Four tips on braiding past and present – Amy Mason Doan

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By Amy Mason Doan

The Summer List has three strands — the 1990s, when my characters, Laura and Casey, are in high school, 2016, when they reunite as adults, and a mysterious storyline that’s set deeper in the past.♥

It’s challenging to weave together three equally-compelling storylines without confusing the reader, giving away too much, too soon, or hitting word-count issues. There were many days when I wished I’d chosen a less ambitious structure for my first novel. Who did I think I was, Michael Cunningham crafting THE HOURS? (The Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 book is a brilliant example of a triple-braided storyline.) My story sometimes seemed as messy as the braid in my daughter’s hair after a busy summer day.

But I forged ahead, and now I often get asked how I managed to fuse three storylines together effectively. Here are my best tips:

1. Plan.

I started by jotting down rough scene descriptions on index cards and laying them out on my living room carpet. Each strand was a different color — the mystery story was gray (fitting for scenes that were dreamy and shadowy; I’m a little obsessive that way). The 1990s/teenage chapters were neon pink (wild!), and the 2016/adult chapters were blue (mature, to suit 35-year-old Laura and Casey).

The cards gave me a bird’s eye view of the entire story, which made the idea of writing 95,000 words seem less scary. And they helped me figure out where the different sets of emotional beats were, and where I could connect them for the most effective pacing and payoff.

2. Be prepared to rip up your plan.

This is true of any writing, but it can feel especially painful with a braided-timeline story, where the triple load of “book math” (ages, dates, world events) can feel limiting. After I finished the first draft, I took three weeks off and then read the novel straight through in one sitting. I realized that too many revelations were shoehorned into the end of the book, and that they’d need to be pulled forward and spaced out. This was a huge amount of work, but I didn’t want my reader to feel pummeled by “reveals.”

Pulling some of the big moments forward allows the reader to process emotions and relax into the story again before the next twist. I highly recommend Scrivener, which makes dragging scenes around easier. You don’t want to be afraid to experiment. When my editor at Graydon House, Melanie Fried, bought the book and wisely saw that the story still wrapped up too quickly, I converted the manuscript back to Scrivener so that we could test different scene placements.

3. Add hinges.

That’s what I call the links between storylines. These can be settings, words, or even feelings. For The Summer List, I wanted the different timelines to speak to and enrich each other, not to live in isolation.

One obvious hinge in is a scene where the adult Laura and Casey visit the old skating rink. This leads directly into the scene where they skate there as teenagers. A subtler hinge is laughter in a past chapter directly preceding a light moment in the present. These links can help make the novel feel whole and increase the reader’s eagerness to see how the three plots come together at the end.

4. Fresh readers are crucial.

With three threads, I knew I had three times the potential to confuse readers. I wanted them to wonder, and I wanted them to be desperate to find out how everything tied together, but I didn’t want them to be confused simply because I hadn’t done my job.

So it’s important to hear honest feedback from beta readers. Was the seeding of information too subtle, or too obvious? Were they rushing through one storyline to get to another that was more intriguing? If there are problems, give yourself a few days to sob and mourn. Then see Tip #2.

The novel I’m revising now has another braided past-present storyline, but only two strands. One less timeline to worry about! The luxurious simplicity of it — fitting the scenes together should be easy, right? Uh…nope.

But when I find myself despairing, I look at my multicolored stack of notecards for The Summer List. If they led to a cohesive story, I can create one again.


Amy Mason Doan grew up in Danville, California and now lives in Portland, Oregon. She’s written for The Oregonian, San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, Forbes, The Orange County Register and other publications. Amy has an M.A. in Journalism from Stanford University and a B.A. in English from U.C. Berkeley. Her debut novel, The Summer List, is published by Graydon House today.

amymasondoan.com

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