Roadmap to a Double Narrative
Behind the Book with Jan Von Schleh, Author of But Not Forever
In my debut novel, But Not Forever, things go sideways for fifteen-year-old Sonnet McKay while on a family picnic in an abandoned ghost town. After blundering into an ancient Victorian mansion, the main character ends up in a time warp and is whisked 120 years into the past. In the same house, 120 years earlier, a fifteen-year-old Victorian girl named Emma Sweetwine stumbles into the future from the very same room. Sonnet and Emma have switched places. Mirror images of each other, they now have to pretend to be the other while trying desperately to get back.
Starting with this premise, I realized there was no other way for me to carve out the adventures of Sonnet and Emma without braiding their stories together through the use of parallel storylines. I would have to essentially write two books, each telling the story of its own protagonist. Accordingly, the drama and tension of each story had to be balanced, the protagonists equally engaging. The stories would also have to clearly show the protagonists’ unique character nuances from the perspective of their own times and upbringings. I imagined this as two trains, one from 2015 and one from 1895, running on tracks that bobbed and weaved around each other, never meeting. The 2015 train carried a girl from the past, and onboard the 1895 train was an identical girl from the future.
Inciting incidents happen for both Sonnet and Emma in their opening chapters. Every other chapter is devoted to one of the girls. The story then becomes the emotional roller coaster of their new lives: the initial shock and hardship, fitting in, newfound friends and newfound loves, and finally, the sadness of letting it all go. Their themes and goals are mirrored and correspond over the course of each two-week journey. Chapter lengths are short for reader clarity, and the supporting characters in each story are developed equally.
I was careful to use similar imagery and emotional tone, taking into account the very different generations each story plays out within. I was also careful to have chapters end or start on a note that mirrored or complimented the next chapter, forming a smooth transition between stories, chapters, and timelines.
In the following mirrored excerpts, Sonnet and Emma have the same experiences at the end of their first chapters, but in thoughts and words reflecting the differences between a teen from 2015 versus a teen from 1895.
The end of Chapter 1 – Sonnet’s Story:
“Do I see what?”
“Like little shiny bubbles.”
“No.” He grinned. “You’re crazy.”
I put my head inside and wrinkled my nose. “It smells like death in here. Hide with me.” I turned around to face him as an angry gust of wind banged the window back open. It whistled past his head, blowing his hair into his face. With that gust, the closet door slammed shut, dragging me with it.
I smashed against the wall and flipped around and around, my hair whipping at my face.
I tried to catch myself as the space grew and changed. I tried to hold on to something, anything, as the floor skated away.
Flying objects hit my head.
I felt my ribs crack.
Darkness opened its jaws and swallowed me.
The mirrored way Emma’s Chapter 2 ends:
She looked the closet over to make sure there was enough room to prop the doll in against the wall. The air inside shimmered. How peculiar! Frowning, Emma moved closer and waved her hand in front of her, running it through what seemed to be tiny, glistening bubbles. A crash of thunder, and the tempest rattled the house, and rain beat like little pebbles on the glass.
She turned around again to the doll as a fierce gust of wind banged the window back open. With that gust, the little door slammed shut, snatching her like the devil into darkness.
Emma struck the far wall and screamed Kerry’s name.
She twisted around and around. Her hair whipped and pricked her face.
The slippery walls tumbled away and a chilly wind scraped against her body.
She felt herself falling. . . .
Complimentary scenes are highlighted in the next two excerpts. At the close of Emma’s Chapter 10, we see her speeding in a boat across a lake with her new friends. She is ecstatic, tasting freedom for the first time in her life. At the beginning of the next chapter, Sonnet, pretending to be Emma, is riding in a horse-drawn carriage with Emma’s wealthy father. A terrible foreboding from a conversation at the dinner table the night before affects Sonnet’s mood.
The last part of Chapter 10 – Emma’s Story:
After the initial realization and utter shock at the expected attire for the day, Emma had taken the challenge and agreed to it. Years of being browbeaten and banished to her bedroom fell away, and exquisite liberation exploded across her, as powerful as the wind that whipped her hair, as bright as the sun that burnt her cheeks. She had never in her life felt so alive, and she thought she might just jump in the water later with the two pieces of cloth covering only a tiny bit of her body. Or maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she would leave her outer clothes on with the bikini underneath and jump in that way.
