Juggling simultaneous narrative threads

Phyrebrat

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My question concerns something I believe is more common in fantasy so I'm hoping for a bit of clear direction here.

In my WIP I have the main storyline which occurs in the present time, and other narratives interwoven. So far I'm 10k into the WIP and have handled the present day timeline, and the first, most ancient, historic timeline, set in 1178AD.

As a reader is it possible to get memory fatigue with lots of different time periods? I'm wondering how to approach the introduction of the others; there are about 5 eras covered including the Industrial Revolution, the tail end of the Atlantic Slave Trade, early Georgian, Regency and Victorian.

What's my best approach? Would it be best to introduce them along with the main storyline in chronological order, chapter by chapter, or one after the other.

So:

A (main arc)BCDEFABCDEFABCDEF etc

or

ABABABACACACADADADAEAEAEAFAFAFA?

I'm quite into the idea of running the A story with two others at a time.

What do you think? Is it too much?

pH
 
I hate flashbacks and also multiple threads... LOTR and WOT are severe in the parallel narrative front, though LOTR not too bad and inevitable as the fellowship splits. I think I can forgive one flashback*.

Just personal opinion. Certainly needs chapter break for thread switch and too long chapter(s) per thread before switch is taxing and frustrating.

Chronological is best, I think at most two threads at a time. (so you do jump back in time alternate chapters to keep in sync).

[* An outer framing story and inner happened "long ago", like Arabian Nights or someone recounting a tale IMO only counts as one thread really, as little or nothing much is happening in the outer frame story (the meta-story) except maybe at the end, your story could be structured like Arabian Nights, that works well]
 
I think it would depend on how the flashback segments relate to the theme of the main story. In what way do the flashback segments shed light on the main story?

Are the flashback sequences as important as the main narrative, or sort of footnotes to it?

Without that knowledge, the best I can do is to suggest how I, as a reader, might prefer to have the story told.

I would tend to prefer something like:

A B A C A D A E A F

Reading it, I would think to myself "Now I know how the B story relates to the main narrative" when I finished the second part. It would be of some comfort to me to think that I could now put aside trying to keep the B story clear in my mind as well as the A.

(If narrative B has to be, say, four chapters long, it would look something like this:

A BBBB A CCCC

and so on)

There are all kinds of ways to do this. Take, for example, the much acclaimed Cloud Atlas, whose structure is:

A B C D E F E D C B A


As usual, the best advice is to do what you think is right for your story.
 
The best approach is to do what G.R.R. Martin did in A Song Of Ice And Fire: each chapter is about a character, not just some events. Readers can remember what a character did easier than a sequence of events.
 
My question concerns something I believe is more common in fantasy
However, it does occur in SF: for instance, in Alisdair Reynolds's Revelation Space series. As Anthony G. Williams says of that series' novel, Absolution Gap:
Typically of Reynolds, the structure is complex with several threads running in parallel, set in different places and at different times (to be precise; 2615, 2675 and 2727, with the prologue and epilogue set four centuries later). Fortunately the location and date of each chapter are signalled at the start, so it's not too confusing as long as you pay attention.
 
i think that one way of handling this would be to provide a constant touchstone to anchor the various stories upon. sometimes this is done with reincarnations of a character, or by following an object or a particular person...
 
Hey Ph,

I was trying to think of a book that passed between lots of different time periods...and all I could think of was Kate Mosse's Labyrinth that flits between a bad Dan Brown modern Era (Very Da Vinci code...unfortunately) and a rather good story set in the Cathar Heresy in the 12th century.

From memory the switches all dove tail each other so that characters, for example, in one time period are walking the same area that the other character just walked in the story about 700 years before.

However it just had two historical strands, (although there were a few main characters so it wasn't just two people in third person) so the structure was a boring:

A B A B A B A B A B A B

Five. Five is pretty challenging! I'm actually not sure how I would do it, but then I don't have a story like that. However I will very happily be an Alpha/Beta reader to test the structure for you...

Oh go on do a Ian M. Banks' Use of Weapons and have one of the strands go backwards in time :D
 
all I could think of was Kate Mosse's Labyrinth that flits between a bad Dan Brown modern Era (Very Da Vinci code...unfortunately) and a rather good story set in the Cathar Heresy in the 12th century.
Some earlier thoughts of mine (from 2009) on Labyrinth and Dan Brown's books (with some of the spelling corrected):
Someone I know lent me the four Brown novels plus Labyrinth. (This was four or five years ago.) Of the five, Angels and Demons was easily the best, followed, at some distance, by The Da Vinci Code. Mosse's book didn't even match this (as a whole: I can't recall whether the prose was any good, but the plot had some gaping holes, even if you buy the mystical stuff). The two other Brown books trailed well behind that.

The only one of those five that I'd ever dream of reading again would be Angels and Demons: its plot mostly holds together (give or take the rather frenetic end) and the driving force seems less obviously false and manufactured than in The Da Vince Code. (Oh, and I liked the pictures. :eek:;))
I suspect this may have something to do with my preconceptions -- that the Dan Brown books would be complete rubbish and Labyrinth a lot better -- but even so, I found the latter well below par.
 
Some earlier thoughts of mine (from 2009) on Labyrinth and Dan Brown's books (with some of the spelling corrected):I suspect this may have something to do with my preconceptions -- that the Dan Brown books would be complete rubbish and Labyrinth a lot better -- but even so, I found the latter well below par.

She makes the schoolgirl error of actually getting us to the holy grail and seeing it...and it makes the ending a load of utter pants.

It's a shame because I do think there's moments in the Cathar bits that are reasonable...but no, I'd generally agree with you that overall Labyrinth was quite disappointing (Probably, I have yet to read any Dan Brown - I suppose I'm making a comparison with the film...Heresy squared, I know.)

