One of the responses to our request for “what do you want the Mad Genii to blog about” was how to handle multiple story threads.
Answer: First learn to juggle . . .
Okay, not helpful.
So think about these multiple threads. And especially, how do they relate to each other?
In the most straightforward, you have a group of comrades with common loyalties and so forth. So the BIG STORY PROBLEM is important to all of them. So even thought they split up, they’re all on the same page. Defending the Kingdom, the Free Asteroid Miners, the Source of All Magic, whatever.
So for one reason or another, they go their own way, doing their own Try-Fail Sequences. (Very important! They can’t have smooth sailing, they have to work for their part to work!)
Now traditionally, there are three Try-Fail sequences before the final victory. With multiple threads you can split them up among the threads, and you’ll need more three total, so that at least your main thread has multiples. I mean, all your characters may be heroic, but one needs to stand out. And work harder.
And in the end, they all need to get together for the final battle. If they’re not? Why have them there at all? Might as well yank that thread out and turn it into a short story or something.
So, at this point the writer has two problems.
Time management. They all have to physically get together for the battle (whatever form it takes) at about the right time. So the guy heading straight for the goal needs to either slow down deliberately, or be delayed by mishaps and smaller battles to give the guy trying to get the catapults/rail guns around the Enemy Redoubt and up on a handy mountain enough time to get there.
For me, this often requires maps and calendars and so forth.
The second problem for the writer is transitioning between threads. If you take too long in between, and have an abrupt change to another POV, you can leave the reader stopping to figure out who the heck this character is and where and why, and just get totally lost and give up reading the rest.
If you don’t want to switch too often, have your MC worry about the others, maybe look at a map and try to figure out where the others might be. This is also a good way to transition between POVs. Your hero stares at the star map and wonders if his lovely Floof has made it to the Black Market Planet, and if she’s having trouble buying what they’ll need. Chapter Next . . . Floof spat in the face of the double dealing . . .
Just figure out a way to get them to think about, write to, ansible, send a message drone with a secret code . . . whatever. Periodically remind your reader of who else is in the story. It’ll clue in the reader, and help the flow as he’s pulled into the next thread.
And get them all together more or less when desperately needed. Last minute arrival of help is traditional, after all.
And depending on circumstances, you can have some fun with this. A late arrival gets yelled at, but he just happens to have encountered and brought along a top notch hospital ship, or desperately needed food. Comedic relief, because he was the worthless possible enemy spy they’d sent off deliberately to get rid of, or whatever. You can have fun in your wrap up.
But, you say. “My characters don’t know each other, they’re coming from different starting points!”
This makes it harder to keep them in the reader’s eye. You’ll need at least short scenes, frequently. Or perhaps your MC gets reports from his spy network or picks up gossip in the taverns along the route, and gets news of all the other peoples movements. Extra points if your multiple characters aren’t sure which are friends and which are foes.
And they all need reasons to be headed toward the same place.
Again, poor writer, keep a time table and see where everyone is and where they are. Throw some obstacles in their way.
And get them all to the dance on time.
Whatever form your dance may take.
Now, some people may be able to write straight through, bouncing around between POVs. And I can, if there’s only two. Sort of.
More usually, I tend to write each thread separately. It helps me keep the voices of each character consistent. If you do this, keep in mind that in the end it’s going to be episodic, so you can skip a lot of time, while the reader is checking on the other characters. You get to write the good parts, mention that it’s starting to rain, before you switch to another character. When you get back, the reader can assume the week long slog in the mud was unpleasant as the exhausted, mud splattered, troop drags into a town. This is, in fact, the best reason for multiple threads. You don’t have to write the long stretches of nothing much happens.
This method leaves the writer pondering just how to interleaf them. That’s where the calendar comes in. You know roughly where to put the various scenes, and depending on the order they are in, you figure out how to transition between them. “The Duke eyed the distant mountain peaks and thanked the Gods that he didn’t have to cross them. If the clouds were any indication the wind must be whipping through those snowy passes. Chapter Next . . . They were sheltered, after a fashion, behind a shoulder of the mountain that at least diverted the killing wind. Captain Black waded through the snow and cursed as the tally of his troops came up short by a dozen . . .”
You won’t be able to make every transition smooth, but you can’t hop madly from one thread to the next too many time. Just . . . try to not lose the reader.
And yes, there’s a lot of “do as I say, not as I did” in there. Perfect is the enemy of good, and also of spontaneity.
And that’s pretty much it, as far as advice I can give you. Go forth and weave those threads together!
And . . . not my best example of getting all the players together for the final battle: