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.)

 

 

45 Comments

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45 responses to “The story loom: Threads and the weave.

  1. I find the biggest problem is reconciling two frequently opposing tasks:

    1. Building the characters and their POV so that readers are familiar with them and how they think, and feel comfortable ‘in their skin’, so to speak;

    2. Building the plot of the novel, taking it from start to finish along a logical, rational route that can be followed, without it getting derailed by character development and/or conflict and/or my protagonists and/or antagonists going charging off at a tangent, with me vainly pursuing them, crying out “Stop! I didn’t want you to to go there! Come back!”

    All too often, one of those priorities will override the other, and I’ll have to either follow where the plot and/or characters are leading (with terminal damage to my precious outline), or drag them back, kicking and screaming, to try to force them into the frame I’d designed for them. (The latter is seldom successful, I may add.)

    • Yup, by 3/4 of the way through the characters have usually stomped on my precious outline and mutilated it past all recognition. To be fair, though, they can wreak just as much havoc even if you leash them to a single-thread, single-POV story.

      • Oh my stars and garters yes! I had a nice, tidy and (I thought) loose enough plot outline for the WIP that the characters would stay within the bounds. Both characters and setting conspired against me, leaving the original plot in the dust.

        • Yeah. I’m down to a page of “start here” a list of bullet points and “ends like this. Maybe.”

          My “learn something new this summer” projects are going to require a lot more, because I’m writing in unfamiliar subgenres.

      • I’ve looked back at some of my original notes for some of my books – and hooo-boy, did the eventual characters in the finished book diverge.

        I did one book, though – with a pair of female main characters; a very proper Victorian lady, and her ladies’ maid, following on the lady’s marriage to a Texas cattleman. I sliced the chapters in half – or alternated chapters, and told the story with alternating viewpoints. It worked out pretty well, I think.

      • I was in an improv group for three and a half years in college. It’s a really useful skill set to learn; there’s often a lot that is worthwhile in letting the story have its head, but you also learn when to drop an asteroid on the scene. (I think we only had to deploy a world-ending asteroid once or twice in all of my years.)

    • Mary

      My characters tend to do their running wild in the outline itself.

  2. “Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive”

    Seems to me the sign of a good writer is when the threads aren’t tangled, even if sometimes the lack of tangle is not immediately obvious to the reader.

  3. paladin3001

    Multiple threads are good. Too many and I find my mind starts getting too snarled as a reader. Some authors can pull it off well, most poorly IMHO. As well once you have a tangled skein it’s hard for me to get back into a story flow. Currently all my stories are rather simplistic in writing, mind you I think I have started a multi-threaded story. Keeping it simple though with currently only three threads, maybe two. Will see how it goes.

  4. morrigan508

    I admire the well told multi thread story. I haven’t done one yet, as keeping the treads separate and keeping track of everything in such a way as to get them all together in the end (ala the movie “Big Trouble”, or anything written by Webber) is a special challenge for a pantser like myself.

  5. Luke

    Cook steak?
    Sure, briefly singe it to remove any bacterial threat, but beyond that, why?

    • The proper way to cook a steak is the way you like it. All else is technicalities. (Though I highly recommend the use of an immersion circulator, as that brings the meat to a safe rare throughout, and you can sear to taste after you take it out, with no worries that you’re going to poison yourself.)

      • Zsuzsa

        I agree. Immersion circulators make things extremely tasty. They also allow you to cook a tough cut long enough to make it tender while keeping it a tasty reddish pink rather than turning it tasteless grey.

    • Zsuzsa

      Please walk the cow by the grill on its way to the table?

    • Note to self: Avoid these people, especially if there is anything resembling a heat source in the vicinity.

  6. I enjoy multi-thread novels IF the author keeps things clear. Perhaps not quite to the extent that Andre Norton went with the first two Gryphon novels, where each main character tells one chapter in first-person, alternating, with the speaker’s name in the chapter heading, but still clear. I tried something like that with the first true novel I wrote (not first published), and failed because I had too many POV characters and I added yet one more half-way through the book. I’m not good enough to carry that sort of thing off without irking readers.

  7. I enjoy reading multi-thread novels, as long as the threads don’t stay separate for so long that I’ve forgotten what cliff the earlier characters were hanging off by the time we get back to them! (George R. R. Martin, I’m looking at you!)

    And as a writer, I find multiple threads useful for a number of reasons. I can set a trap in Thread A and watch the characters in Thread B walking into it. I can draw out suspense about Thread A by leaving the characters in crisis while I follow Thread B, as long as I remember the George R. R. Martin rule. I can add suspense by setting it up so that Thread A and Thread B are inevitably going to meet, preferably clash. I can show how differently A and B characters interpret the same situation, the same event – heck, they can even interpret 10+10 differently! (The computer nerd mutters, “Well, I’m using hex, so the answer is 14.”) And I can interpolate short sections of a Thread C using a style that’s fun and appropriate for an occasional chapter but that would drive readers batty if it continued for a whole book.

