Your Novel Needs a Second Story

By | February 12, 2013

One of the keys of a successful novel is often the presence of two (sometimes more) major storylines. Unfortunately, as a book doctor/novel editor, I often see manuscripts-in-progress that are just too stingy in this regard.

I recently read a review of a movie that addressed this very point. Reviewing the movie Warm Bodies, Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “But too often [this movie] also badly needed a second big idea to move its [primary] story off the track we expect it to take from the start.”

To put it bluntly, a single storyline, even if well-written from beginning to end, will be thin, predictable, and a little boring. You want the structure of your novel to be less like a one-story ranch house and more like Downton Abbey.

Okay, maybe if you can’t populate it with so many storylines (after all, Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, is a brilliant and experienced writer, winner of the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, etc.). But at least try to build a functional second story, a place we can go to experience something different than we do on the first floor of your novel’s house.

Why?

In How To Write Your Best Story, I argue that two stories offer a terrific way to create originality and depth:

In a 1968 article in The Writer, “Thoughts on Plots,” Joan Aiken pointed out that it takes two ideas, colliding, to spark a story.

“I shall always remember H.E. Bates [English, 1905–1974], that master of the short story form, saying that besides inspiration and a lot of sheer hard labor, a story requires, for its germination, at least two separate ideas which, fusing together, begin to work and ferment and presently produce a plot. This tallies with my own experience. . . .”

Many stories have been told, but unique intersections of any two ideas will be more original. Take a story of a dragon in a cave. Then take a story of a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman. Both have been told. But the combination of the two? Less likely.

Think of the number of ideas you might generate by watching a traffic intersection where two busy streets come together. At the intersection, you’ll not just see more traffic, but you’ll now have the likelihood of interesting episodes as people face more decisions, have to deal with crossing traffic, and end up in surprise situations and, yes, collisions.

These collisions are crucial to an interesting novel. To return to Downton Abbey, think of the interest generated by the intersections of the storylines of the “upstairs” aristocracy and the “downstairs” servants.

Phyllis Whitney, romance novelist, liked to write stories that involved occupations. The occupation was one story; the romantic suspense tale was the other.

Consider whodunits such as the Egyptian archeologist mysteries by Elizabeth Peters or the National Park ranger mysteries by Nevada Barr, and any number of similar series. The details of professional practices are interesting in themselves, and they always contribute substantially to the story of the mystery investigation.

Or, as Franny Billingsley realized in writing her Horn Book Award–winning novel, The Folk Keeper, she needed to give her protagonist not just a desire to motivate her, but also a job to keep her active and interesting and out doing things and finding out things she otherwise wouldn’t. Billingsley, by the way, has been called “one of the great prose stylists of the field.” — Kirkus

I also often cite the Harry Potter books (the first ones I liked, the latter ones less so), for the way they combined several storylines: the big struggle of good vs. evil as Voldemort tries to rise to ascendancy through nefarious means, and the school-year stories of kids, classes, professors, highjink, friendships, romances, and all that entailed. Those are two well-developed storylines. Most importantly, they intersect throughout the novels and give the novels their uniqueness.

One more tip: When I advise writers, I often suggest that the biggest storyline they might initially think of as “primary” is often best presented as the second, slower-to-develop story. In the concept of your novel as a house, the first floor is the most public floor, the place of daily routine and busy activities. The second floor is the place where hidden dreams and loves and desires find their place.

To use a literary example of this, consider how the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird uses several storylines. One is the summer life of the young girl Scout Finch and her brother Jem in the sleepy  town of Maycomb, Alabama. One summer, Jem and Scout become friends with a boy named Dill, and the trio explores the neighborhood and acts out stories together, including ones involving a spooky nearby house owned by a Nathan Radley and his mysterious brother, Boo, a recluse.

This all goes along as the frontline story, but eventually, the big second story grows and sets in, swelling to epic proportions, as Scout’s father, Atticus, is drawn to defend a black man named Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. This sets in motion the full sweep of the second story.

While the racial-relations story might have been the initial impetus that caused this novel to come into existence and is the “big” story of the book, the childhood story of Scout is really the one that carries the novel from beginning to end.

In the end, what is really important and transcendent? The way the two stories interact.

The message: construct your novel well. To entertain your readers, present them with at least two full stories, and let those lines intersect in ways that each might fuel the fire of the other story, and in so doing, offer some fresh surprises to your readers.

4 thoughts on “Your Novel Needs a Second Story

  1. Roelant Dewerse

    Thanks for these insightful thoughts and well-worded advice. I’ll bear this in mind next time I start any story, of whatever length.

    Reply
  2. Vivian Quiver

    okay, now for a question that has absolutely nothing to do with this blog post: i have been trying to get my novel published for a really long time, but to no avail. i’ve read a lot of stories about successful authors who took a very long time to get their work published too, but just took awhile to get the right publisher. i’m not sure if this will apply to me, or if my novel just needs more work. how can i tell?
    well, anyway, thanks for your time and keep up the great work on this awesome blog!
    – vivian

    Reply
    1. PhilipMartin Post author

      Vivian, I did a new post on the Blue Zoo blog that’s a partial answer to your question about how long to persist in trying to get a novel published:
      http://www.bluezoowriters.com/proper-persistence-for-writers/

      Every person’s situation is different, but maybe there are some thoughts there that might help!

      — Philip Martin, Director
      Blue Zoo Writers & Great Lakes Literary

      Reply
  3. Keanan Brand

    Excellent post!

    I’m in the middle of a short story that hasn’t yet advanced beyond that dreaded middle. The deadline approaches, but I can’t find the plot, although I know the characters well and what they want.

    A second (and greater) storyline may well be the boost over the wall.

    Reply

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