Writing Dual Narratives


Gone Girl, How to be Both, Instructions for a Heatwave: everyone’s at it – using dual or multiple narratives to interweave two or more stories often from different time periods. Less common are books that use a dual narrative from the point of view of the same character.

In my novel Our Endless Numbered Days, the narrator, Peggy Hillcoat, starts telling her story in her present day – 1985 – and then goes back to 1976 to when she was eight. The chapters mostly alternate between one November day in 1985 and the time period from 1976 onwards, until the end of the novel when the two strands collide.

When I started writing I wasn’t looking for a clever structure, I didn’t even realise that the one I used wasn’t that common, I simply wanted to tell the story in the best way possible and like many first-time novelists I muddled my way through. I wrote each chapter consecutively, flipping back and forth between the years, but when I had finished the first draft, I wasn’t sure the 1985, single-day narrative hung together, so I lifted all of those chapters out and rewrote them. Then I put them back in, and revised them in-situ ensuring that they gave hints about what might be about to happen in the other time period, whilst not giving anything away. It was a challenge!

If you’re writing a dual or multiple narrative novel, here are some things you might want to think about:

  • Make each strand as interesting as the other(s). You don’t want readers to be skimming through one narrative because they enjoy the others more. Make sure they have emotional investment in all stories.
  • Break the action of each narrative at a critical point. The dual narrative structure is a perfect way to create cliff-hangers that will keep your readers turning pages. A cliff-hanger doesn’t always have to be something astounding; just make sure you leave a question in the readers’ minds.
  • Use each narrative to shine a light on the other. Have fun with your dual narratives – use them to bring out themes, to foreshadow events, to give hints and clues and as I said above, to set up questions. For example in my first chapter, in 1985, Peggy looks at a photograph of her father sitting at her mother’s piano: ‘I was surprised to see him sitting there. I have no recollection of him ever sitting at the piano or playing it, although of course, it was my father who taught me to play.’ How her father could have taught her to play without her recalling him doing it, hopefully sets up a question which is answered in the second narrative strand.
  • Find the way of writing that works for you. Some writers create the strands separately and then bring them together, some, as I did, write them at the same time. It doesn’t matter which way you do it, but when you do bring them together you have to work hard on the interweaving.
  • Make clear jumps between narratives. In Our Endless Numbered Days the jumps between the two strands are by chapter. This is probably the clearest way to sign-post to the reader that they are moving from one narrative to another, but even so, I decided to put a date and location at the heading of each 1985 chapter, so the reader was never lost. It can be done more subtly than this, and should be if the jumps are within chapters. You can use character, location, dialogue, or anything that will help the reader know which narrative they are moving into. This is especially important for the first jump you write.
  • Make a connection between the two narratives. The connection could be very subtle – a theme, an emotion, an object – or as in my case, very obvious – the narrator. But you do need to reveal a connection at some point, otherwise you might as well write two novels.
  • Don’t be too tricksy. Don’t decide on a dual narrative structure because you want your novel to be interesting or challenging; it has to be right for the story. Bear in mind that in a dual narrative you will probably have to withhold information at some point and you don’t want this to appear forced.
  • Remember to deal with aging. If your dual narratives use some of the same characters, you will have to make them age believably. My two strands are both about Peggy. She needed to have the same fundamental characteristics, but in one strand she is seventeen, whilst in the other we first meet her age eight. Similarly, you need to consider your characters’ physical characteristics and how those will change over time.
  • Remember the character arc. Writing theory often talks about the character arc – how will characters change over the course of the story; what will they learn? With a dual narrative from a single character’s point of view, this can be harder to manage. In the case of Our Endless Numbered Days, Peggy’s main arc happens in the 1976 and onwards chapters. But she also needs to change during the single day in 1985 in a way which matches the other character arc.

It’s a lot to think about, but the most important thing is, if you enjoy writing both narratives then most likely your readers will enjoy them too.

(This article was originally published on Writers & Artists.)


Our Endless Numbered Days has recently been shortlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. The Reading Agency is holding an unofficial vote for which book readers think should win. Click here to vote for your favourite.

