Friday, May 12, 2017

Storyboarding Multiple Narrators--How to Make Sense of the Whole Story

I get this question a lot:  When a book has more than one storyline, timeline, or main narrator, how do you make sure each storyline works individually? 

And, once you have each individual storyline in place, how do you weave them together to make sense of the whole?

Memoir and fiction has grown complex.   Maybe it's a reflection of our multi-tasking brains, but multiple narrators, shifts from a full backstory to a full present-time story, or completely developed stories in different locations are the norm now.  

It takes a lot more work from the writer than just a simple, chronological, single storyline.  Working with storyboards helps.  But even so, you may have your individual storyboards flowing just fine, but be stymied on how to bring them into one book.

One of my online students from Tucson, Arizona, is working on a historical novel.  She has chosen three of the main characters to be her narrators and she's built storyboards for each of them separately.  She works on one narrator's story and takes it as far as she can, then moves to another, trusting the process and not too worried about completing one before starting another, because the process is teaching her more about the book.
That's fine; she's doing the necessary first step.  But as she's completed these individual storyboards, she's become stalled out. 

"While the storyboards outline what happens to each of them, what they are involved in," she emailed me, "I'm not seeing or feeling THE STORY.  And I'm not sure how to get there."  What's the trick in making them mesh?

Five Points That Overlap
First, look for five main points that overlap.  If you're working with a storyboard, you know about the five main turning points in any book:  the triggering event at the start, the first turning point about one-quarter through, the midpoint (second triggering event), the second turning point about three-quarters through, and the final climax at the end of the book.  These are detailed on my videos and in my book, in case you want to explore further.

First, look for overlaps in location, time, or event.  Sometimes, a main event runs through the whole book and characters encounter it at slightly different times.  Or they are in a certain location where something changes, but on their own storyline.  These are the easiest overlaps to find. 

If these don't work for your particular book, freewrite, one page for each character, on what each of the five points mean for that character.  For instance, you are writing about a marriage.  What's the meaning of that moment for John, for Sylvia, for their daughter Harlow?  The meaning is where you look for overlaps if the easier ones don't work.    

Often you need to rearrange your storyboard to make this work well.  I might shift the plot or go deeper into researching meaning and make it more evident in a scene, to create strong weaving of the different stories.

Once you've created overlap in the five points of your book, you need to work on transitions.  I could teach transitions for a whole year--they are that challenging for many writers and that important.

The best way to learn transitions is to study film.  Directors work with them all the time, moving from scene to scene.  Two of my favorite films to teach transitions are The English Patient and Sliding Doors.  You'll enjoy both films, I bet, but go beyond watching them for enjoyment and study the moment when a scene changes.  See what image is used to transition.  It'll echo or repeat slightly from the first scene to the next one.  The more arty the film, the subtler the transition. 

When I work with my private clients on transitions, I have them study key images that repeat in their story.  Then we work on a chart where the last line of each scene is paired with the first line of the next scene, to see if there are transitions in place.  Words are your vehicle for images on the page, so words must create a transition image, or bridge, that the reader can use to slide effortlessly from one scene to the next.  You can also use more obvious time transitions, such as "three days later" or "meanwhile, back at the ranch," but in modern fiction and memoir, these are employed sparingly because they are more glaring to the reader.  The best transitions are nearly invisible.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Take one of these steps--the five points exercise above or the transitions exercise below that--and set aside an hour to try it.  Apply to your book, see what you learn!  Does the weaving begin to happen?

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