    Umm, looking back, I see that some of those examples are technically multi-POV but not necessarily multi-thread. I think they work better if they’re used with different threads that happen to be overlapping, though.

    • I’m using binary, you insensitive clod! 😉

      Good point on GRRM. *sigh* And can we please not get bogged down over on the yonder continent??

      I don’t set out to use multiple POVs or threads; I write scenes in no order but as they come to me, and new or swapped POV and/or thread generally happens when there’s no one else available to tell that part of the story. Frex, first thing I do to my MC is nearly kill him (he says to tell you next time he wants a different author!) and for a while he’s really not good for much, so we get a chunk from the secondary MC. Later on there’s a long stretch of overlapping “you just missed him” where a gap in everyone’s understanding (including the readers) was filled by using a minor villain’s POV (and he proved great fun). But things generally go best when I can stick mostly with the MC’s POV and thread.

      Consider that every switch is an interruption to the reader’s attention, which may or may not go over well depending on how quickly they connect with the new POV/thread. Generally it works, but I can think of a few examples where I barely slogged through the alt-threads, and next time I re-read _The Devil’s Advocate_ I’m gonna skip the alt-thread parts entirely.

      • Well, 10100 to you, then!

      • 0ldgriz

        One of the advantages of ebooks is a search function. Peter F Hamilton writes massive tomes with multiple threads. I have read some of his books by searching for the character I like and only reading those threads. I think this style of reading is genetic. My mom and I read Tolstoy concurrently. I read War. She read Peace.

    • There was one two-viewpoint novel that drove me nuts because they screwed up the order. It was some humorous take on devil vs. angel for dominance over the next millennium—something Faustian—and in one of the viewpoints you saw the opposing viewpoint character free before the section from his POV where he got out of the trap. EDITING, folks.

    • “Well, I’m using hex, so the answer is 14.”

      I made a shirt for my brother’s birthday two years back that said “I’m 28 (in hexadecimal.)” He didn’t send it back to me for my birthday…

    • Zsuzsa

      “I can add suspense by setting it up so that Thread A and Thread B are inevitably going to meet, preferably clash. ”

      I’m reminded of, I believe it was Hitchcock who said that if you have two characters talking, then have a bomb going off under the table, you have have boredom followed by confusion. However, if you show the audience the bomb before the conversation starts, you have mounting tension followed by release and excitement. Multiple threads can be a good way to show the bomb.

      ==================================
      “heck, they can even interpret 10+10 differently! (The computer nerd mutters, “Well, I’m using hex, so the answer is 14.”) ”

      The computer nerd in me would like to point out that even if you’re using hex, the answer to 10+10 is still 20. If you’re using hex, not only the digits in the answer but the digits in the question should be interpreted differently.

      The only systems in which 10+10 is not 20 are the ones where there is no 2 (so either binary or something weird like balanced trinary).

  8. I am reminded of the novelization of Forbidden Planet, which by period standards was extremely radical, at least as I recall it: Each chapter was PoV of the character named in the chapter heading.

    Related to this is how often characters appear, are mentioned once, and vanish (there is a Latinate for this: Hapax Legomena ). The answer is “commonly” in biography and legendary material, and more rarely in fiction. The test of this is found at http://arxiv.org It is a physics paper, sort of

    Character Networks and Book Genre Classification
    Article · April 2017

    1st Adriano J. Holanda
    18.38 · University of São Paulo
    2nd Mariane Matias

    3rd Sueli M. S. P. Ferreira
    Last Osame Kinouchi
    31.51 · University of São Paulo

    Abstract
    We compare the social character networks of biographical, legendary and fictional texts, in search of statistical marks of historical information. We examine the frequency of character appearance and find a Zipf Law that does not depend on the literary genera and historical content. We also examine global and local complex networks indexes, in particular, correlation plots between the recently introduced Lobby (or Hirsh $H(1)$) index and Degree, Betweenness and Closeness centralities. We also found no relevant differences in the books for these network indexes. We discovered, however, that a very simple index based in the Hapax Legomena phenomenon (names cited a single time along the text) that seems to have the potential of separating pure fiction from legendary and biographical texts.

  9. As a reader, I like multi-thread, multi-POV books. The shorter the work, the fewer of both, please. And for long works, there’s a point where you just can’t remember which character that is. But I do like moderate complexity to a plot.

    My current WIP has two Threads that start together and will end together, just to tie up loose ends and give a satisfactory conclusion. One has a single POV, the main thread has four, with one dominating.

  10. As long as what’s necessary to keep the reader not confused is on the page – and not in the writer’s head – the multi-thread, multiple pov story then ONLY has the same problems as other stories: plot, characters, theme, genre.

    It is working at a higher degree of difficulty. And it takes longer to develop the skill to write.

