Multiple narratives originated in theater. Drama productions consist of smaller scenes constructed into a larger story, often used to develop characters secondary to the main storyline. As a result, the audience has access to multiple points of view on the story's action. In literature, books like Samuel Richardson's "Clarissa," Edgar Lee Masters' "The Spoon River Anthology" and Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" developed the genre throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Multiple narratives also have become a popular film convention, as seen in movies like "Memento" and "Magnolia."
Types of Multiple Narratives
In a tandem narrative, several equally weighted story lines exist within a larger "community," as seen in the films "Traffic" and "Sliding Doors." In a multiple protagonists narrative, a group of characters collectively change as a result of a common experience. Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible" features narratives from the four daughters of an American missionary as the family journeys to the Congo. A double journey occurs when two characters in a strong relationship are traveling either toward or apart from each other. This structure can be seen in "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier, where two lovers struggle with their separation during the Civil War.
In a traditional narrative structure, audiences watch one protagonist change throughout the story. In a multiple narrative, with each character heading up his own storyline, character development occurs primarily through the players' encounters with each other. This allows audiences to see their internal motivations, background and similarities and differences between one another. Kathyrn Stockett's "The Help" is an example of a multiple narrative where the relationship between socialite Skeeter Phalan and the African-American maids Aibileen and Minny reveal their common values and dreams in spite of the racial segregation that separates them.
The themes of multiple narratives are directly tied to the interconnected nature of their characters. Sometimes the theme can explore how characters deal with a particular issue. For example, the movie "The Lives of Others" looks at the consequences of government civilian surveillance, while "Crash" examines racism in Los Angeles through the eyes of a cop, an African-American film director, a Hispanic family and numerous other characters. Multiple protagonist and double journey story lines might feature smaller scale themes. For example, Annie Proulx's novella "Brokeback Mountain" addresses how easily personal desire can overtake our lives.
One advantage of multiple narratives is that they create a strong sense of suspense. Audiences continue watching or reading to find out the connections between the characters. In Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," the story gradually reveals the connection between Clarissa and Laura's stories, creating a need to read on. Another effect is that the characters' accounts of the same event can often be drastically different, heightening the sense of drama for readers. Russell Banks' "The Sweet Hereafter" focuses on a town that loses the majority of its children in a school bus crash, causing the citizens to point fingers and cast blame while dealing with the event on their own personal levels.
One problem with multiple narratives is that they often devote too much attention to the larger story and not enough to characterization. Especially in tandem narratives, in which authors and filmmakers have included as many as 25 players, the desire to link the different stories can result in characters that are underdeveloped or even unnecessary. This type of story can also fail if the author does not effectively link each story to the theme. Effective multiple narratives feature unique, interesting smaller stories that provide a strong foundation for a unified thematic whole.