The Time Traveller's Guide to Parallel Narratives
By Renee Chen
Though only recently popularized in filmmaking by Hollywood directors, parallel storylines have long been used by novelists and playwrights, such as William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and more. Instead of following a protagonist from the start to end, parallel plots are enriched by a multitude of point of views, backstories, and expanded world-building. These separate narratives are often connected by a similar theme, a shared set of motifs, or an overarching plot.
Parallel storylines are also handy when it comes to building tension. In Dan Brown’s mystery thriller The Da Vinci Code, for instance, while protagonists Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon and French cryptologist Sophie Neveu are hunting down the long-lost Holy Grail, antagonists Silas and The Monk embark on the same chase. This parallelism fills readers with anticipation and quickens the pace of the story. It also allows the writer to withhold and reveal different pieces of information at the right time. Below are two most popular kinds of parallel narratives:
A tandem narrative consists of equally-weighted stories running simultaneously. A classic example of this is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. In the novel, Anthony Doerr explores WWII from the perspectives of a handful of characters—Parisian girl Marie-Laure Leblanc, German boy Werner Pfennig, Nazi gemologist Von Rumpel, Protestant nun Frau Elena, etc. By interweaving the lives of multiple characters, the writer achieves a more realistic impression of the world’s multiplicity, people separated by space and time, characters of distinct ages, genders, and nationalities.
While unusual in nonfiction writing, tandem narratives can also be used to tell the story of a family’s lineage, with each narrative representing the voice of a generation.
In a double journey, two equally important protagonists either journey toward or apart from each other physically, emotionally, or sometimes in both ways. Because they often interact with different characters and have unique backstories, both travelers need their own plot line. A great example of this would be Edwidge Danticat’s “Children of the Sea,” an epistolary short story written from the perspectives of a young revolutionary and his lover, who are separated physically by the political strife in Haiti.
Through a double journey, readers are able to experience both protagonists’ situations while relating to the doomed, tragic fate of the young couple wholly.
Parallel narratives can be challenging to grapple with, especially for first-time writers. Below are a few tips to be aware of when using this structure.
Be Careful with Past & Present Tenses
Parallel narratives are often set in different times. Whether your stories occur in the past, present, or future, it is important to note the tense you are using in each storyline. Inconsistent tenses can confuse your readers and make your time jumps vague and indefinite.
Themes & Overarching Plot
While parallel narratives follow different sets of characters and occur in distinct time periods or places, connecting them with a common theme would make your story more coherent. This is similar to publishing a short story collection, which should consist of pieces that have shared motifs or similar themes.
On the other hand, an overarching plot is often used for longer works, such as a trilogy of novels or multi-season sitcoms.Overarching plots can connect parallel storylines and merge them at the climax or resolution smoothly.
Clearly Define Transitions
While each parallel plot should relate to each other and be connected somehow, it is important to divide them clearly. You can achieve this by stating the name of each character directly at the start of each narrative, or highlighting the different settings they are based in.
Consider Whether It Is Worth It
Anyone can shoehorn parallel plot lines into their work. But that doesn’t necessarily improve their story. Judging what risks are worth taking and what are not is an essential step in improving your writing, even if it means delaying the birth of your “avant-garde.” Ask yourself whether the message you are trying to deliver is enhanced through your parallel plot line. Remember, don’t just sugarcoat your writing with extra characters and conflicts that don’t fit your theme!
For centuries, humans have fantasized experiences of time travel and teleportation, dreamt about cartwheeling back in time, or even traversing multiverses within milliseconds. With parallel plot lines, authors are able to achieve these childhood reveries. To learn more about parallel narratives and how to use them, you can also consider reading these works:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
Renee Chen is a blogger and content editor at Voices and a Senior Editor at Polyphony.