Tips for Writing Non-Converging Parallel Plotlines

Sliding DoorsAs some of you might know, the book I’m currently writing is a frame story – a story within another story. For this project, I wanted two parallel plotlines, but with one important change. In my project the two stories never converge, not even at the climax as a traditional duel plotline will. This is not a story structure many writers use, and even fewer offer advice on how to use it correctly. So when looking for help with this tricky story, I turned to movie and TV screenwriters for inspiration and guidance.

By studying the six types of parallel narrative structures in screenplays and by reading scripts, I’ve gleaned 4 tricks that will strengthen any novel with two or more non-converging plot lines.

  1. Create linkage between the plots
    Something must bind the plots. In my case, one storyline takes place in the past while the framing story takes place in the present. I used the setting as the tool to bind them together. Both stories take place in the same small fictional town and the landmarks and geography of that town became the physical anchor for the two plots.
  2.  Mirror the themes and metaphors
    I did this in a few different ways. First, I repeated the number of characters in each storyline. Both have ten characters. I also repeated relationship patterns. For example, both plots have one set of siblings and a former romantic couple. They also share a creepy tone.
  3. Make key plot points correspond
    Although the inciting incidents worked out fine, I’m still struggling with making the midpoint reversals happen at about the same time. Also, synchronizing the climaxes is not going to be easy. I’m not there yet, but I can already tell I’m going to need to make some story adjustments.
  4. Use different but compatible goals for each storyline
    One protagonist wants to set right a mistake and mend a broken relationship, while his companions want to escape a winter storm that has them trapped. In the other storyline, the protagonist wants to break a curse, thereby freeing herself, but also damming her companions. Freedom, forgiveness and release become the reoccurring goals in both plots.

    The structure I’m using in my project is closest to what screenplay writers call tandem narrative. Some examples of tandem narrative are the films Sliding Doors and Traffic. I also found reading the script for The Princess Bride very helpful.

    Since I feel like I’m on fresh ground with my parallel non-converging plots, I would love to hear from anyone who has more tips to share.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

12 thoughts on “Tips for Writing Non-Converging Parallel Plotlines”

    1. Hi Cate,
      I’m glad you liked the post. I love odd story structures, they can be a lot of fun to read and write.

  1. Everyone is right: It is very hard to find good analysis online of Parallel Plot structure. I think this is very good and has given me confidence for my search of truth within my novel, Shawn Will. Honestly, I love the Parallel Plot structure, because when used correctly, it creates complete characters in a novel. My use of the PP structure is by having my main character presented in both youth, as well as an adult. I picked an important year of evolvement in my protagonist past, then wrote of a similarly dramatic year for him set in present day. And it works fine! There are plenty of ways to have fun with this writing dynamic; present day crises can be traced to past scenarios, creating depth within the characters; or inside jokes, from both past and present, can jump off the page with fresh perspective, that only the reader can see, etc.

    My opinion of the Parallel Plat structure is simple: If it only makes sense to you, then it’s wrong. But if others can follow your PP story lines, while enjoying entertainment value, without confusion, then your Parallel Plot structure is working fine.

    Hope this helps.

    Ronnie
    RFD Agency

    1. Hi Ronnie,
      Beta readers are an important part of anything written in a parallel plot structure. I think finding someone with no plot background information, not even a blurb, is one of the best ways to test for story clarity. Good luck with your project. It sounds exciting.

  2. This is very interesting and is precisely the sort of thing I try to grapple with. I recently abandoned a project because I couldn’t think how to link the past and the present. Maybe I’ll return to it one day if I have a better idea! In Oranges for Christmas I used two first-person narrators, alternating scenes between East and West Berlin. The two stories converge at the end but I still kept up the alternating narrators because it was a good way to build in suspense – leaving one character hanging whilst I switched to the other. The Sleeping Angel was much harder to write because I used three different time periods – 1870, 1970 and the present day. What links them is a nineteenth-century diary that is found and read in the present and the fact that the protagonist from 1970 is still very much alive in the present day. Also location was very important – all three time periods have scenes set in Highgate Cemetery. Good luck with your project!

    1. Hi Margarita,
      I think when you go outside your comfort zone with story structure it’s easy to stall out. I know it has happened to me. I sure hope you find a way back to your abandoned project, and you figure out a way to make it work. Keep me posted on how things are going with your project. : )

    1. Hi Traci,
      I love to change up what I’m writing, but I will admit this structure has been a challenge! : ) Thanks for stopping by and for the tweets today.

    1. Hi DL,
      First off, I am in love with frame stories! So I’ll be looking forward to reading yours.
      And I’m thrilled I gave you some food for thought. Having a stalled book is the worst feeling in the world. However, I’ve noticed a few times with my own work that sometimes changing the structure is what makes the pieces fall into place. I’m hoping you find the same good luck with your book. Fingers crossed for you!

  3. Great post! This makes me think a lot about the short stories series I am currently working on. The first series is an ensemble of 10 stories, a different narrator and piece of the story for each. Some of the plots converge, but not all. There is a general society/narrative arc binding them all, but it is more like fragments of a same overall story (though there is resolution and mini story everywhere). I am currently debating releasing them one by one (original plan) or going straight for the collection of 10.

    1. Hi Natacha,
      Experimenting with narrative forms is exciting but also frustrating! What you’re describing sounds great and super complicated to plot. I can see why you might be asking yourself a lot of the same questions I am. I’m finding the process a bit like being lost without a map. Can’t wait to see what happens with your project.

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