Thursday, May 1, 2014

Parallel Plots

Several television shows I enjoy reached a point where they decided to split up their cast and follow them separately. It doesn’t always work well. In the cop show Castle, they used the detour then put the cast back together. In the musical high school Glee, they are still trying to hang onto the old cast and follow a new cast and the show suffers for it.

The same is true of a book that follows two separate plot threads. A parallel plot generally tells two stories of equal importance, moving from one to the other and back again as opposed to a subplot.

It is hard to get caught up in one plot when the writer keeps the verbal camera moving between two separate story lines, especially if they don’t connect.

The potential for plot holes is enormous. If you choose a parallel plot, ask yourself these questions:

1. Who do you want the reader to care about?

Splitting the focus between two protagonists weakens the reader’s attachment to them. Every time you move the verbal camera between them is a point where they can put the book down. Multiple point of view characters can stretch the reader’s connection to the story further.

2. What do the threads have to do with one another?

If you use this technique, it is critical that the plots intertwine, not run along aside each other, meeting only at the end. When the reader doesn’t understand the point of the split, they are likely to put the book down.

3. Are both threads equally intriguing?

It is hard enough to maintain tension in one plot line, much less two. Making both threads equally thrilling is twice the work. Making both threads equally thrilling and related is grueling. If only one thread is interesting, the reader will do a lot of skipping pages, unless they toss the book in the discard bin before finishing it.

4. Does it suffer from “too-many-character-itis?”

Each protagonist interacts with friends and foes and either the same antagonist or different antagonists. Two antagonists equal twice the work. Every primary and secondary character you add dilutes the emotional connection to the story.

5. Does it have a satisfying conclusion?

There is nothing worse than wading through complex construction only to reach the end and find a weird twist or obscure denouement. Don’t make one of the plot threads a dream.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, or even done well. Some examples of parallel plots are:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Holes by Louis Sachar

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

The Lady of Wild Beasts by Debra Spark

The Sex Club by L. J. Sellers

Day of Atonement by A. Alvarez

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

As you can see, they are very different books. Some were more successful than others.

Plot bifurcation has inherent structural weaknesses. If you choose to build your story on this skeleton, be prepared for the writing equivalent of a biathlon.


Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

6 comments :

  1. You make very good points, Diana. Sometimes it's worth considering whether you have two separate stories, rather than one.

    Initially, I didn't intend to have parallel plots in "Maddie", but it turned out to be better for clarity. I've kept the "second fiddle" scenes very short and they only appear at the end of the chapter. When the two protagonists meet, the narrative reverts solely to Maddie's POV. I think I have enough thrills in both plots to satisfy ;-)

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  2. This is excellent food for thought, Diana. I write stories with both a single protagonist and multiple protagonists. In the case of multiples, however, their stories do intertwine. Nonetheless, you make some great points that I need to address when I write and when I self-edit. Thank you for calling this to my attention. :-)

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  3. I just started a book that has two parallel plots, but I know from the synopsis that they will soon connect. I'm just a couple of chapters in, but so far it is working well.

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    1. I guess I should make it clear that I am reading the book, not writing it. LOL It was sent to me for review.

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  4. This is good advice. I haven't decided yet if one of the stories I want to write is going to have multiple protagonists or not, but if it does I'll keep this in mind.

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  5. Good ideas! Thanks for this. I have been trying to write a story series for the past few years, but the parallel-ness keeps kicking me in the head. I think I may have to just focus on the plot I have decided is the main one and hint at the other, leaving it more to the reader's imagination.

    I may have to try it out a few different ways of writing the story like I've been doing with a different story that I've been trying out in different formats and styles (ie past tense, 3rd person, diary form, etc). Still can't decide which one present's the antagonist's voice best. At least with all the rewriting and editing, it sure unearths the rough parts in the story and it's certainly interesting to see the same story take on different atmospheres with the different styles.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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