Often times in storytelling there are cases where two or more plots or events are linked together and play out side by side in order to add depth and additional meaning to the overall story. When this happens, it’s called a parallel narrative, and there are different applications of the concept throughout the various forms of storytelling. The most common place to find parallel narratives is film and television, but it remains very common in literature as well.
Types of Parallel Narratives
There are several ways that stories can include parallels, and all of them add depth to an overall work. Screenwriter Linda Aronson does a fantastic job of explaining the six key ways parallel narratives are told here, so I won’t go into too much detail when you can read that great write-up. But, to summarize her work, the six ways parallel narratives are told fall into two categories: stories that use time jumps and stories that do not.
- Parallel Narratives in stories that do not use time jumps:
- Tandem Narratives – Stories that have two equally weighted plots going on at the same time. This is the bread and butter of television shows. Think about how often in shows you see two stories happening that separate the cast into two plots that are not always linked together. Sitcoms do it just as often as dramas. Peter Griffin breaks something and has to fix it but keeps failing is plot one of the episode while Chris Griffin has to deal with trying to overcome his social awkwardness to ask a girl to the dance, plot two of the episode. They’re only weakly connected, but by jumping back and forth between the two stories, it takes the pressure off of one side having to be carry the momentum of the show. Maybe they intersect, maybe they don’t. There is no hard and fast rule here.
- Multiple Protagonists – When a story uses multiple main characters who all work toward the same goal, a good story will include many plot threads that differentiate the individuals involved. While the goal for all of the characters may be the same, their backgrounds, driving factors, strengths and flaws may vary greatly, something that the storyteller must deal with as the story progresses. When writing, think about what challenges are specific to each character and how can they personally grow in order to help the ensemble reach the ultimate conclusion of the story? Think about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) or The Walking Dead for examples.
- Double Journeys – For this type of parallel narrative, there are really three stories being told. There are two characters who each have their own entire plotline, and then they also have one that connects them. Finding Nemo (2003) tells the story of both Nemo and his father Marlin, and their respective journeys. Each of their individual plots are about trying to reunite, while the third plot of the story that sandwiches the other two is about making a life together and living in peace after Nemo’s mother and siblings all tragically die. Other types of double journey parallel plots can be about growing apart rather than coming together.
- Parallel Narratives in stories that use time jumps, flashbacks, stories within stories, etc:
- Flashbacks – Stories can include flashbacks as way to tell a story in the present as well as the past in order to add weight to both of the plots. The Notebook (2004) uses this type of parallel narrative effectively in order to show both the beauty and the heartbreak of life that time can cause. Westworld also uses flashbacks as well, although they make it seem like a consecutive story that happens at the same time until the twist toward the end of season one.
- Consecutive Stories – These stories are given equal weight as they are told, told one right after another, and are joined together at the end. Pulp Fiction (1994) is a good example of this. The stories do not have to be in any particular order, but the reason for telling them should add to the importance of the ending of the overall story when each of the plots intersect. The Stormlight Archives books by Brandon Sanderson are told this way, and lead to an ending that intersects all of the plots back together in some way that is satisfying to the reader.
- Fractured Tandem – This type of parallel story doesn’t care much for linear storytelling. The ending of the story is often found broken up and split apart into other parts of the various stories being told, as to borrow from the ending and add direct foreshadowing cut with mystery. How do we get from here to there? Let’s explore further by showing you more of the events before we cut back to the ending again. Parts of Breaking Bad are told this way. When told right, this can engage the audience to want to know more about what they just saw.