“We construct a narrative for ourselves, and that’s the thread we follow from one day to the next. People who disintegrate as personalities are the ones who lose that thread.”—Paul Auster
A friend who is writing a complex book on evolution has been inspired by watching his artist daughter screen-printing layers of a picture. Successively using different colors, the image gradually emerges organically as a whole. He’s realized he needs similarly to line out his ideas slowly, giving readers the tools necessary to understand his theory’s major revelations deep into the book. This works better, he says, than “describing each of the parts separately in detail, which just doesn’t work.”
Narrative literature must bring readers along, too, and for similar metabolic reasons. Multiple storylines are a commonplace in drama and comedy—watch almost any movie—and sometimes there are current-action threads while past threads move, in sequential flashbacks, toward the present. We wonder, How did that screwed-up guy or gal get there?
I’ve struggled with tugging along more than two storylines, however, in a book-length work. I can keep the main narrative unfolding across many chapters, maybe with a related subplot—a reappearing villain, say—but want to tie off other threads as they arise. Introduce them, wrap them up, get them over with. Snip! This is because I feel I’m already doing a lot in a chapter, and shoving one more thing into it seems to imperil its shapely arc. Sometimes, I think, a thread must be used in a discrete heap. But maybe then it’s not really a thread? And too much of such summary turns narrative essayistic, in the old-fashioned sense—bloodless.
I like narrative, event sequence leading to incidents that culminate in a big incident. But readers need to experience, with the main character or characters, all threads develop if they are going to feel the emotions the writer desires. This is how it happens in life too: ongoing issues and layers of backstory keep moving into the present. Rarely does something arise out of nothing. The car with bald tires wrecked at least partly because you were broke because of your troubled friend and because, two years ago, your dumb brother-in-law got you a deal on those tires, a deal, you learn, that really benefitted him . . .
Unroll all those threads over the course of a larger narrative and, wham, what a payoff the reader receives, when the car wrecks, for all that you’ve shown across 300 pages. It took me an embarrassingly long time to see that leaving out any element from the prior narrative, such as that mendacious brother-in-law, greatly dilutes the climax. His role cannot be revealed and wrapped up when the car wrecks without the reader feeling distanced or cheated.
Feeding the threads out inch by inch is both difficult to do and rich, conceptually and emotionally, for readers. To pull all the strings, a writer must see clearly his main threads—surely defined as those connected directly to climaxes—and bring them along steadily. There’s much craft and artifice to this, unfolding while steadily and consciously withholding, and readers love writers for it.
An example in nonfiction is Jon Karakauer’s Into the Wild, as well as the movie Sean Penn made from it, which shrewdly dramatizes the book’s twin-story parallel structure. The ostensible main narrative is of Alex steadily dying of starvation in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. There’s a flashback thread, magically vivid in the movie, of his road adventures that took him ever-closer to the bus: he tests himself dangerously by kayaking through whitewater rapids and repeatedly turns his back on promising human relationships. A recurring thread set farther in the past explores his difficult early family life.
It fascinates me how much we get invested in the thread that gets Alex to the bus, when that setting constitutes the story’s present action and is the only thing “really” happening. But the bus is boring compared with Alex’s past adventures on the road, plus his disturbed childhood explains his final wilderness ordeal more than anything. There’s actually very little action in the “now” of Alaska compared with the long physical and emotional journey toward it. And those backstory threads within Into the Wild connect directly to the death of the smart, ascetic idealist who realizes, too late, that he must rejoin humankind for the meaning that he craves. All story elements support the same theme and form a whole that resonates.Such thematic and event layering works beautifully but doesn’t happen accidentally. It takes work and conscious craft. Even then, there are no guarantees. A novelist once defined a novel as “a book with something wrong with it.” And in her 1989 New York Times essay “Write Till You Drop,” quarried from her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, “Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too—the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed.”
So, it appears, I’ve noticed my latest impossible task: driving more story threads through a larger narrative, so that they run along with the main story, without creating a worse problem than what I’ve already got. To fix this flaw I’ve got to pull apart a bowl of spaghetti—making a mess of what I so carefully built. The result may work better but will be a different book, one surely with its own unique blemish.
Yet, Saint Annie promises, “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.”