In this new life, she could choose. She could decide for herself. No one would tell her that she was right or she was wrong, or that the color of her clothing clashed with her hair. The notion of free will electrified her, streaming through her body like the power systems generating modern light and machinery.
Niki’s friend, Sam—a girl!—sat in the driver’s seat and piloted the boat, as strong and capable as any man. Rapp sat in front with her and pointed his face into the wind and into the sun. His long, dark hair covered his face as he cast his attention back at Evan, eager for his turn to be towed. Niki, Jules, Lia, and Emma sat crowded in the back of the loud, vibrating vessel with several nearly naked boys.
Next to her sat her favorite. Loyal and generous and kind, Lia made her feel safe and loved, no matter how difficult it must have been for her to lose her best friend, Sonnet, and how trying it must be to now contend with her.
With happy, windy tears in her eyes, Emma mouthed “Thank you” to Lia, the ear-piercing engine making it impossible to talk.
As long as Emma lived, she would never forget this day. This feeling. This freedom. As free as the eagle Emma had watched with envy, from the confines of her old life. And now here she was, as free as that bird. Her new friends had captured her heart. And so had this life.
This scene in Emma’s Chapter 10 gives way to the first scene in Chapter 11 – Sonnet’s Story:
Feeling trapped, I leaned back against the black tufted cushion and inhaled the leather smell, using the deep breaths to drive out thoughts of Thorn’s overly pleased face at the dinner table the night before.
The open window framed the Sweetwine mansion as John’s black-and-blue carriage jolted down the hill, hurtling us to the Gold Nugget Hotel for lunch. Pink, yellow, and white painted surfaces stood in contrast to the green trees and brilliant blue sky. The house’s dazzling exterior decorated nothing but a lie. It hid a cold, unhappy interior—much like Thorn, the lady of the house. If it weren’t for Miles, there would never be laughter in that home.
“Where does the Sweetwine money come from?” I asked John.
“An odd question, Emma, but I suppose with your advancing age, you are developing a curiosity about such matters.” John folded his arms across his chest and fluttered his fingers on his suit-covered biceps. “Mister John D. Rockefeller, to be exact. He is bankrolling the gold mining operation. Good breeding discourages bragging, Emma, but I am Mister Rockefeller’s first agent and manager of business and mining affairs of Monte Cristo. Money is a private matter, dear girl. We do not discuss personal dealings with anyone outside the family. Remember that.”
“Mister Rockefeller must like you a lot to trust you with such an important job.”
John beamed across the carriage at me. A big version of Miles, his neck was squeezed in a tight, stiff collar, and his chiseled face and bright blue eyes made him look like a Viking.
I turned back to the window and fidgeted, my hands twisting around in my yellow silk lap. A parasol in the same color sat on the bench next to me. I reached over to it and ran my palm across the honeyed softness.
After writing a few chapters, I would print them out and separate them into Sonnet’s chapters and Emma’s chapters and read them, one after the other, as if reading two books. In this way, I kept an eye out for plot holes, inconsistencies, and uneven character development.
Additionally, what worked to lessen my own confusion was to write Sonnet’s point-of-view in first person and Emma’s in third. I thought I would go back later and change Emma’s POV to first person. In the end, if using different POVs helped me keep them straight, I decided it would also create a less confusing experience for readers.
Sonnet and Emma are a unique parts of one large story world and braiding their chapters was the only way to tell their individual tales. Ultimately, using the following roadmap to write a double narrative novel helped me and was a dynamic way to start a writing career.
Roadmap to a double narrative:
- Have a good reason to write multiple storylines, including an overarching story
- Develop corresponding plot points and story arcs
- Balance tension and drama
- Show nuances of character, language, and attitude
- Use mirrored and complimentary themes and goals
- Use similar chapter length, keeping them on the short side for reader clarity
- Make sure chapter transitions are smooth
- Finish both stories with a strong, emotional tie-in