The story loom: Threads and the weave.
As yet another manic Monday looms… I got thinking about looms. I can’t help having a fairly small brain (rather like Winnie-the-Pooh, with my thinking largely activated by my head bumping as I am dragged upstairs by one leg. Ahem. Now you all need brain-bleach to get that out of your heads, I can comfort you by saying that hasn’t happened much, which explains my lack of thought.
But to return to the loom: inevitably I was thinking about the kind one weaves a story on. Look, stories follow a number of patterns none of which the only true way. Some are easier than others – for readers and for writers (the ease of type not necessarily being the same).
I think, generally, single thread story, in third person, past tense, chronologically linear with a limit number of POV characters (with POV well handled) probably is both the easiest write well, and often the easiest to read.
But sometimes the story simply can’t be told well like that. Sometimes you don’t want to tell it like that. That’s your choice and your risk. I’ve told one in first person – of a character very unlike me (female, timid, urban, a priest.) because a large part of the story was how this character interacted with everything that she did not know. If I’d allowed another POV it would have been a lot easier… but also a lot more dull. The fact we only knew what the character knew was central to the plot. I’ve done some linear single thread tales too, but I find I like writing (and hopefully readers like reading), that entirely more complex beast, the multi-thread, multi-POV story. It is something which is amazingly easy to make a horse’s nether end out of – so if you inform me I have succeeded at the latter, I won’t be surprised. It’s exceptionally powerful (rather like a bandsaw) – and like a noob with a bandsaw it’s not easy to use well, and very easy to cut fingers or hands off with. Yet in the hands of a pro, it’s both easy and effective.
Rather like the bandsaw there are a couple of simple rules if you wish to keep your fingers… readers (if you like your readers you can keep your readers, the publisher said). The first and most important is DON’T CONFUSE YOUR READER. If, let us say, you are tracking three major threads – Heirs of Alexandria series for example – Manfred and Eric, Marco and Benito, and Jagellion and minions – make damn sure the reader knows clearly and well who they’re reading about right now. This is more just naming the scene, and naming the character. Speech patterns, ways in which thoughts are internalized, details of the settings (even if it is the SAME setting, a canal-born brat, does not see a canal the same way a Frankish Noble does. And neither see it the way the monster swimming the water does.)
Secondly with any multithread tale, you are always working with two opposing forces – firstly the reader need enough to become immersed in the misadventures of one set of characters, but secondly not to forget what the second set (or third or fourth) set is doing. This is MURDER at the beginning of a complex multithread novel. The pattern I work to is relatively short thread sections to start, changing back and forth often, to establish the character and threads so the reader knows them. I then get longer as the story progresses, often including a short piece from the other threads (often at a chapter end or beginning, to keep characters and thread ‘fresh’ in the reader’s mind.)
Of course, the threads don’t STAY separate. It would not be one story if they did. You can always tell when mine are getting close to merging, because the sections from each thread get shorter (and are usually juxtaposed.)
A bit technical, perhaps. I am, actually. Some people just tell stories well, and don’t work on structure but just do it by ‘feel’. Me: I have to try to augment my small talent. Multithread multi-POV one of the few areas where I feel pre-plotting is easier and possibly more successful than pantsing.
But what are your opinions? (About multi-thread books, not world peas, corporal punishment or the way steak should be cooked. Let us answer the easy questions first.)