43 thoughts on “Writing Dual Narratives

  1. Interesting points here. The dual narrative can be a good device; turning a novel into a page turner (worked for me with Gone Girl, although I did get very annoyed at how the plot turns became a little too convenient!) On a different level, William Faulkner’s “Sound and the Fury” captivated me so much that it is one of the few books I’ve re-read. On each reading, a new element of my understanding would emerge. It’s not a book for the faint hearted, but it is magnificent.


    • I haven’t read Sound and the Fury. The only one I’ve read by Faulkner was As I Lay Dying and that was quite a challenge. But perhaps I’ll give the other a go. Thanks for the recommendation.


      • Funnily enough, I’ve still not got to the end of that one! I picked it up after a few other readings of Faulkner, and maybe I was tired of working so hard at getting the story. I did really enjoy the complexity of his sentences, and went on to enjoy Annie Proulx for similar reasons. Then I found Raymond Carver who starts in the middle and doesn’t necessarily go anywhere specific – and with less words. All these styles have influenced my writing. I strive for succinct complexity!

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  3. Thanks for the great post, Claire. I’m struggling through a story with one narrative during a set period of time. As an experiment, to help my story became more layered, I may try writing from another narrative or from a different age. Maybe that’ll help me!


  4. Claire, while I’ve done nearly nothing with my novel (in about 10 years now), I too used dual narrative– with the same character. I did not think of it as unusual; I wrote the chapters at the same time, alternating back and forth. It’s been professionally edited and I know where the weak places are, but this post has really given me some solid things to think about. Really well written and helpful; thanks! (Though my manuscript still sits…) :-p


  5. Congratulations on the shortlist!🙂 … and an excellent list.
    I reckon the most important thing about dual narratives is ‘don’t lose your reader’. I’ve read a few that are brilliantly done, but some where I’ve had many moments of trundling along in one timeline and suddenly I have no idea what’s happening.


  6. Nice. When I became serious about writing I was avery self conscious about writing in certain p.o.v and even more so when it came to writing in more than one narrative style. When I found writers that were doing it in an entertaining way w/o the work being cluttered I was impressed and convinced it was something that could be done. I like how u give instructions on writing such a piece.

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  7. I’m not a writer (other than a blogger who writes reviews) but i found these explanations of much interest, particularly as I was thoroughly absorbed by Our Endless Numbered Days and its review will go live soon!


      • I should of course, say ‘fiction writer’ I get pulled up on this repeatedly, my equation of ‘being a writer’ meaning someone who writes fiction. It’s especially ironic because a major requirement I have for my non-fiction reads is ‘can the author write well!’, so it is no different from what I look for in fiction. (P.S. – tomorrow – though my review is already there on Amazon – blog reviews take a little longer as I have fun with media inserts)


  8. Thanx Claire for your informative blog, but to be honest I find it difficult enuf to write on narrative plot line and goodness knows how long I’d take with two. Looking forward to reading Our Endless Numbered Days this summer when the kids are busy at camp. Best wishes with your marketing, busy calendar of events and editing your second novel. Phew!


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  11. Whoa, another new challenge for me!
    What a wonderful post, Claire, whenever I try to write fiction I always push myself not to think too much about the structure of the writing so that I could freely write stories. Hmm, I’m still green.

    But, writing dual narratives is awesome and worth to try. Thank you!


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  13. This is such an interesting post – thanks for these insights. To be really honest I’ve flicked through it too quickly – simply because I want to read your book this summer first in Madonna-style (ie like a virgin) then come back and think now how did Clare do that!
    Have just finished The Leipzig Affair – highly, highly recommended. (First novel by Fiona Rintoul ,was on book at bedtime where I tried to not listen in and spoil it.) The two narrators speak in the conventional first-person or in the second-person singular. Sounds odd but it works on lots of levels – I was never confused in the narrative as to who was speaking.
    Not in the same league at all,but I have a book on Kindle (Dream Girl) that has a girl and a boy first-person narrators who eventually meet – was fun to write like this.


    • I’ve not heard of The Leipzig Affair, but I love to hear about highly recommended books – I’ll go and look it up. And let me know what you’ve read mine – I’d love to know what you thought.


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