    But it is a LOT more fun for the writer (after reasonable mastery). We see where every little clue is set, and how it is discovered. And how each tiny piece is essential to the whole. If some of our readers get it, the writer will be satisfied.

    • I once saw a thought piece that said you have to remember what the center of your story is. Is it a character? Then every scene should be around or about that character. Is it about a relationship? Then every scene should include one or more members of that relationship. Is it about an event? Then everything should relate to that. And so on. It’s useful for multi-POV works because if you have one character wandering away from the center, you can decide whether you really need that POV or not.

  11. Can you serve world peas with a nicely grilled steak?

  12. Confutus

    Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. His cast of characters kept getting bigger and bigger, and spinning off story threads and subplots of their own, until he entirely lost control. When I couldn’t tell the difference between Setaine and Setalle, and didn’t much care because both were in sideshows and not clearly part of the main event, he started to lose me.

    Contrast Brandon Sanderson, who (having learned from Jordan’s mistakes) shows markedly superior handling of the complex multi-threaded form.

    • Josh Griffing

      I got my wife the complete Wheel of Time series last year, and only in January did I pick them up myself: by the end of “The Great Hunt” (third chronologically), it seemed almost that the plot and characters themselves were mostly excuses for a tour of his map! Not that that’s always a problem, but the road-trip epic quest that changes directions and routes every several chapters gets rather disorienting in its own way.

  13. Draven

    *gives you some hunny so you can contemplate things.

  14. I must be doing this writing thing wrong.

    My characters don’t behave. There is no outline. New characters show up periodically, hammering on the door and demanding to be let in to join the free-for-all. Periodically a character demands attention, so I have to go see what they are doing. Then they get chatting, and I have to go back to the action to see what happened while I was away.

    All there is, is a world, a danger, and people to fight it. I feel like I’m holding the whole world in my head, and there’s so many interesting things going on it is hard to settle on telling about just one. Also, I feel like people want to know -why- Bad Guy decided to attack just then, so I have to go see what he was doing when he decided. Turns out Snarky Spider was giving him lip or something like that.

    None of it confuses me, but then its my world in my head. Hopefully other people won’t be saying “What? Where did this guy come from?!”

    • That sounds familiar. As in my first draft. I had to find end points, split it into three books, then tackle each one separately, ripping out whole threads that that just didn’t matter to the final story as it was engineered, and writing new sections and transitions.

      Some of the ripped out threads made reasonable short stories.

      Thankfully, I found some beta readers who were immensely helpful.

  15. I’ve evolved a heuristic for my novels: One POV per chapter, and (ideally) the POV character name is the name of the chapter. I had to change the POV inside a chapter a time or two in my first novel, and the commonest complaint I got in the Amazon reviews was that when the action got thick toward the end it was a little hard to tell who was doing what to whom. Guilty.

    I kept to that schema religiously in my second novel, and although there were several woven threads, nobody ever complained that they lost track of the threads. (One complainant claimed that there were too many characters, which isn’t quite the same thing.)

    It’s all the weirder that I’m an extreme pantser, what Kate Paulk calls a “gateway writer.” I don’t have an outline. I never do, and in truth never have. I start with a concept and a character, and I start writing. Somehow the braids get braided and it all comes out straight in the end. How the hell does that work, anyway?

  16. mrsizer

    The book I’m reading now uses the character-name-as-chapter-title pattern. I don’t really have a problem with it, but there are only three POVs and they rotate round-robin, so it seems a bit excessive – and they are short chapters.

    I don’t like intra-chapter POV switching. Unless it’s done for deliberate effect, I also don’t like garbled time. So, I think a “chapter” should be both a POV and time boundary. If you switch POV between chapters, my assumption – unless you make it clear otherwise – is that the second chapter starts at the same point in time that the first chapter either starts or ends (and it should be clear which).

    I very much do not like the start-of-chapter timestamp. I’d much prefer “meanwhile back at the ranch” starting a chapter than an author assuming I’m going to notice that two chapters have the same stardate.

    The Solar Clipper books have location, time, and POV at the start of each chapter; it’s the only thing I don’t like about them. It probably also makes for bad Audible (not sure).

    I’m a big fan of multiple POV, but multiple threads had better be woven rather than just tied in a knot at the end.

  17. Terry Sanders

    The scariest multi-thread I’ve read was John C. Wright’s IRON CHAMBER OF MEMORY.

    SPOILER ALERT

    I was several chapters in before it finally dawned on me–part of the title room’s magic was editing characters’ memories of events OUTSIDE the room as well, to keep them from realizing anything because of gaps.

    Which meant–the story was being told by an UNRELIABLE third-person-omniscient narrator!

    The scary part is, he pulled it off.

    • We’re working on that right now in the comic. It’s caused a lot more info-dumps than I’m completely happy with, but we are learning a lot in the process.