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.