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Tangled Threads or Perfect Weave: Writing a Many-Stranded Story

My first novel had a single first person narrator throughout. It was the ideal choice, since the book was loosely based on a fairy tale in which the central character is mute for much of the story (think Jane Campion’s wonderful movie, The Piano.) First person allowed the reader into her thoughts and feelings, and meant we could walk her journey alongside her. I kept the same pattern for the rest of that series, with a different narrator in each book.

I love the immersive feel of a first person voice, but of course it doesn’t suit all stories. First person is intimate, bringing reader and character close. If the narrator is unreliable, first person can draw us in, then deliver a big punch when the truth becomes evident. But it does give a very tight focus to the story, the only ‘live’ scenes being those in which the narrator is physically present. If there’s only one narrator, other characters are denied a point of view, making it trickier to show their thoughts and feelings. Devices such as dreams or visions do provide a vehicle for such insights, especially when writing fantasy, in which the uncanny is usually present in some form. I made use of psychic connections between some characters in that series.

Later on I wrote novels on a more epic scale, with a bigger cast and a wider geographical reach. Third person was a better fit for those. I gradually learned that with clever use of tight third person rather than distant third or an  omniscient view, a writer can create the huge canvas of a saga while also allowing the reader deep into the minds of the main characters. With each new series, I set myself some further challenges and tried out different techniques. I noted how brilliantly some writers use structure and voice in the service of storytelling. As I continue writing, I keep on learning. I’ve moved gradually toward a structure in which a small cast of central characters takes turns narrating in first person, chapter by chapter. This approach can also work well with tight third person [1], in the right hands – an excellent example is Joe Abercrombie [2]‘s The First Law series.

At present I’m putting the finishing touches to the last book in my current trilogy, a historical fantasy series called Warrior Bards. Those of you who write trilogies will know about the challenges of the third book, in which the writer must tie up the threads of two stories to the reader’s satisfaction: the one-book, stand-alone story, and the over-arching series story. In this series I have a trio of central characters narrating chapters in turn. Braiding three strands is relatively straightforward, even when those three strands don’t match (characters are individuals.) But what if the story takes those three strands in different directions? What if it’s necessary to add a fourth narrator? How can this become a neatly woven, coherent story?

In this book, the over-arching story requires my narrators to be separated for a long stretch of chapters. Not only are they physically apart, but they can’t easily send messages. This story is set long before the time of motorised transport and lightning-fast communications. Then there’s the fact that the characters are working under cover; contact holds an added risk. How could I maintain the connections between my narrators, whose interactions and developing relationships had helped bring the earlier books alive? Might this be both challenge and opportunity?

Establishing strong characters, maintaining distinctive voices: From the beginning of the series, I gave each of the three protagonists a distinct narrative voice. One character is bold and blunt, always ready to speak out for a cause. One character starts out as rude and arrogant; his abrasive manner masks an insecurity that shows in his obsessive habit of counting. His narration begins as tight and angry and gradually changes over the course of the series. The third character is a musician, a dreamer, an idealist; his voice is more lyrical and emotional, and reflects his love of nature.

The relationships between the three are the invisible threads that hold the plot strands together. Two of our three narrators are brother and sister, tightly bonded despite their differences. Two start out as fierce rivals and grow gradually closer. All three are linked by intense shared experiences in the first book; they will always be comrades, no matter what the situation. Those invisible threads are the bonds of love, loyalty, kinship and trust. Not that things are always rosy between the three, but each time one takes over the narration, the other two are still present in their thoughts; each of the three helps shape the others’ life journeys. Sometimes one of them remembers a time when they were together; sometimes they wonder where the others are and if they’re safe; sometimes they think, ‘What would X do in this situation?’ This helps keep the reader mindful of what might be happening for those protagonist who are temporarily off stage.

Making room for interesting sidekicks: Separating the narrators in this third book made room for some great secondary characters to step up. Each of the narrators finds someone to travel with, consult, argue with and laugh with, and each of these new characters takes on a life of their own, with a significant contribution to make to the story. One narrator makes a disastrous choice of travelling companion. I invited my readers to name some of the new characters and they did so brilliantly, finding evocative early Irish names.

Time, geography, who knew what when: With several different plot threads running parallel – they do eventually link up – it was important to make sure the timelines worked. Some characters are travelling by horseback, some are on foot, not all of them depart at the same time. They don’t all use the same roads. At a certain point in the narrative, I had to get them plausibly into the same place at the same time. With the historical constraints on travel and communication plus the need to stay at least vaguely accurate to the (real) geography of Ireland – for instance, some routes would be impossible for horses – I had to make sure the timing was consistent between the three, someimes four, threads.

Then there’s ”who knew what when”. The team is trying to solve a double mystery, and there’s a gradual working out of clues by each of the central characters. To put a further spanner in the works, one character spends time in the Otherworld, where, as readers of folklore will know, time doesn’t work in quite the same way. I created a spreadsheet by chapter and narrator, showing not only their movements but also the points at which each learned specific information related to their search and the points at which that information was shared. Colour coding for the characters added a fun element to the hard work. I referred to a historical map and also made a sketch map showing each character’s travel path. I hope my editors, and later the reading public, will find the result satisfying.

Will I use multiple first person narration again in my next series? We’ll see.

Are you writing a story with many threads? How do you keep track of them as you work, and how do you keep them relevant to one another?

How do you go about creating an individual voice for a first person narrator? Readers, do you love or hate first person, and why?

Photo credit: Photo 180371937 [3] © Maryia Samalevich [4] | Dreamstime.com [5]

About Juliet Marillier [6]

Juliet Marillier [7] has written twenty-four novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world and have won numerous awards. Juliet is currently working on a historical fantasy trilogy, Warrior Bards, of which the third book, A Song of Flight, will be published in August/September 2021. Her collection of reimagined fairy tales, Mother Thorn, will have a trade release in April 2021. Mother Thorn is illustrated by Kathleen Jennings and published by Serenity Press. When not writing, Juliet looks after Reggie, her elderly rescue dog.