Multiple Threads


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:

18 comments

  1. For greatly improved ease of thread management, I have found one tool — a surprising one — indispensable: Microsoft Excel.

    Assigning an Excel spreadsheet column to each thread, and allowing time to advance as the row number increases, creates a powerful organizing tool. It helps to keep the threads’ timelines disciplined, to remind the writer to insert thread scenes at the proper intervals, and helps coordinate the eventual “braiding” and “tying off” of the threads as the end of the story approaches. You won’t be able to imagine how useful it is until you’ve tried it.

    1. I’ve done the same with an Excel spreadsheet for working out a timeline for historicals; weaving fictional characters in and out of actual historical events. (it also helps keep track of the ages of characters in a family saga…)

  2. I truly needed this, just now. I’ve been pondering how to move a story forward, without bogging down in the interim details.

    Thank you!

  3. Thank you.

    Already have a calendar.

    Will need to think about this, and figure out if I can get progress going on the plotting again.

  4. And if you have multiple threads… DON’T cliffhanger ’em.

    I quit reading one otherwise-promising writer because I got tired of that. Every chapter ended on a cliffhanger. The next chapter was one of 3 or 4 story threads. By the time I got to each cliffhanger’s resolution (at the start of that thread’s next chapter) I had to find the previous associated chapter and re-read the end so I could remember what was going on. Needless to say, this got real old real fast. No, it didn’t keep me turning pages… except backward, trying to find what I needed to keep going forward.

    This was where I first developed a hatred of chapter-ending cliffhangers, but I’ve since noticed that even with a single story thread, those cliffhangers tend to be spots where I put the book down and never come back (and promptly forget that author for all time). The lack of scene resolution (even if that’s more trouble) doesn’t lure me on; evidently it makes me feel like there’s no reason to continue, perhaps because the capper for every scene is “nothing ever gets resolved”.

    1. This a “so they’ll keep reading” type of advice that always grated on my nerves. I’ve tried it. Don’t like it even from a writer’s POV. I want to finish a scene, “a unit of action and reaction,” before going on to the next. I’m glad to say I haven’t heard this advice for quite awhile.

      1. I’ve read two Trad-pub series where the author left a cliffhanger at the end of a book . . . and the rest of the series got cancelled. Oops! Lots of irked readers.

    2. Interesting. My last read through of Swain’s Techniques, I made a special note of the bit about two sets of characters, and interlocking cliffhangers. I had done that with my current project in mind, which may have been the mistake. Current project feels like it might wind up more than two viewpoint, and goat gagger ish.

      Thinking it over, Burroughs may have been an early enough writer to be considered short by modern standards. Certainly Swain’s era is one mentioned as having a tendency towards shorter novels than was the recent practice.

      I suspect it scales badly with the number of adventuring groups, and very badly with length. I have Drake’s Lord of the Isles on this machine, so could research how he does multi-viewpoint in that.

      I’m re-reading a 500k word fanfic. I’ve hit a point in the pacing where the inertia from the start doesn’t carry me forward much, and a chapter or two before the point where I remember the story getting interesting again, and continuing. I think I had that same getting-lost-in-the-slow-point experience when I read it the first time.

      It does make effective use of cliffhangers later on, so I should probably pay attention to PoV and problem switching. The most recent chapter was a long wait, with a nasty cliffhanger. (Involving a possessed swordsman and long distance healing magic.)

    3. Brandon Sanderson talks about cliffhangers that promise a question mark (which he doesn’t like) and cliffhangers which promise you what’s coming, with a little foreshadowing or hint (which he does like). His example of the question mark cliffhanger is the end of chapter line that goes, “He opened the door, and…” His example of the promise cliffhanger is, “He opened the door, and his ex-wife was standing there.” In both cases, you don’t know what is coming, but in one case, you’re just puzzled and frustrated, while the other at least gives you a hint that when we come back, we’re going to see something about encountering the ex-wife. I think it’s a useful separation of different cliffhangers. He does warn that you shouldn’t overdo either kind!

  5. Pam, I cannot remember the author or story at the moment, but I sort of recall a short story where the hero and villain both had equal viewpoint time. Do you have any thoughts on doing that? Does it give away too much information to the reader if they know about the big trap the hero is riding into?

    Another thing in that particular story that I remember was that the author was obviously playing with it because it was set up so it was almost a “Choose Your Own Hero” story, because both main characters did some good things and some bad things, so who was the hero could have been up to the reader.

    1. It really depends on the story problem, whether the reader knowing who the bad guy is, and what the problem is, is useful. Knowing the hero is riding into a trap can elevate the suspense, if that’s what the writer wants.

      Not having pure heroes or pure bad guys is realistic, but it’s a bit of a tightrope, as readers all have different thresholds of “Absolutely not!!!!”

    2. Multi-viewpoint stories need dramatic irony. It needs to affect your reader, knowing that the hero is gallivanting into a trap in all innocence.

  6. One WIP has a number of plot threads, and I was whining in my blog about getting them all to one place. Got a comment from someone surprised to learn that writing, like programming, has race conditions.

    And the voice is important. Was recently reading a multi-POV novel — single plot, all the characters together, which didn’t help — where all the POV were first person and I had to flip back to the front of the chapter several times to remember who “I” was this time. (Then, voice is more important for first-person than for third.)

  7. I’m an out of order pantser with a Big Messy Multivolume Epic in the works. 😀 So far I only have some geneaological notes, but I suspect one day I’ll need to set up a timeline spreadsheet or something to juggle that dozen of plot strands, the swarm of flashbacks, and that score of I’m Also Important characters and their personal stories. Some things already begin to fall into place, so I’m hopefull that I’ll get the mess sorted eventually. My advantage is that I don’t have an internet full of fans breathing down my neck like GRRM.

    I’ve realised that I’m not very good at different character voices, but that I have a strong personal author’s voice. So I don’t try to go for a ton of POVs with their own voice, but write a mix of third limited and omniscient that gets carried by my author voice. A bit like 19th century novels, though without the auctorial comments you keep finding in those. I know it won’t be a style popular with a lot of readers, but it’s what I do best, and maybe, after the abundance of books with third limited POV(s), a time will come when omniscient is getting more common again. Taste often happens in cycles.

    Most important is that I enjoy writing that monster the way I write it, and as long as I don’t need to write for an income, fun is the best reason to do it. 😉

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