Some stories are told from a single perspective, in a single location, over a short span of time (for example, Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson), but in general, the longer a story is, the more complex it becomes. Most novels feature between 2 and 6 different point of view characters, each with their own cast of supporting characters. They engage multiple narrative threads, spanning a wide range of locations and moments in time.
The real world is full of isolated stories, people and events that have no connection beyond the simple fact that all of these events are happening in the same world, and as a result every outcome has a minor influence on everything around it (often the influence is so minor that no one actually notices). But in fiction, audiences expect everything to be connected. Everything in the story has to feel like it’s part of some greater whole.
In general, stories are a combination of characters, plot(s), settings, and ideas/themes. And it’s through these four attributes that stories are united. The more connections, the more easily audiences can understand how a specific piece fits into the whole. However, there are narrative reasons to conceal connections.
For example, in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, one of the main conflicts is Rey’s quest for answers. She’s an orphan with unique powers, powers that are normally associated with very specific bloodlines. Her story is the search for answers, for identity through her origins. She even says “I need someone to show me my place in all this.”
This is also an example of a narrative promise, something a character says or does, and later revisits as a way of showing growth or change. The most common form is when a character fails, and later encounters a similar situation again, and succeeds.
How Characters Can Unite a Story
1. A single POV character
Harry Potter, for the most part, is told from a single perspective, Harry’s. The series does occasionally open with a different perspective, and in some books Harry dives into other people’s memories, but for the most part the entire story is told from Harry’s point of view. Everything the audience knows is learned via Harry, and everything is filtered through Harry’s perspective.
This means the entire story is told in a single narrative voice, with a single moral perspective. Scenes are organized chronologically. The story never jumps from one location to another without providing some kind of transition or context, often referencing the next scene in dialogue, or through summary.
2. Focus on a few specific characters
Who is powerful in the story? Who wields the greatest influence over others? For example, Voldemort and Dumbledore (Harry Potter), and Sauron (Lord of the Rings). Characters who are barely ever seen, and yet their influence is undeniable. These characters function like a sun, causing all other characters to navigate around their influence.
In a similar way, Dune uses Paul Atreides. At the start of the story Paul is not a powerful character, but every major plot or plan hinges upon this character. For some he is the culmination of generations of effort, for others he is the heir to great power, and a few hope that he might be their prophesied leader, come to save them. The fact that so many value Paul makes him into an important character, though he himself does not wield any power until much later in the story.
Unity through a character’s influence could also be considered a form of unity through plot, since most characters influence others by affecting the outcome of their conflicts. Dumbledore and Voldemort, as leaders of their respective factions, wield a great deal of influence over many of Harry’s own conflicts. In contrast with Tom Bombadil (Fellowship of the Ring), who is an example of a powerful but insignificant character, one who has power, but has no interest in using it to affect the overarching conflicts of the story.
3. Focus on characters in the same location
In Dune, 4 of the first 5 chapters take place on Caladaan, in one central location. Each chapter makes reference to characters who are currently off stage, establishing a complex web of relationships, both strong and incidental. Game of Thrones is another example. 10 of the first 12 chapters take place at Winterfell, alternating between 5 POV characters.
Characters that share the same space cannot help but influence each other. At the very least, characters have to work around each other, and become distracted by each other. As opinions form, characters will often learn to either cooperate, or manage their hostility, creating relationship driven conflicts.
Uniting a story through characters in the same location is also “unity through setting”, but because characters are interacting directly, there’s a strong emphasis on relationships, in contrast with a story where characters may not be aware of each other, or where the characters never have the opportunity for two-way communication.
4. Consolidate Perspectives
Lord of the Rings, particularly the Two Towers and Return of the King, maintain a single perspective across multiple chapters at a time. Each segment feels like its own little novella, or in the case of Frodo & Sam, novel.
On the one hand this minimizes the number of times that audiences have to adjust to a different perspective, but each adjustment also becomes more pronounced and jarring. This is in contrast with stories like A Song of Ice & Fire, which alternates very regularly, creating more fragmentation, which makes alternating an aspect of the narrative style itself.
One technique for countering fragmentation due to alternating perspectives is to reference off screen characters, technique #5, referenced below.
5. Reference off-screen characters
This is another technique used by Ice & Fire, Dune, and Lord of the Rings. In Two Towers, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are chasing after the orcs to rescue Merry & Pippin. In Game of Thrones, Robert and his counsel frequently discuss the exiled Targaryens. Tyrion only meets Commander Mormont once, but in later books Tyrion references Mormont when he sends new recruits to join the Night’s Watch.
Characters continue to engage the rest of the diegetic (fictional) world through their choices and remarks. Audiences are not allowed to forget what exists outside of the immediate scene and setting. Granted, verbal references only go so far. Eventually audiences need to see cause and effect relationships. Robert Baratheon gives an order, and several chapters later, the Targaryens see the consequences of those orders.
How Plot(s) and Conflicts Can Unite a Story 110-02