At least nowhere near as good as the film with David Bowie in it.
 
I'm quite into the idea of running the A story with two others at a time.

Yes, I could cope with that quite happily, but probably no more. I think I'd also prefer it if the non-A storylines were chronological, but that wouldn't be a deal-breaker.
 
This weekend has been a tough one for giving me food for thought. Just regarding my own commitment to my WIP, I figure that having let it moulder in my WIPs folder for around 3 or 4 years, I may as well try and do it the way I want to. After all, the side narrative idea (which came from listening to a Sanderson podcast) is the thing that has really got me buzzing about this again. To the extent now that I have passed the point in the original first person MS which I had revised in draft 2 when I rewrote in 3rd. So, every day I write now is fresh for me which is a great motivator. Furthermore, knowing where the story is going already leaves me more time for my research on historic voice and facts.


I hate flashbacks and also multiple threads... LOTR and WOT are severe in the parallel narrative front, though LOTR not too bad and inevitable as the fellowship splits. I think I can forgive one flashback

I wonder if this is why I have such a hard time with fantasy. Every time I've tried to read them, I am lost within moments of the massive character list. I shouldn't be that way, because I managed Stephen King's Under the Dome easily and that has a sprawling cast. To be clear, though, my story does not contain flashbacks, but six narratives that are linked by the inheritance/theft of a particular plot of land.

... each chapter is about a character, not just some events. Readers can remember what a character did easier than a sequence of events.

That's how I have been writing it, although so far it's 'not one-on, one-off' but Chapters 1,2 & 4 are the present arc, with 3 & 5 set in the earliest time period.

i think that one way of handling this would be to provide a constant touchstone to anchor the various stories upon. sometimes this is done with reincarnations of a character, or by following an object or a particular person...

Yep, see above, that's the exact format I am following. The common denominator in each story is the land and the ancestry.

Five. Five is pretty challenging! I'm actually not sure how I would do it, but then I don't have a story like that. However I will very happily be an Alpha/Beta reader to test the structure for you...

Oh go on do a Ian M. Banks' Use of Weapons and have one of the strands go backwards in time :D

Haha, my grasp of linear mechanics doesn't go far beyond 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 & 8 so working backwards would seem too math-y to me :D - I love your beta comments so I'd be delighted to have you cast your teeth over it! It is a big stretch for me, but I'm pretty au fait with the Industrial Revo and Magna Carta bit so it's just the Regency and Georgian I'm worried about. Well, I should say more worried about.

I think it would depend on how the flashback segments relate to the theme of the main story. In what way do the flashback segments shed light on the main story?

Are the flashback sequences as important as the main narrative, or sort of footnotes to it?

Without that knowledge, the best I can do is to suggest how I, as a reader, might prefer to have the story told.

I would tend to prefer something like:

A B A C A D A E A F

Reading it, I would think to myself "Now I know how the B story relates to the main narrative" when I finished the second part. It would be of some comfort to me to think that I could now put aside trying to keep the B story clear in my mind as well as the A.

Thanks Victoria, that's my preferred version but I would like to have it ABABABABACACACACADADAD etc. Essentially each thread ends with a tragedy/murder/terrible loss, and the A thread is the last one to be tied up because the reader has to infer there will be a hellish end using the pattern that has gone before (on the land, for the characters involved), but it will also augment the ancestry/theft thread, too.

(This is probably mind-numbingly anal or boring as I describe it here, but I am hoping it will be a little more exceptional than that!)

Thanks for the perspective all.

pH
 
For myself, as a reader, the only thing that I find makes separate threads hard to read is when there is too much space between sections of the same thread. So something like this would be a pain to read:
ABCDEABCDEABCDE

But these are simpler:
ABABABACACACADADAEAEAEA
ABACADAEA

That having been said, I think that were it necessary to juggle a bit more to tie things together thematically, something like this could also work:
ABACBADCBAEDCBA
This way, the threads introduced earliest have the most play, and as new threads are introduced the space widens most with the threads with which the reader is most familiar.
 
Phyre, is your main (A) storyline told from a single POV? Because if it is, you could try having the A-line in first person and the flashback's in third, or vice versa.

No, the A line is from two characters' POV and one intermittent (i.e. at the end), sadly. Initially the story was in first person but there is an element of paranoia in the MC which is harder to handle in first. For example, in The Haunting of Hill House, it's quite clear that Eleanor is a bit psychotic and there is a nice play on whether or not the house is making her worse, or if she is just plain disturbed... or both! I like that layer and it's more interesting (to me, anyway), if you can also get into another character's head and hear their thoughts on that other character's sanity; is he going mad? then in the main POV have him wondering are they against me? Am I being punked? It complicates the paranormal elements because although these lifelong friends trust each other, there is an element of doubt that is wrong-footing them. (I hope this explanation makes sense)

...
That having been said, I think that were it necessary to juggle a bit more to tie things together thematically, something like this could also work:
ABACBADCBAEDCBA
This way, the threads introduced earliest have the most play, and as new threads are introduced the space widens most with the threads with which the reader is most familiar.

Yes, that is the road I really fancy heading down :)

Go for it - if you need to change scene order after your first draft has been completed, it should be easily done. :)

Thanks, now I just need to get those historic voices right! You know I realised that the bit I put up for crit a couple days ago had a glaring error; in 1178 no girl would have the nerve to speak out against a man like that! <sigh>

pH
 
You know I realised that the bit I put up for crit a couple days ago had a glaring error; in 1178 no girl would have the nerve to speak out against a man like that!

Not necessarily. :)

Pillars of the Earth has a seriously feisty pagan woman in it. And IMO, she's very believable.
 

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