Managing Multiple Story Threads

When I wrote the first version of The Channel, I wrote it in first person. This meant, the story had one story thread that was visible to the reader, the one from the main character’s perspective. Although there are some challenges associated with writing with a first person point of view, one of them isn’t keeping track of what all the other characters in the book are doing when they aren’t in a scene. Yes, you do have to know what the other characters are doing if you send them away and then bring them back but you don’t have to worry about all the details.

For example, did you read the Harry Potter series? As the reader, were you ever told what the teachers at Hogwart’s were doing while Harry was home for the summer? You might have learned bits and pieces when the teachers were in the same scene with Harry, but you didn’t visited them without Harry.

When I decided to split the first person version of The Channel into two books, I also switched to third person. This change in POV didn’t mean the story would have more than one thread. I could have told the story in such a way that the reader was exposed to only that which the main character knew (similar to Harry Potter). It would have certainly kept things simple. Of course, I didn’t choose simple. After I wrote the first version of The Channel, I realized I had an opportunity to engage several characters and, in essence, have multiple main characters-similar to The Lord of The Rings.

So, what does it mean to have multiple threads? To me it means the reader isn’t always in the presence of one character (or character set). It means, when the scene changes, the characters might change as well. Remember how Frodo and Sam get separated from the fellowship and you followed two main stories? That’s what I am talking about.

In The Guardian, there are three threads: the guardian’s story, the story of the woman he is meant to help, and the story for a set of characters who shall remain nameless because I don’t want to spoil the book. In The Guardian, the reader follows each set of characters over a period of time. Occasionally the story threads seem to merge but then split apart, eventually merging for real. Basically, I was telling three stories.

One of the challenges I faced when telling three stories was deciding how much of each I should include. I needed to share enough to maintain a sense of realism and build suspense, while at the same time, not interfere with the overall flow of the book. My first attempt at writing The Guardian gave the mystery characters more scenes than they needed. Initial feedback was that including all their scenes didn’t seem to add value to the story and slowed the momentum. So I deleted many of them. That was hard to do because I’d had a good time with these characters, shaping their personalities and giving them things to do, but in the end, I put the book first and set my personal feelings aside.

Another challenge I faced was timing. The three story lines in The Guardian weren’t too hard to keep in sync with each other. The Channel (the third person rewrite) was fairly easy as well. Although there are multiple threads in The Channel, one thread carries most of the book. The Dark Healer and The Keeper became my timing challenges. As I am writing this blog, I am not sure how many threads I actually had in each book. Sometimes my main characters were together, and sometimes they weren’t, thus creating temporary threads in the middle of the big picture.

To keep The Dark Healer and The Keeper threads timed correctly, I gave each scene a day and time block. I kept a spreadsheet that computed when the two worlds were in sync and so I could watch all my characters move through time as they did what they needed to do, before bringing them together. You might be thinking a spreadsheet is a little much, but when I tried to keep everything in my head, it made the writing even more challenging. The spreadsheet was a helpful tool.

To summarize, when you write from the third person point of view, you are afforded the opportunity to write multiple threads. Two challenges you will face are

  • How much of each thread needs to be included.
  • How to time the events in the various story threads such that, when they merge, they make sense.

Good luck with your story. I hope I met these challenges to your satisfaction.

Published by Cindy McCourt

I wear many hats: author, website planner, Drupal consultant, instructional designer, trainer.

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