Multi-Threaded Stories: Watchmen & The Fair To Middling

This post follows a writing-group discussion about stories with several parallel protagonists. Epic fantasy examples were easy; then we wondered about other genres.

I found a few on my bookshelf, someone asked for a list, and somehow I’ve ended up writing an analysis. This took longer than I planned, so I’ve only covered a couple of examples for now:

Watchmen — Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

It’s not a prose novel, but Watchmen is certainly a serialised, superhero story with multiple viewpoints. At the beginning and the end, it switches frequently: everyone is involved in the inciting event and conclusion. The intervening chapters focus on one person’s actions and backstory each.

Within that focus, though, there’s still a lot of parallelism. Sometimes scenes alternate, switching as often as every panel. Other sequences show one scene, but run a parallel story in narration or background dialogue.

Switching so often lets Moore & Gibbons draw a lot of parallels between scenes: One voice echoes another character’s unspoken thoughts; two threads of text contrast, or support, each other. But at this level of detail I’m not sure we as authors can learn much — as mere words on a page, threads interwoven this tightly would get very hard to follow.

The Fair to MiddlingArthur Calder-Marshall

A children’s book from 1959, in a genre we’d probably now consider urban fantasy. The Fair to Middling is something close to a Little Shop that Wasn’t There Yesterday story, but with several protagonists who each want, and get, rather different things. (Caution: TVTropes link).

The chapters rotate between various (third-person) perspectives, following about three parallel plots. These cross back and forth during the story, but they don’t all come together until the end — and then only thematically. The characters end together in a physical sense, but there’s no big showdown or emotional reunion that pulls everyone together.

At 191 pages, this the shortest book on this list, but possibly the deepest. It was a memorable book when I read it as a teenager. Re-reading it now, I’m sure I’ve picked up jokes and subtleties I didn’t get the first time.

Thoughts So Far

These two books are enough to show multiple perspectives aren’t just for epic fantasy. Nor is there only one way for threads to intersect; both of these books link their plots together thematically as well as physically.

In terms of pacing? Well, I don’t understand pacing in general well enough to say much. I do feel these books’ parallel plots rise and fall together — the scenes at the end are consistently tenser regardless of which thread they belong to.

They both also happen to switch viewpoints with each chapter, but I’m not sure that’s a general rule. I’m interested to see how this works in the other books on my pile. I’ve got at least The Difference Engine, Gormenghast, Halting State, and a Deverry book still to look at; but they will have to wait for future posts.

3 thoughts on “Multi-Threaded Stories: Watchmen & The Fair To Middling

  1. Too late. Already disappeared down a tropes rabbit hole before I’d finished the sentence. 👋🏼

    Re parallels with pacing: an interesting touchstone on this is the Save The Cat beat map. The way it has the A & B stories intersect at various times gives a reasonable framework for analysis of how/where/why plot points mirror or contradict each other at various points throughout a story.

  2. isikyus says:

    Hmm. Having looked that up, it seems to only have A and B stories crossing at two points. I can sort of see that for Watchmen, but I’m not quite as sure about The Fair to Middling; I’d need to read it again properly to be sure.

    • isikyus says:

      Save the Cat! does look like handy; the bit I’ve read of it so far has already inspired at least one story, so it’s probably worth looking into further at some point.

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