greedy – it’s a way of feeling like you’re reading two books at once. So I knew when I started The Things We Never Said that I wanted to interweave two stories, gradually revealing the link between them.

Writers choose dual narratives for various reasons. You may want to present two sides of the same story, to show the same events from two characters’ viewpoints in order to make the reader question the accuracy of each, as in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Or you may want to show the same character in a different time period, eg Great Expectations. Often, we use dual narratives to highlight perennial themes or to show parallels and differences across generations or cultures. A really great example is Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, which is told as four dual narratives – the viewpoints of four Chinese mothers contrasted with those of their Chinese-American daughters.

My own decision to use a dual narrative was based primarily on my desire to show how events in the past can impact on the present, but also because I wanted to introduce some variety for the reader – as well as the two different voices, I wanted to show a different time and place. Initially, I wrote the novel in three parts – Maggie’s story, then Jonathan’s story, and then a short section tying things together. What I hadn’t realised was that although this is almost certainly the best way of writing the first draft – you need to know both stories in full before you can interweave them – it wasn’t a good way of presenting the finished novel. If your reader has spent the last hundred and fifty or so pages engaging with a particular set of characters, it’s then difficult for her to move seamlessly into the company of another set of characters without it feeling like a wrench. I’ve had this reading experience myself, and even when I’ve finally managed to engage with the new section, it’s often only after a sense of needing to persevere. Although I wanted my reader to be reluctant to leave each thread, I didn’t want her to feel disappointed at having to move to the other strand, and I certainly didn’t want it to feel like hard work to continue reading my novel! So I decided that the best approach would be to interweave the two narratives from the start.

It was a daunting task, and at several points, as I sat on the floor of my study surrounded by pages of the novel, I felt it was an impossible one. But then the novelist Jane Rogers gave me some very good advice: ‘Don’t look for connections initially,’ she said. ‘Just look for clashes.’ So I did, and happily I didn’t find any, so although my first attempt weaving the stories together (a Maggie chapter then a Jonathan chapter and so on) didn’t work brilliantly, it didn’t not work, so I was able to feel more confident about trying again. That was the point at which I abandoned my original chapters and printed out scenes instead. I was then able to restructure the chapters and make them much shorter. This allowed me to make most of the connections I was beginning to notice. For example, after a chapter in 1963 ends with an emergency dash to hospital, I was able to start the next chapter with a similar emergency dash in the present day; although this one has a completely different outcome. There aren’t many such connections, but it’s extremely satisfying when it happens.

As well as similarities, you need differences, and changing the structure of your chapters in this way allows you to juxtapose lighter moments with darker ones so that your reader is able to experience a range of emotions.

It goes without saying that the voices in each narrative must be different and distinct. You can do this by making the characters speak in a completely different way, perhaps reflecting a different social or educational background, but this can be limiting, so you need other ways of showing difference. My novel has a male and a female protagonist and both narratives are third-person, so it’s immediately obvious whose story we’re hearing at any one time. I perhaps chose the easy(ish) option; but what if you have two 40-something female characters of similar background who appear in the same time period? This makes it even more important to really focus on your characters, on their emotions, on the way they think and feel, because these are the true differences between people who may appear similar on the surface. And after all, it’s the novelist’s job to get to the heart of his or her characters.

It’s worryingly easy to become confused when reading a novel that jumps from one narrative to another, so it’s really important to orientate the reader right at the start of each new chapter. Maggie O’Farrell’s first novel, After You’d Gone, jumps about all over the place in terms of who’s speaking and when; but she’s brilliant at establishing who, where and when at the beginning of each new section. I’ve re-read that book a couple of times just to observe how she does it!

The dual narrative can be tricky, but it’s definitely worth the effort. Here are my tips for making it work:

  • Write each narrative separately first.
  • Introduce both narratives quickly so that readers know they’ll be moving between the two.
  • Keep chapters short.
  • Look for clashes first, not connections.
  • Don’t be wedded to your original chapters – look at scenes and shuffle things around if necessary.
  • Make sure voices are distinctive and different – the voice should come from the heart of the character.
  • Orientate the reader quickly the start of each new section.
  • Be prepared to have several goes at getting the order right – you’ll get there in the end!

Thank you, Susan. I found that fascinating and I’m sure many of the writers who read the piece will agree.

The Things We Never Said cover
In Brief: My View of The Things We Never Said

I admire Susan’s skill and persistence in perfecting a structure which tells her story so well. Dual narratives are hard to get right and I don’t like the feeling of reading two different books at once, but here the synergy between the two strands is satisfying and finely judged, keeping the reader guessing for just the right length of time. This is a moving and sometimes shocking story and the writing holds real emotional power. I favoured Maggie’s narrative because the 1960s timeframe was so vivid and enjoyable and the setting of a mental institution so compelling; but although I found Jonathan rather frustrating, my interest was maintained throughout. Comparisons with Maggie O’Farrell are well deserved: if you loved The Hand That First Held Mine, I think you’ll enjoy The Things We Never Said.


The Family Snapshots competiton has been extended to midnight on Fathers’ Day, Sunday 16 June. Name your favourite family novel or story for the chance to win a spectacular first prize donated by Bloomsbury Books – all nine individual story collections by the Snapshots authors!

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