The Dual Narrative

By Mark Alpert

Like many other basketball fans, I heartily enjoyed “The Last Dance,” the ten-part TV documentary about Michael Jordan that recently aired on ESPN. Yes, it was definitely a sports hagiography, but it included a bit of controversy too. For instance, it raised the question of whether MJ was a “toxic worker” because he was so relentlessly harsh with some of his Chicago Bulls teammates. (The documentary really makes you feel sorry for Scott Burrell. Mike gave him so much shit!)

But “The Last Dance” also offers some valuable lessons for fiction writers. The documentary flips back and forth between two narratives: the story of the Bulls’ 1997-1998 season (which was called “The Last Dance” because Chicago’s management had made it clear that it was going to dismantle the team no matter how well they performed that year) and the story of how Michael Jordan and his teammates got to that point (covering all of MJ’s preceding seasons with the Bulls, from 1984 to 1997). The show would initially focus on several weeks of the 1997-1998 season, telling the story for example of how Dennis Rodman disappeared for a few days in the middle of the season to go partying in Las Vegas, then the documentary would go back in time to describe MJ’s childhood or his college career or his glorious stint on the Dream Team, and then the show would fast-forward to the next crucial stage of the 1997-1998 season. The documentary makers signaled these back-and-forth shifts in perspective by displaying a timeline graphic that told viewers exactly which year they were about to see next.

This narrative strategy should be familiar to fiction readers, because it’s been used to great effect in many excellent novels. I’m thinking in particular of Pat Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides,” which tells a pair of great stories in alternating chapters. One story occurs in the narrator’s adult life and focuses on his struggle to save his suicidal twin sister; the other story focuses on their traumatic childhood in the marshlands of South Carolina. If done well, this strategy gives readers two strong reasons to keep reading, and each of the stories will shed light on the other.

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to pull off this kind of dual narrative. Have you ever tried it? Let TKZ know!

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

6 thoughts on “The Dual Narrative

  1. I’m not sure if what you’re describing is any different from any romance genre novel. There are always two protagonists: hero and heroine, with their own character arcs. Conventionally, they’re told in alternating POV scenes or chapters. In the romance genre I write, romantic suspense, there’s also the mystery/suspense/thriller plot to deal with.
    Perhaps they’re more tightly intertwined than in the examples you give, but it’s still critical that readers care about both characters.

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    • There are two types of dual narrative. One is what you are talking about. The other has two timelines of past and present interwoven through different scenes or chapters. So, it’s present-day, then past-day, then present day, past-day, etc.

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  2. I’m reminded here of the alternating chapters of The Grapes of Wrath – switching between the Joads and the “general” telling of westward migration of the “Okies” during the Great Depression…

    And I believe you pulled the string on the dangling light-bulb for my “boys in the basement” who seem to be stuck in the dark on part of my WIP…

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  3. Haven’t tried it (yet) myself, but my 2nd current WIP might lend itself to it. I’ll have to mull on it.

    Right now, I’m reading Charles Martin’s “An Intercepted Life”. He employs this technique to tell the story of a star high school/college quarterback who is falsely accused of rape on the star-studded night he signed with the NFL. It flips between his childhood, football days, his 12 year stay in the prison system, and from his release going forward. Martin does it well.

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  4. I have a WIP with a dual timeline and dual protagonists. I wrote and edited the bejeezus out of it last year, but it’s still not quite there. This is my first novel, and I heard from an experienced author AFTER my first draft that a dual timeline is one of the hardest things to write well. (Oops. Oh well, nothing like jumping in with both feet.) It’s resting while I work on another story, but in July I’m going to go back and see if I can make the dual timeline story work.

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  5. About the only thing MJ is better at than basketball is being a big d*ck. Not just to fans, but people like waitstaff. He owns an area team, and most people head in the opposite direction when he’s around. A genuinely nasty, toxic person. Blech.

    The dual time narrative is a literary fiction device, not a popular genre device, because it yanks the reader out of “the dream” of the story. I never recommend it to newer genre writers. It’s rare to work with experienced genre writers, either.

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