Parallel Stories and Nonlinear Narratives

By Bridget Baudinet

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The term parallel stories, also referred to as parallel narratives or parallel plots, denotes a story structure in which the writer includes two or more separate narratives linked by a common character, event, or theme. Parallel stories enrich a work and have been used by playwrights and novelists for centuries. As the shape of modern literacy continues to change, however, writers are increasingly experimenting with narrative form and voice. This has resulted in a recent increase in novels making use of multiple perspectives and parallel stories.

The essential characteristic of a novel with parallel stories is that it is nonlinear. A linear plotline follows one or more protagonists from the introduction of a conflict to its solution in chronological order. A nonlinear plotline jumps around, skipping between timelines and protagonists. The specific pattern will vary depending on the purpose of the parallel narratives, which may include building tension, creating dramatic irony, unraveling a mystery, revealing character motivation, or showing multiple perspectives. The varied structures of nonlinear narratives are often confusing to young readers. Helping students break down complex story structures can facilitate reading comprehension and literary analysis. The storyboards below provide suggestions for creating helpful visualizations of several types of nonlinear narratives.

Consecutive Stories and Multiple Protagonists

Variations of parallel stories go by many different names and follow a variety of patterns. The simplest of these is a basic two-plot combination in which two separate stories are told in the same novel. These may be told consecutively, one after the other, or they can be woven back and forth in a sort of “braided” structure. Generally, the events of the two narratives will overlap throughout the novel or combine in the novel’s climax or resolution. More complex story structures may contain three or more parallel stories, often containing a new narrative point of view in each plot segment.

The sample storyboard below illustrates the intersection of the consecutive stories in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. The additional templates provide other structural variations for two-plot combinations. To create or alter these storyboard on your own, start with a T-chart and use the white square shape as an overlay to cover the separate boxes and merge them into one. The same can be done for the headings and text boxes by stretching a text box or adding free form text over a stretched square shape. To depict three or more parallel plots simply add columns to the chart.

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Another common form of parallel story is the extended flashback. A few quick flashbacks placed throughout a story are not generally considered parallel narratives. Some stories, however, rely on flashbacks to tell a large portion of the story. These stories flip back and forth between the story’s present and past. This story structure is an effective way to build suspense as the flashbacks at first deepen and eventually elucidate mysteries in the present narrative. Flashbacks can also help highlight themes or character development that appear in the story’s present. To have students analyze connections between a flashback narrative and a story’s main narrative, make use of a T-chart or two-columns storyboard. For each significant element of the flashback plot, have students find a connection to the present-day plot. The example below illustrates the connections between the main narrative in Louis Sachar’s Holes and one of the novel’s flashback narratives.

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Other works that rely heavily on parallel plots and flashbacks:

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•   (English) Parallel Stories and Nonlinear Narratives   •   (Español) Historias Paralelas y Narrativas no Lineales   •   (Français) Histoires Parallèles et Récits non Linéaires   •   (Deutsch) Parallele Geschichten und Nichtlineare Erzählungen   •   (Italiana) Storie Parallele e non Lineari Narrazioni   •   (Nederlands) Parallelle Verhalen en Lineaire Stelt Zich Voor   •   (Português) Histórias Paralelas e Narrativas Não-lineares   •   (עברית) סיפורים מקבילים והנרטיבים קויים   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) قصص متوازية وغير الخطية روايات   •   (हिन्दी) समानांतर कहानियां और गैर-लाइनर कथाएं   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Параллельные Истории и Нелинейные Рассказы   •   (Dansk) Parallelle Historier og Ulineær Narratives   •   (Svenska) Parallella Historier och Ickelinjära Narratives   •   (Suomi) Parallel Tarinat ja Epälineaarinen Narratives   •   (Norsk) Parallelle Historier og Ikke-lineær Narratives   •   (Türkçe) Paralel Öyküler ve Doğrusal Olmayan Anlatılar   •   (Polski) Równoległe Opowieści i Nielinearne Narracje   •   (Româna) Povestiri Paralele și Nelinear Narativele   •   (Ceština) Paralelní Příběhy a Nelineární Vyprávění   •   (Slovenský) Paralelné Príbehy a Nelineárne Príbehy   •   (Magyar) Párhuzamos Történetek és Nemlineáris Elbeszélések   •   (Hrvatski) Paralelne Priče i Nelinearne Pripovijesti   •   (български) Паралелни Истории и Нелинейни Разкази   •   (Lietuvos) Paralelinės Istorijos ir Netiesinė Pasakojimai   •   (Slovenščina) Vzporedne Zgodbe in Nelinearna Pripovedi   •   (Latvijas) Paralēlās Stāsti un Nelineārā Naratīvi   •   (eesti) Paralleelselt Lood ja Mittelineaarne Jutud