Green plant stems woven into a braid.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of ourdispatches from the 2024 Power of Narrative conference at Boston University. For the first post, see deadline narratives by a Wall Street Journal podcast team.

By Madeline Bodin

How can you make a story twice as rich, twice as intense and twice as meaningful? Braid or weave together two stories that resonate with each other. In a talk at the 2024 BU Power of Narrative conference, Atavist editor-in chief Seyward Darby explained how how two narrative threads can be woven into a story that is greater than its parts.

Darby used a story from The Atavist by Scott Eden, “The Gilded Age,” is a 25,000 word investigative story about the international gold trade. (Our summary includes mild spoilers, but that doesn’t take away from what you can learn by reading it.)

Seyward Darby, editor in chief of The Atavist, at the 2024 Power of Narrative conference at Boston University

Seyward Darby

Step one: Count your threads and identify the resonance. Resonance is the key, and I confess that I looked up the definition to understand how it applies here. It means an echo or reverberation that enriches or intensifies. Darby wants us to ask: If you thread these things together, will the story elevate to a place it otherwise would not? How are these stories going to speak to each other? Where will they meet?

In “The Gilded Age,” one thread, or the A Plot, follows two men from Miami and how they grow rich by ignoring the corruption of the gold trade. The other thread, or B Plot, follows Don Alfredo, a land owner and logger in the Peruvean rainforest, whose land is being destroyed by illegal gold mining.

A hint of the resonance between the two plots comes in the first transition between them, Darby said. Eden writes that Miami men did not know that the place the “gold came from had been transformed into a hell on earth.” Lack of curiosity plays a big role in the story.

Step two: Timeline or outline your threads. When you see the key scenes in the order they happened, you can see how the pieces might fit together. For example, because most of “The Gilded Age” A Plot takes place in Miami, when someone from the Miami men’s team goes to the Peruvean rainforest, it’s a place where the pieces fit together. Another place they fit is when an A Plot character falls asleep during a presentation about the dangers of illegal mining:

In late 2014,Renato and several coworkers attended a mining conference at a hotel in Lima. They sat in on a panel about illegal mining, but no one paid much attention. “It was kind of like the ASPCA commercial on late-night television where they show dogs with one leg,” said an NTR employee.

For his part, Renato found the panel “ungodly boring.” As the presenters droned on about environmental destruction, he fell asleep.

Step three: Find the possible breaks where you can switch between plot lines. Using your timelines, look for the places where questions are raised or answered. Look for cliffhangers. The break should be in a place that subtly links to the next thread, but also leaves the reader eager for the first thread to pick back up.

Darby pointed to a section of the story where the Miami team is in peril after their supplier cheats them, leaving readers in suspense to go to another scene of fracturing, where someone is murdered in the rainforest:

With a group of Don Alfredo’s neighbors, Randy went back to the house. By then more than three hours had elapsed since the shooting. Puby, Don Alfredo’s estranged brother, showed up soon after. No one had contacted the police yet, though from Lima, Freddy had called an ambulance. Investigators finally arrived the next morning. A murder inquest was opened. Statements were taken. Because Randy was the only witness, he was simultaneously a suspect and presumed to be in grave danger. The killers might come back for him. Don Alfredo’s neighbors said they’d protect him.

Freddy mourned, he ruminated, he raged. His thoughts turned to Puby. “I saw my brother dead. It seems like they put three bullets in the head and death was instantaneous,” Puby had told a local reporter.

Puby was a gold miner. He’d tried to attack Don Alfredo with a machete. Was it possible, Freddy wondered, that his uncle was behind his father’s murder?

Step four: Play with the puzzle pieces. “I think of my work as a writer and editor as being a quilter who is figuring out how the pieces fit best together,” Darby said. Tools for this work include notecards or a whiteboard to list and rearrange scenes.

Step five: Tie everything together at the end. Leaning into the braiding metaphor, Darby said that just as a hair braid will only stay together if there is an elastic at the end, story threads should tie together at some point — although it doesn’t always have to be at the end. That can be as simple as characters meeting, or it can be a bigger revelation or epiphany. “It doesn’t have to blow your mind,” she said. “It just has to show that the time you spent with these threads is worth it.”

An early draft of “The Gilded Age” didn’t have that intersection, Darby said. But Eden did additional reporting and heard one of the Miami men’s (A Plot) reaction to Don Alfredo’s story (B Plot). It brought the two threads together literally and thematically. The piece ends with a child’s story that beautifully illuminates the story’s central conflict:

WHEN FREDDY VRACKO was a child—about eight years old—he wrote a story for school. He told me this toward the end of my first visit with him, at his mother’s house in Puerto Maldonado. He’d shown me old family photos of the home his father had built in the jungle—like something out of Robinson Crusoe—and of Don Alfredo in his thirties, standing in his sawmill amid stacks of boards planed smooth and ready for the carpenter. Young Freddy’s story was meant to be like a fairy tale. “El Asseradero de Oro” is the title he gave it. The golden sawmill.

“It is about a man like my father who knows the jungle,” Freddy explained. The man is leaving on a trip, and before he goes he tells his brother: You must protect this enormous ancient tree, “because it is the spirit of the forest.” But the brother forgets what he has been told. He cuts down the tree so he can sell the wood. And when he cuts down the tree, the whole forest—“everything, absolutely everything”—turns to gold. The man eventually returns from his trip and sees what his brother has done. He takes his son on a long journey “all over Madre de Dios.” They seek out other spirits of the forest in order to ask for forgiveness. At last they find a “brother spirit” of the lost tree, which grants them their request. Bit by bit, the forest regenerates from solid dead gold “back to how it was.”

But that’s the child’s ending. In this other ending—the real ending—the father is murdered, the guilty walk free, and as long as the rivers of money keep flowing, the forest can only be made of gold.

A braided or dual narrative means taking two stories that could almost stand alone and weaving them together, Darby said. Meaning comes from those two stories and the resonance between them.

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Madeline Bodin is a freelance environmental and science journalist who is based in Vermont.

Further Reading